This is the tenth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, travelling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about the low point of my time teaching in Vietnam, 2008.
Thinking through all of the experiences I had living in Vietnam one particular period stands out. At the end of my contract at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City I headed north with a friend to Hanoi, where another friend of mine was working at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ngõ Huyện. We stopped off along the way at Nha Trang and Hue doing excellent touristy things before arriving in busy and bustling Hanoi.
I was planning on finding more teaching work in Hanoi with a view to gaining a “rounded” idea of the country (I had seen so much of the south, but none of the north), so I came very much with a mission in mind. I also planned to utilise my friend’s connections at the Hostel (it was owned by two Australians; every night was party night) to go on cheap tours etc.
On arrival I bunked with my mate at the Rose Hotel in the Old Quarter and sought about. My first lead saw me heading to a primary school on the outskirts of town to have lunch with the family of a teacher (she cooked some of the best pork tofu I’ve ever had) and then teach a lesson at the school. The students were very young so there was much “Ring around the Rosie” etc. Unfortunately that school could not pay a salary above US$6/hr so I didn’t do many lessons there. In retrospect perhaps I should have.
Instead I hit upon a Korean school, this one out in Cau Giay, a fairly bare area of mud and high-rises twenty minutes’ ride from the Hoan Kiem centre. The owner was a Canadian citizen of Korean extraction who had moved to Hanoi in order to cater to the growing community of wealthy Korean expats managing the various manufacturing endeavours the big firms (Hyundai etc.) were involved in at the time. I moved into the penthouse apartment above the school with a huge balcony and two Dalmation puppies for company. I enjoyed walking them around the local area.
It was an exercise in exhibitionism; the only thing odder than a Caucasian traipsing through the marshes of Cau Giay in 2008 was a Caucasian traipsing through the marshes with two Dalmatians.
In hindsight, there were a number of warning signs that this school was not going to work out. First, the teacher whose role I was taking over was an alcoholic who had “fallen” off the top floor balcony in a moment of despair, been hospitalised and was now moving to Bangkok for further treatment. Second, I was paid two weeks in debit, meaning I was always owed about US$800. Third, the head of the school, while charming, had a cruel streak. He did not treat his Vietnamese partner very well. Further to that, I soon found out that he was in fact “hiding out” in Vietnam; he had made some enemies in the club scene of Toronto and apparently could not return to Canada easily.
And there was a LOT of marijuana around.
However, the pay was high and the classes were interesting. It was different teaching Korean students who were children of rich corporate citizens – they were much more studious, had a global outlook and were in general more verbose, for better or worse (they could be very stubborn). In addition to classes I also had weekly appointments tutoring in their homes at the Citputra apartments, which was also insightful. I was treated with great respect by the families, always given lovely Korean food, drinks and thanked for the hours I taught their children.
But I experienced all of this with the knowledge that the man in charge of the school was, at the least, troubled and unpredictable.
After two months things came to a head. A friend and I were playing a game of tennis around the corner from the school one afternoon. My mate had eaten a marijuana-cookie but still managed to destroy me; he’s a far better athlete, altered states or not. After the game we parted and I rode out to the Citputra apartments to tutor a young girl, one of my better students. After parking my motorbike under the shadow of the high rise I checked my phone. I had eight missed calls from my friend and several from the owner of the school. Neither of them picked up when I rang them back.
So, I got right back on my motorcycle and went back the way I came – with a sense of foreboding.
I never quite worked out the details of what actually happened while I was riding the roads to Citputra and back, but the skeleton of it is this: after the tennis match, my friend started riding his motorbike home, but soon felt queasy and nauseous. So, he turned the bike around and rode to the school, where he went up to my apartment and lay down. He then began having heart palpitations and rang an ambulance.
The owner of the school freaked out when the ambulance arrived and sent it away. He later tried to rationalise this to me that ever since the previous teacher had “fallen off” the top balcony he was trying to keep a low profile, that it was my friend’s fault, and by extension mine – that I was jeopardising this “harmony”. After the ambulance departed he had forcibly prevented my friend from leaving, physically bailed him up in my room, taken his wallet and started phoning me.
When I arrived I tried to diplomatically set things straight and managed to do so, within reason. An hour or two later when my mate felt better we went and had pizza. He wasn’t bleeding but he was bruised – physically and emotionally – this was definitely the low point of his time in Vietnam also.
So I was faced with a decision, which I delayed for another week. But finally I packed my bags and explained that I was leaving the school. I asked for the money I was owed at that time (it was more than US$800) but received none.
It was a lousy situation but again, as is a theme of these recent memoir posts, it was also a learning experience.
I had to decide after leaving the school whether I would renew my VISA or not. It was a big decision given I had never been so long outside of Australia, missed my family, etc. but also felt like I hadn’t given enough of myself to Vietnam.
I hired a dirt bike and went up on the northwest mountains to think it over. But that’s another story.