Weekend Adventures in and Around Vietnam


There are many opportunities to travel on the weekends during your time teaching English in Vietnam, whether it is to one of the beautiful mountains in the northern region or a quick trip to a neighboring country. You can use the prominent open bus line that runs throughout Vietnam, trains that run throughout the country with sleeper options and regular flight deals to major cities.

Hanoi has many adventure clubs that take weekend hikes, climbs and go kayaking on a regular basis. This city is also home to MANY tours to Halong Bay and surrounding “must-see” attractions on which you can sit back, relax and enjoy the tourist life.

And, of course, there is the obligatory motorbike trip, which led to many great memories for me and a group of teachers last weekend. The first few months of the lunar calendar is an important time for Buddhists, so we decided to see what all the fuss is about and take a trip to the Perfume Pagoda. Our route included a scenic drive, a mountain hike and a return boat ride. Not everything worked out as planned but the twists and turns were all part of the excitement and resulted in stories to tell for a lifetime.

A weekend getaway in January included a trip to the Angkor Temples (pictured at the top of this post), and next weekend I’ll be headed to Sapa – a town in northern Vietnam – to walk among the rice paddies and through H’mong villages. I’m thinking Hong Kong in May? And then who knows where my wheels, or an unexpected flight deal will take me!

Vietnam With an Open Mind and an Open Heart

When you think about people like me, and hopefully you, who take the leap and decide to live and work abroad, you automatically assume that the person is open-minded and willing to fully embrace new cultures and experiences.

This embracing of a new culture isn’t as easy as it sounds. Living and teaching English in Vietnam is not like living and working in the United States. Life here is different – mannerisms are different, food is different, markets are different – and learning to embrace the differences is all a part of the experience.

It’s very easy to live a similar life as you did in the United States – or other western countries – here in Hanoi. There is a large expat community and they basically all live in the same part of the city; there are western shops to meet your toiletry and food needs; and there are western restaurants serving up your favorite dishes to remind you of home. But to truly say you live somewhere and you have lived open-minded and accepting of all the differences, you must step out of the expat bubble and be uncomfortable from time to time.

1. Eat like a local. If you’re a meat-eater, try that frog leg, WHOLE fish or snake. And don’t shutter at the idea that people eat this way or at the appearance of the shop.
2. Buy your food at the local market. You should go to the expat market to buy the peanut butter that provides the feeling of home, but also shop at the local markets passing by the live chickens and seafood as you make your way to your favorite fruit lady and vegetable guy. It feels good to know where your food comes from and who is taking the care to provide it for you.
3. Join the minnows. This city moves like a school of fish and instead of complaining about the traffic or the lack of proper queues, let go of the anxiety and go with the flow. It’s actually quite amazing to observe.

City life can be frustrating anywhere in the world, and having food and household items around that you are used to is important for your continuing happiness while living abroad. So, eat that hamburger on Sundays, but remember you are a guest in a country – a country that genuinely values its English teachers, I might add – and you owe it to that country to live life with an open mind and without judgment of the culture and customs. You might be surprised what mannerisms you embrace and take with you. And you may even fall in love with the place. I have.

Samantha is teaching English in Vietnam with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Celebrating Tet: Vietnam’s Lunar New Year

2015 is the year of the goat

Vietnam just completed the weeklong celebration of Tet. Tet is Vietnam’s version of the Chinese (Lunar) New Year. Tet comes with customs to bring good luck in the new year. The streets are bustling as people prepare their homes for the celebration and good cheer is all around.

The most visible elements during Tet and Tet preparation are how important this time of year is to spend with family and friends, and how to bring luck into the new year.

Banh Chung

The few days preceding Tet are spent buying fruits, supplies to make traditional foods like banh chung or banh tet – a rice cake wrapped in banana leaves, and purchasing the perfect hoa dao and kumquat trees for the home. Everything must be tidy and well prepared for the many family members and friends who will be passing through your home to wish you good fortune in the new year.

Hoa Dao (peach flowers) signify the beginning of spring and luck

There are many traditions tied to Tet. The best way to learn what those are is to look around, pay attention to the bustle and ask your students and Vietnamese friends and colleagues about their family traditions. Here is what I learned:

1. It’s all about the lucky money. Coming into the new year with money is a sign of fortune. This “lucky money” is generally given to children and older adults in red envelopes. It’s best to put the lucky money into a lucky pig, which you will see sold by street vendors everywhere.
2. Goldfish are lucky too. You will see vendors selling goldfish around city lakes and waterways. These goldfish are purchased to be released into the river for luck in the new year.
3. You must include a haircut in your Tet preparations. It is considered bad luck to cut your hair during the first lunar month of the new year, so you will see many fresh looks during the days leading up to the new year.
4. If you are in the market to open a business, do so on New Year’s Day. Your shop will have great potential if it is opened on New Year’s Day.
5. Good health means no pills. To ensure good health in the new year, you should avoid taking medicine on New Year’s Day.

I am sure there are many other traditions I have not learned, but what I do know is that it’s a very important time for the Vietnamese and taking advantage of any opportunity to be a part of celebrations is well worth the time.

Kumquat trees represent warmth and fruitfulness

With that being said, most non-Vietnamese residents of Vietnam choose to go on holiday during the week break. Cities like Hanoi clear out during the holiday and many businesses are closed because it’s tradition to visit the hometown of your family for the new year. Some foreign teachers teaching English in Vietnam are invited to join friends in their hometown for the holiday and some use the time to travel around Vietnam or other countries. Northern Vietnam is rather chilly during the winter, so I took the time to visit a warmer climate, soak up some sun and learn about different cultures in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. And now I am back, feeling refreshed and ready for my last few months of the school year.

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới

Cheers to the year of the goat!

Samantha is teaching English in Vietnam with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Assimilation: A Crash Course in Teaching English in Vietnam

I moved to Hanoi at the end of October and, therefore, started teaching English in Vietnam about three months later than the newest batch of teachers. As a latecomer, you must process and adjust rapidly. It goes a little something like this:

1. Pay attention and take notes. When you travel for roughly 22 hours to arrive and LIVE in a country on the other side of the world – that’s wildly different than your motherland – jet lag will be all consuming. I barely remember anything anyone said to me my first couple days of orientation. Acknowledge this fatigue, and possibly culture shock, and take notes about every detail even if it seems silly or too obvious at the time to write down. You’ll need this documentation to recall conversations and what it is you do at your new job, but you’ll also want this documentation later when you are settled into your new life, or returning to the motherland, and you want to recall how you felt adapting to an unfamiliar environment.

2. Connect with people. I have a policy: unless I am sick, I always say yes to an invitation when I am new to a place and have a desire to get out and meet people. This is also a great policy to employ for learning about restaurants, places to shop and just how to live life in your new city. Connecting with as many people as possible is also critical because you will share a bond with everyone you meet abroad that no one in your current life will ever understand.

3. Find a home. Don’t be shy, ask colleagues if they know of rooms available or if they have real estate agent recommendations. There are also good online platforms to peruse when searching for available housing, roommates and really anything else. The dorm options are good for your first week or so but past that, you need to get out and live among the people.

4. Learn the language. If you decide not to take classes or private lessons to learn Vietnamese, learn at least enough to pronounce your students’ and colleagues’ names and buy what you need at the market. Vietnamese is a difficult language to learn and speak but it’s a wonderful feeling when you understand what someone is saying, and your attempts to learn will be appreciated.

5. Get a motorbike…if you dare. Before you make a decision about whether you want to rent or own one, ride as a passenger and take Xe Ôm (motorbike taxis) to your destinations. This will help you get an idea of if you are up for being a driver or not. Your other travel options are bicycle, bus and taxi, which aren’t expensive. I will give no advice on these options; it’s a personal decision based on your comfort level and desire for freedom.

6. Set your intention. I’m all about going with the flow and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, but I also have some goals for my life in Vietnam. One of my biggest fears is falling into a daily/weekly/monthly routine that becomes mundane and devoid of authentic experiences, and then waking up to realize that my time here has come to an end. So ask yourself: Where do I want to travel? Do I want to take classes? Meditate more often? Learn to cook Vietnamese food? The opportunities are endless.

Samantha is teaching English in Vietnam with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Changing Time Zones

I’ve been in Spain for three days now and even though I’ve mostly slept, I think it’s safe to say I love it! The travel was tough. Despite all the planning, weeks of packing, farewell parties and goodbye outings, it wasn’t until I walked into the airport that it really settled in that I was really moving out of the country on my own! “Who does this?” I thought. But with little time to get lost in logic or consumed by fear I hurried to the check-in counter. Despite the last minute purge I did just before leaving the house, every piece of luggage I packed was over weight, as anticipated. I stepped out of line, rearranged once more, paid my fees and went on my way.

Before arriving to my gate I stopped at Pinkberry to indulge one final time before also bidding my favorite frozen treat adieu for a while. I arrived to my gate with just enough time to call Sprint and disconnect my phone service prior to boarding.

Finally on the plane, I was served two hot meals, a couple of cups of tea and a glass of wine. I spent the next 14 hours journaling, napping, listening to music, watching a plethora movies and TV series and tracking our travel progress with a GPS system that showed live footage of the area outside.

After what felt like a lifetime of flying we landed in Moscow, welcomed by about 10 or so inches of snow (give or take a few inches as I’m from L.A. and am not used to eye-measuring snow, lol) covering parts of the runway, but thankfully it did not impact our landing. The homes adjacent to the airport were the cutest, as they were painted an assortment of bright colors adorned with alternating colored rooftops.

I stayed in the airport for my two-hour layover while I people watched and compared cultures. When it was time to depart for our final destination, we walked out onto the runway and boarded a charter bus that drove us to our appointed aircraft, where we then emplaned and got ready for another 5 1/2-hour flight.

Once in Madrid, after passing through customs, I made my way to baggage claim and retrieved all of my items. I attempted to purchase a luggage cart but did not have exact change in euros nor did either of my bank cards work (which now I’m assuming was the machine error). In that moment I found the saying to ring true that “you never realize how strong you are until being strong is [literarily] your only option.” I stacked all of my oversized and overweight luggage on top of one another and hauled them out of the airport to meet my host family, whom I’ve only seen once via Skype previously, for the very first time. After a 30-minute commute I arrived at the four-bedroom flat I now call home.

I spent the next day in hibernation trying to reclaim the hours of sleep that I lost. While still struggling with the time change, I’ve been forcing myself to stay awake during the day by overdosing on coffee in the morning and using sleeping aids at night to help regulate my sleep/wake rhythm.

I started work Thursday evening. I sat with the daughter, Gabriella (12), and assisted her with her English homework. I helped clarify the difference between past continuous and past simple verb tenses, the proper use of the word “ideally” and further helped her understand common English idioms such as something costing “an arm and a leg.”

The kids are really fascinated with my hair. After discovering that my twists are extensions, Sergio (10) now often sneaks up behind me and holds a strand in his hand. After several seconds, he’ll jump from behind me, hair still in hand and ask “Can you feel that?!? Did you know I was holding your hair?”

Gabriella and I share many of the same interests; she likes to swim, shop, eat frozen yogurt and also loves high heels. Friday she and I walked to the mall, which is about 10 minutes by foot. While many things are the same here, there are a lot of dissimilarities.

In my adventures of getting out and seeing the town, I have noticed Majadahonda (the city where I reside) does not use traffic lights, rather every intersection is a traffic circle and people simply merge accordingly.

Beer is an acceptable beverage sold at many fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Burger King and costs no more than one euro.
Manis and pedis are not a popular part of the culture, so much so that a six-chair cart in the mall (like where we would buy cell phone cases) is enough to meet the demand here. I guess it is safe to say that my biweekly gel mani/pedi upkeep will soon fall by the wayside.

Most things in Europe are smaller; cars, food portion sizes, the popcorn served at movies, storage space and even the chairs at restaurants are less than what I am accustomed to.

I will have to get used to the European double cheek kiss as a form of greetings, partings and gratitude. I will also have to remember to use the word “trousers” instead of “pants,” as the word “pants” references underwear and is taboo to discuss publicly.

Londi is working as an au pair in Spain through InterExchange Working Abroad.

My Spanish Adventure Continues…

Spain is such a wonderful country, filled with culture, food and history! Over the last two months I’ve been able to experience it all through the InterExchange Working AbroadConversation Coach in Spain program! My adventure so far has been filled with a mix of emotions, as all experiences abroad will include at one point or another. As I have been told many times throughout my travels, if you don’t feel a little bit uncomfortable, you’re not learning anything.

So what have I learned? Well, that’s a loaded question. When you travel to a foreign country, you learn about the country you visit, how the people live, what they do for fun and simply how they live their lives. It’s a learning experience you should embrace and explore to fully understand a culture, but you also learn so much about your own culture at the same time. You use this experience to compare and contrast, learning and coming to realization about things from your own culture that you had previously never paid any attention to, until you saw how other cultures are doing it differently. This doesn’t imply or mean that one country or culture is better in comparison – that’s open to opinion, but I would avoid that mindset at all costs simply because it will limit your learning experiences. Be true to yourself, embrace change and take in all the world has to offer.

My final month is well under way here in Spain, and it’s a bittersweet feeling to say the least. It’s hard not to fall in love with such a beautiful and historical culture, and you haven’t really lived until you’ve experienced European nightlife, especially in Madrid! I’ve grown close to all the children I’ve been tutoring in English as well, and it’ll be hard to see myself off and leave them behind. Through this experience I have made relationships one would hope to last a lifetime. I know I will always be welcomed back!

Joseph is a Conversation Coach in Spain with InterExchange Working Abroad.

A Year in Thailand

On Monday, October 6th, I finished teaching in Thailand. Ever since that day life has been a whirl of plane rides, buses, confusion and culture shock. And so begins my life away from Thailand, my life without my amazing students and a life without the title of “Teacher Katie.”

Going to Thailand to teach English is the best thing I have ever done. It has shaped me and made me a better person. I already miss life in Thailand but am also so grateful for all I have accomplished and to return home for a short time before beginning on my next journey.

I took a chance and it paid off. I won’t lie and say it was always easy and that I always enjoyed my time. To be completely honest the first six months in Thailand were so difficult, but then I made a decision. I decided to embrace the experience and make the most of every moment in Thailand. The second I made that decision everything changed. I fell completely in love with my life and I felt a happiness I had never felt before.

I have learned so much this past year. I have learned what true love is and that is something my students taught me. I have learned that that with risk comes reward and if you work hard it will always pay off. I feel like a completely different person than I was a year ago and I never want to go back to the person I was then. I am a happier person, I am a stronger person, I am a healthier person (despite my many trips to the hospital while in Thailand) and I honestly believe I am the luckiest person because I went on the adventure of a lifetime.

So here I am year later, a changed person. I am about to embark on another adventure, which is moving to London. I have no idea if it’s going to work. I have no idea what’s going to happen but it’s funny because I’m not scared. I am so excited for the unknown, I am so excited for new adventure in a place that I love and to experience new things. I am ready to fall in love with my life the way that I did in Thailand.

If anyone wants to go an adventure my advice would be to do it. It will be scary, amazing, terrifying, difficult but soo, sooo worth it. You never know what you are missing until you get out of your comfort zone. The best advice I can give after my year in Thailand is to do something unexpected and scary and to conquer your fear. You never know what you can accomplish until you try!!!

I decided to make a video with a lot of pictures from my time in Thailand and traveling around! :)

International Experience Aligns With Future Employer Expectations

In today’s competitive, globalized economy, it is never too soon for young people to start thinking about their future careers. With an increasing number of college graduates in the U.S., today’s students need to do everything they can to differentiate themselves from their peers. One of the ways they can stand out is by having international experienceCultural exchange programs offer such opportunities and can do more than expand personal horizons – they can effect greater professional growth as well.

Increasingly International Focus

According to a survey by global recruitment consultancy the Hydrogen Group, 72 percent of employers expect senior personnel to have international experience. Although students’ experience working or volunteering overseas may be less recognized in more senior positions, these excursions can bring more attention to students’ resumes and set them on a more elevated track. Time spent working abroad can also be a great discussion point at interviews.

The report also revealed that more professionals are considering gaining international experience to remain competitive in their fields. The choice of destinations for today’s workers is also becoming more diverse.

“Five years ago this might have been New York, London and Hong Kong – now it is also the likes of Shanghai, Houston, Vietnam,” Dan Church, client services director of the Hydrogen Group, said in a statement.

Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

In addition to aligning with the expectations of today’s employers, international experience can be a great way for students to expand their horizons and see how other countries conduct business.

This can be especially useful for students enrolled in programs with a focus on global commerce, such as business, travel and tourism, and even social science. It is one thing to study how different countries interact with each other on the global stage; it is another to actually experience it firsthand.

Many large companies have multiple offices in international locations. For students applying to multinational organizations, experience living and working in foreign cities and countries can be attractive to employers seeking candidates with a broad worldview.

Language students can also benefit from cultural exchange programs that offer volunteer and work opportunities, as immersion is the best way to master another tongue. Being bilingual can be a major asset to students looking for work with large organizations or companies with offices overseas.

Personal and Professional Growth

Cultural exchange programs are more than an exciting adventure for today’s students – they are a valuable learning experience and a chance to differentiate themselves from other similarly skilled applicants. As technology continues to make the world a smaller place, international work experience could be one way for students to stand above the rest.

23 Travel Emotions Explained Through Songs

Recently there have been a lot of articles coming out about traveling alone and the struggles one may encounter while doing so.  I’m pretty sure that these articles are appearing to me through Facebook’s new tailored newsfeed. But, guilty as charged, it’s working and I’m clicking!

Now, what has really drawn me to these articles – besides keyword filled headlines in the form of lists and questions ;) – is how profoundly real they seem in comparison to what I have read in the past.

When people think of travel, they associate it with: freedom, excitement and liberation from the everyday grind. Although all those attributes ring true, there are a few emotions that have not “full on” come to surface until recently: loneliness and doubt.

These words have such a negative stigma to them, but having encountered them recently, I think that they are important. We need to acknowledge it’s all a part of the process – it’s a sacrifice you take when leaving your comfort zone.

All in all, traveling brings about so many emotions in everyone. It makes you question your very inner-being while at the same time strengthening the core of who you are. Weird, I know.

23 Emotions I have encountered while traveling in New Zealand represented through song.

This for sure will hit all the highs and lows.

1. Every single going-away encounter you have before the big move.

One More Time by Daft Punk

 2. The euphoria you feel once you step off the plane and realize that your longing dream is now a reality. 

The Dreamer (SAMURAII EDIT) by The Tallest Man On Earth

3. The confidence you try to keep having coming over alone and not having a place to live or a job.

Girl On Fire by Alicia Keys

 4. When you haven’t made any friends and it’s week two.

Loser by Beck

 5. That first night on the town with your new friends.

Heads Will Roll by Yeah Yeah Yeahs 

6. When your Sunday Funday includes skipping rocks and napping by the lake for 5+ hours.

Steal My Sunshine by Len 

7. Having a warm coffee outside in winter weather when you know it’s still summer at home.

Horchata by Vampire Weekend

8. Being self-determined to pick up a new hobby and slowly…sometimes very slowly…improve.

#thatPOWER by will.i.am

9. Every morning waking up.

Go Outside by The Cults

10.  When people start to ask you, “But, what are you doing? Aren’t you concerned about your future?”

I love It – Icona Pop, Charli XCX

11. When you’re totally bumming on the other side of the world and you get to Skype with your family.

You’ve Got the Love by Florence and The Machine

12. The first time you feel the rawness of questioning what you are doing.

The Climb by Miley Cyrus

13. When your best friend starts to hear about all the new friends you are making.

Always Be My Baby by Mariah Carey

14. When you meet someone at the bar and see them the next day only to have them call you Michelle, or Rebecca, or….uhmm, what’s your name?

That’s Not My Name by The Ting Tings

15. When you get let go from your first job … yes, this really happened to me.

On To The Next One – Jay Z

16. Realizing that if you knew exactly what you’d be doing for the rest of your life in your 20s, you’d probably be bored by 30.

Teenage Crime by Adian Lux

17. Planning your next adventure even though you are still on your first one.

I Can’t Stop by Flux Pavilion

18. Travel Romance – Type 1

Let’s Get Lost – G-Eazy

 19.  Travel Romance – Type 2

Stolen Dance by Milky Chance

20. When your friends and family back home have an issue and call you up.

You’ve Got a Friend by James Taylor

21. … and then you start to talk about what you are going to do when they come visit you.

Bangarang by Skrillex

22. The hopefulness you get that one day Beefeater Gin and Jameson won’t be $60.00+ in every packy here. #StruggleIsReal

Anything Could Happen by Ellie Goulding

23. The happiness you get when you wake up able to do all the things you love to do.

Dog Days Are Over by Florence and The Machine

The First 10 Days of a Dream: Au Pair in France

When I made the announcement that I would be moving to France to be an au pair I was met by a lot of side eyes and questions. I am 25, I graduated from college and I had become a career employee in the Federal Government; I was too mature for this apparently. No one could understand why I wanted to toss away all I had worked for to flit off for a year in Paris – they thought I was going to waste my time. But the truth was that I had always had the dream to go live in Paris. I would be sitting at my desk at work daydreaming about life there, I would be Googling express ways to learn French and I regretted never having studied abroad as a student. The more time passed the more I felt I would always regret not fulfilling this dream.

One day deep in my Google-France mode I came across InterExchange’s website and as I was reading I kept finding more and more reasons why this program was perfect for me! I loved kids, it’s a whole year, you take classes … how could I not apply?

Fast track to today and I am sitting in my cute room in my beautiful house in the Paris suburbs! Its 11:30 a.m. and I am still lounging in bed. Work doesn’t start until 4:00 p.m. when I pick up my younger boy from school and feed the baby a snack and wait for the oldest child to come home. I have the three: an eight-year-old boy, an 11-year-old boy and an 18-month-old baby. All of them are awesomely fun kids, but they are kids so they have their little moments! I make sure the boys complete their homework, make some dinner or warm something up from before, play with them and then my day is pretty much done when one of the parents arrive home. Typically I will sit and eat dinner with them, and help clean up the kitchen afterward. My host mother is so kind and generous and quite funny so we sit around chatting before I go off to my room.

My room consists of a large wardrobe and a table and a shelving unit, which you would be surprised to know is perfect storage (I brought four checked bags and a carry-on – no judgement). I have my own bathroom and my room exits into the garden so I often sit out there with my cafe and croissant in the morning.

Most au pairs I know, myself included, live really close to a train system that goes right into Paris so almost every day since I have been here I have met up with someone and spent the day seeing sites and eating and shopping! But we have to be careful – we are paid somewhere between 80 and 110 euros a week, which is easy to lose very quickly. I spent my first few days using my credit card – mistake! Now I leave it at home.

It’s been less than two weeks and I haven’t sat still! I have already explored, already sampled, already shopped and already fallen in love with my new life. Taking this chance and following my dream – as cliche as it sounds – is really the best decision I could have made. I left everything behind, but now the world is in front of me and I cannot wait to see what’s next!

Jasmine is an au pair in France with InterExchange Working Abroad.