Motorbiking Through Vietnam

Once upon a time, bicycles were the most-used mode of transportation on the streets of Hanoi. Now it’s motorbikes. There are some cars, and I fear for the day they take over Hanoi, but motorbikes dominate the streets by far.

Hanoi has some sidewalks in some areas of the city, but it is definitely not a walkable city, and although there is a prominent bus system, public transportation is still developing. Some people do still choose to cycle as a mode of transportation, but that endeavor seems a little too life threatening for me. So, I drive a motorbike.

The idea of learning to drive in a sea of bikes through a developing city seemed quite scary when I first decided to rent a bike, but it’s also pretty cool. Don’t get the wrong idea, these are not motorcycles – they would be called mopeds in the U.S. No one drives fast through the city – nor are they able to – so a motorcycle would lose its appeal even if they were widely available.

Driving a motorbike equals freedom for me, just like when I passed the U.S. driving test and got my first car. You can get anywhere you want in the city and you enjoy an important part of the culture of Vietnam. Not only are motorbikes used for everyday transport, but they also offer a fantastic opportunity to really see Vietnam.

Motorbike trips are very popular and I plan to embark on one of the most famous routes this summer – the loop near the China border from Ha Giang. We plan to take a longer trip starting in Sapa, heading to Ha Giang, and then visit the famous Ban Gioc waterfall before returning to Hanoi. This trip is meant to have some of the most breathtaking, mountainous views of Vietnam.

Driving a motorbike can be quite scary and is not for everyone, but it’s worth riding with people around the city to determine if you can muster the courage to drive one yourself.

Samantha is a Teach English in Vietnam participant with InterExchange Working Abroad.

The Art of the Side Trip: Making the Most of Travel Opportunities in France

Since arriving in France a couple months ago for a teaching English program through InterExchange, I’ve had the opportunity to take several side trips throughout the country. This has been an added bonus on top of the already enriching experience of living alongside a French family. In fact, the combination of these two elements has been my favorite aspect of the Conversation Coach in France program. It has allowed me to be immersed in French culture to a degree that would be impossible as a regular tourist. Whether during free time or a regular week of lessons, there is always something authentic and new to be experienced.

As far as side trips are concerned, France is a great place to explore whether you are interested in strolling through culturally rich cities or hiking secluded trails amidst natural beauty. I’ve taken advantage of the public transportation system here for my excursions. The railways will easily take you to most of the crucial locations on the list of attractions to visit. However, if you would rather venture to more remote locations to stay clear of tourists and busy cities then it might be necessary to take a bus, do some extensive walking or even rent a car. It all depends on what you are hoping to get out of your side trips.

I’ve come to realize that when you are visiting a country that has as much variety as France does then you need to be a little more selective than usual. In other words, trying to do too much can make planning difficult and usually ends up detracting from the experience. For me, it’s been important to determine which places I am personally driven to see. There are so many options and suggestions flying around when you read through guides and get advice from other people that at some point you have to stop and identify what you, yourself, are passionate about. Once this is clarified you can then decide which options you can really do justice with the time and resources available to you. Some destinations may deserve their own individual trip in the future and are just too vast in scope and important to you to be attempted as a side trip. At the same time, as you move along in the decision-making process, certain options will begin to stand out as a good fit.

To summarize, staying with a host family can give you a unique glimpse into a culture other than your own while also providing a fantastic opportunity to do some exploring through side trips. Taking some extra time in advance to clarify what is really important to you and then assessing how to best approach and select from the options can be a great help in making the most of an adventure abroad.

Jacob is teaching English as a Conversation Coach in France with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Uncontrollable Thoughts: What Will Teaching English in Spain Be Like?

Los Angeles Metro

As I hop on the metro to visit the lovely city of Los Angeles, my thoughts begin to wonder what the city of Madrid will be like. Maybe the streets are like Los Angeles where I can smell fresh street foods from a mile away, crowded with people as I try to get to my destination. Are the people generally nice or will they be rude because I am a tourist? Will there be a ton of trees and greenery near my home? I have no idea what to expect. I have heard the metro and bus systems are some of the greatest in Europe so that gives me a sigh of relief.

As my metro ride continues, my nerves and excitement for my trip begin to arise and more thoughts begin to flood my head.

I am not positive about what I should expect to happen during my time here as a Teach English in Spain – Conversation Coach with my new family, but I believe that is the most exciting aspect of this program. I love being thrown into new situations and exploring outside of my comfort zone. What better way to do that than fly thousands of miles across the world and live with a family different than my own? I am beyond excited to meet my new family whom I will be living with for the next three months and I hope we are able to bond with one another as if I were another member of the family.

One of my end goals after college is to travel abroad so I can continue to learn about different cultures and people, all while teaching English. This opportunity that InterExchange has given me to live with a family and not only take care of, but also teach, their children English is a small glimpse of what my future may look like. Aside from my nervous thoughts, I am very thankful and thrilled for this opportunity that I have been given and I cannot wait to be challenged in ways I have never been before.

6 Types of Vietnamese Food You’ll Love

Che. A traditional dessert.

Oh, how I love Vietnamese food. There seems to be endless options of dishes, snacks and desserts to choose from. I recently read somewhere that there are roughly 200 dishes that are unique to Vietnam, and the style and flavor of food choices depends on what part of the country you are visiting. Even the style of noodles can vary based on region – Hoi An’s cau lao dish uses my favorite thick noodles.

Bun Oc. One of many noodle dishes to choose.

Visiting a local market to purchase fresh produce and herbs to cook your own dish can be a learning experience. I occasionally purchase fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen before to conduct cooking experiments on. Sometimes, you cut the fruit or vegetable open to find that you actually are familiar with the crop – I have now bought what turned out to be a form of cantaloupe and melon, they just look different on the exterior.

And then there are those times when you feel like stepping out of your comfort zone and being an adventurous eater – a very easy feat in Vietnam. There are some foods I have yet to muster up the courage to try, but I have enjoyed my fair share of snails and squid, which were both new to me. I plan to tackle grasshoppers and snake next.

Snails with lemongrass dipping sauce.

I will leave Vietnam (for now) at the end of June and I will miss the many varieties of fresh fruit available the most. I have fallen in love with mangos and would happily eat them every day for the rest of my life. I have also immensely enjoyed jackfruit, dragon fruit and chom chom and lychee.

Mango, banana, dragon fruit, and honey. A breakfast staple.

There is much to love about Vietnamese coffee.

I could go on and on about the joy of eating in Vietnam, but I will leave you with this short blog and say that the deliciousness can only be appreciated in person.

Crabs we had for dinner during our Halong Bay cruise.

Samantha is a Teach English in Vietnam participant with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Service Adds Structure to International Gap Year Travel

How do you structure your gap year travels in ways that will yield the greatest personal, academic and professional benefits? Do you join a gap year program or multiple programs? Should you take a language class overseas? Should you follow the route the guidebook recommends?

What about just picking up and going, figuring it out along the way? This open-ended approach lies close to many travelers’ hearts. With life so full of weighted decisions, it’s a great feeling to wake up faced only with the question of where to go next.

On the other hand, not having any structure or plan can become exhausting (and expensive) after a while. Without a plan it can also be difficult to engage locally, beyond scrambling to find your bearings amidst a rush of new stimuli. There is much to be said for having some structure, a goal, somewhere to settle down for a bit and let the country sink into your soul…

Volunteering can help structure your time abroad and the ways you perceive new places.

Structuring Time

By getting into a local routine, even if only for a few weeks, you can start to feel the rhythms of how a place works: Seeing the sunrise over a bridge gives you a beautiful image to take home. Observing that each morning a group of men and women crosses that bridge with supplies means that the bridge has become not only a beautiful memory, but also a part of your education about the place. Volunteering to help carry these items into the town each morning for a few weeks lets us embody a routine rather than simply observe, and thus develop a physical, working connection to the place and its people. Helping with even the most menial of tasks, if done in accordance with a community’s long-term goals, can create a profound connection to a place in ways that simply passing through and observing cannot.

Structuring Perceptions

If you approach a volunteer initiative with a genuine desire to learn (why the project exists, who it affects and how), then your involvement can also have a profound impact on how you perceive the region as a whole. When you understand that you are lugging a stack of tiles because their black surface absorbs the sun best, will heat the water fastest and save the village money on fuel, then you enjoy more fully the act of lugging the tiles. You also more fully understand that for the desert region in which you find yourself, the ability to harness the sun’s energy is a skill that can benefit many villages. Your contribution does not need to be highly technical or complicated—just approach it with a desire to learn and it will help structure your understanding of the whole region.

Of course, volunteering abroad demands that you first learn why a community has committed to a project. Without knowing whether or not you sympathize with these reasons, it is impossible to work alongside a local community in the true spirit of collaboration. Be open to learning and embracing, as best as possible, local routines and perceptions to achieve the mindset of a responsible volunteer. Many projects that take on volunteers have someone on staff who can help you understand why the project exists and who it affects. Third-party volunteer organizations should help volunteers adapt, structure their time and comprehend local perceptions as they relate to the work.

Through learning about an initiative and then helping in whatever ways you are capable, you can bring home perceptions of a place based on local routines and local ways of thinking, a structured understanding from a structured travel experience.

The Host Family and Au Pair Relationship

Life with a host family abroad may be very different to yours. You will be meeting new people, exploring new places, speaking your host country’s language and learning different routines. Don’t worry, your host family is excited to meet you and will make you feel very welcome! Please ask them if you have any questions as you settle in with them. Your international cooperator will also be available to help if you have any questions.

Cooperation and Respect

It is important to talk about the children with your host parents and how they want you to take care of them. Please cooperate and respect their ideas about their children, even if you do not always agree with their child care ideas. As an au pair abroad, you will be treated as a member of the host family. You will need to be respectful of the host family and this includes the family’s home and belongings. Everyone will be happier if you respect each other.

Respect Your Host Parents

  • Always make time to tell your host parents about your day with the kids or to ask them questions that you have.
  • Communicate! Sometimes this can be really hard, but this is the best way to solve problems early and for good. If you don’t communicate with your host family, problems can become too big. If you need help communicating with your family, ask your international cooperator for some tips.
  • It is never a good idea to criticize your host parents about the way they are raising their children. It may be very different than what you are used to, but accept that this is the way that they want to raise their kids. If you have a question about anything, feel free to discuss it with the host family or your international cooperator.
  • Respect your host family’s privacy. Do not share their information with other au pairs or friends. Do not post anything (including pictures and videos) on social media without their permission.

Respect the House

  • This is your house too. Act like a family member in the same way you would in your own family. Help out with small things that are necessary on a day-to-day basis. For example, bring in the mail, take out the garbage and stack the dishwasher.
  • Clean up after yourself and the kids throughout the day.
  • Lock the doors when you come home. Discuss with your host parents what they would like you to do if you are the last one home at the end of the day or late at night.
  • Do not give out any information about yourself, your family or your home — especially to strangers — unless you have your host family’s permission.
  • Keep your room neat and tidy.
  • Ask your host family when you can use the family computer. Remember that you should never use the computer or Internet for personal use when you should be caring for the children. Do not visit inappropriate websites or download anything onto their computer.

Weekly Meetings

Many families and international au pairs agree that weekly meetings work well for them. Set aside about an hour each week on a chosen date and time to reflect on the past week’s events, challenges and successes. You will also want to use this time to constructively give and take feedback to make your overseas au pair experience as rewarding as possible. Here are some topics you may want to discuss together:

• Child Care Ideas and Goals

• The Weekly Schedule

Your host parents will talk to you about the family’s schedule so that you can arrange your days off and if applicable, time for classes. Tell the family about any vacation days you may want to take as far in advance as possible.

• Practical Demonstration

Your host parents should explain any relevant, practical household information. For example, they may go over how to use the washing machine or dishwasher; how to change a flat tire; or, what to do if there is a loss of electricity.

• Cultural Awareness

Ask your host parents if you have questions about your host family’s culture, customs or language. They will be able to let you know what events are coming up in the community and about any special holidays. You could also teach your host family some words in English, tell them more about your culture and share your own family pictures.

• Be a Part of Your Host Family

  • Spend as much time as you can with your host family! This is a great way to practice language, learn more about your host culture and have a wonderful experience as an au pair.
  • Have dinner as often as you can with your host family and help out as a family member.
  • Participate in social events and family events with your host family.
  • Share your culture with your host family. Talk about the United States, teach the family some English, teach the kids some of your songs and games and prepare some food from your country. Your host family will love this and it will make you feel closer to home, especially if you are feeling homesick.

Love Your Au Pair Job!

  • Be on time for work, picking up the kids, meal times and curfews.
  • Always smile and greet your host family when you see them.
  • Have fun! Play with the kids and get involved in their favorite games and activities. Try to stay positive, outgoing and enthusiastic.
  • Keep the kids safe.
  • Bond with the children. By getting to know them, they will know that you really like and care about them and will trust you even more.
  • When you are working, make sure that you are watching the children or doing child care-related things.
  • Never leave the kids alone, especially outside, in the car or near a lake or a pool.
  • Keep in mind that your host children will be different than the children in your home country.
  • Always encourage your host kids with everything, especially if they need extra encouragement! It will help them stay positive and have good self-esteem.
  • Communicate with your host family about any behavioral changes you see with the kids.
  • Treat all the kids equally.
  • Keep an open mind about the differences between American life and life in your host country. Remember that you became an au pair abroad to experience cultural exchange!

Emotional Ups and Downs: 4 Tips For First-Time Travelers Abroad

Only a short time ago I was sitting in a bustling airport excitedly awaiting my departure to France for a Conversation Coach program through InterExchange Working Abroad. Everything I was taking in at that moment brought waves of inspiration and promise of adventures to come. My enthusiasm was at a high point.

During the first few weeks of my trip, however, there were moments when I became disillusioned and questioned why I had been so eager to set out on this journey. As the novelty of everything began to wear off, I started having some unexpected realizations. While I knew that the members of my host family would be regular human beings with the same basic needs, wants and priorities as the average person back home, I was caught off guard by just how normal they actually were. Perhaps I was relying on the challenge of cultural differences to be a sort of distraction that would carry me through the duration of my teaching program. It began to feel rather ordinary, as if I were just a guy staying in a welcoming family’s home for a while. Though this was far from being a real problem, it led me to question why I had gone to all the trouble of traveling halfway around the world to have such an experience.

Whatever the issue might be, whether similar to the above or not, some kind of mental block is bound to come up during a trip of any real duration. For those with little or no travel experience, or as a reminder to more seasoned travelers, here are some ideas that have been helpful to me when working through obstacles while traveling or integrating into a host family:

1. Stay Focused

One of the best things you can do when feeling disillusioned is to think back on what motivated you to embark upon your trip in the first place. Whether you can muster up a clear picture in your mind or you need to write it down, develop a mission statement of sorts that you can rely on when things get rough. Whatever this motivation may be for you personally, it helps to have a clear focus that will reinforce your time abroad with meaning.

2. Talk Yourself Through It

It can be helpful to take a deep breathe and remind yourself of the facts, however obvious they may be. Your time abroad will end, after all. In the whole scheme of things, the duration of your trip is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially, you have before you a wonderfully rare opportunity with an expiration date. It helps to keep in mind that you will emerge from this experience sooner than you think, most likely a little wiser and enriched as a person.

3. Keep Your Lines of Communication Open

Another thing to remember is the importance of keeping communication lines open. In other words, do not isolate yourself if you are having a difficult time psychologically. It’s OK to let your host family know that you are feeling a little homesick, for example. Don’t feel that you need to disconnect and withdraw, as this will only make the problem worse. You can also talk with friends and family back home if that is encouraging to you. Of course, it’s best not to go overboard by complaining and spilling your innermost thoughts to your host family, but the point is that you should avoid keeping everything locked up inside and retreating into isolation.

4. Don’t Count the Minutes

When you are in the midst of frustration during your trip, it’s tempting to obsessively count down the days until the end. However, this not only prevents you from living in the moment, but it will probably have the opposite effect as the one intended, making the passing of time feel even slower. Again, remember that your time abroad will end soon enough. Try your best to embrace the moment and make the most of each day. The great experience you were hoping to have in the first place is still possible but it’s important to take the initiative and address the obstacles as they pop up and threaten to get in the way.

No matter how much we prepare for an adventure abroad, there are bound to be some challenges along the way. Of course, each person is unique and will have his or her own way of coping. So, find an approach that works for you. The above tips are just a place to start. Regardless of how you work through each struggle, the important thing is that you do in fact work through them. Keep moving forward and make the most of the rich but temporary opportunity before you!

Jacob is teaching English as a Conversation Coach in France with InterExchange Working Abroad.

Vietnamese Holidays and Performances and Events – Oh, My!

Throughout the year there are many events celebrated at the school in Vietnam where I teach English and by all of the country. As a latecomer, the first one I experienced was Teachers’ Day. Yes, they actually celebrate this holiday and in a big way. In the U.S., I was simply given a certificate to “reward” me for my hard work, but here in Vietnam, Wellspring went so far as to give us the day off! The students showered us with gifts and parties all week long, the school put on a big party and performance for us on the eve of Teachers’ Day, and then we spent the day off enjoying a nice lunch of Korean BBQ, karaoke, bowling and then dinner on the famous “chicken street.” The week left all the teachers feeling appreciated and honored.

Vietnam also celebrates International Women’s Day, which includes a gift from the parents and a women’s football (soccer) match with the many departments of the school facing off. The level of celebration for this holiday was also surprising to me.

And then there are the various performances, charity days and lunchtime weddings to attend. Traditional Vietnamese weddings are held at a date and time determined by a fortune teller, which means you could be attending a wedding at 11:00 am on a Tuesday as I did just this week. There are many celebrations involved in a traditional wedding, but non-family-member guests will only be invited to the reception and the engagement party, if you are close with the bride or groom. You eat, drink, and of course, take loads of pictures.

So far this year, I have traveled on charity trips for Christmas and the Lunar New Year to watch the kids perform and bring gifts to older adult and children’s homes. The primary school puts on a huge performance at a local Hanoi concert hall, and each primary grade is finishing up its Little Stars Space academic and dance competitions, for which I had the pleasure of emceeing during the fourth grade English portion.

The school year is never short on exciting events and days to celebrate.

How to Get Your First U.S. Passport in 5 Easy Steps

U.S. Passport

It’s often said that U.S. citizens travel internationally far less than Europeans. While the sheer size of the U.S. could be a factor here (we can of course travel thousands of miles without crossing a border), statistics show that almost two thirds of all U.S. citizens do not have a passport.

Since it’s pretty much impossible to travel or work abroad if you don’t first have a passport, we’re laying down the quick facts and links you need to get yours in no time, four to six weeks according to the U.S. Department of State.

(1) Complete the Application Form

The first thing you need is the actual application. This can be found here. You’ll want to fill it out in advance, but DON’T SIGN IT until you are instructed at the passport acceptance facility.

(2) Gather the Required Documents

Next you’ll need to gather two important documents AND make photocopies of the front and back sides. You’ll have to prove that you’re a U.S. citizen. Most people will use a birth certificate for this, but make sure it meets the necessary requirements, listed here. You’ll also have to present another form of identification, such as a driver’s license or another up-to-date government I.D. Other accepted alternatives are listed here.

(3) Obtain a Passport Photo

Now put on your best face and go have your photo taken (you could take it yourself but it’s not recommended due to the strict requirements for the photo).

(4) Prepare Your Payment

You’ll have to pay both an application fee (to the U.S. Department of State) and an execution fee (to the facility that receives your application). For first-time applicants this will probably cost $105-135 if you use standard return shipping, but the fees can vary depending on age and shipping methods. For payment instructions and accepted forms of payment, please refer to this page.

(5) Submit Your Application in Person

If you have everything listed above (and we strongly advise confirming all requirements with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs before doing this), then you’re ready to submit your application. Since this is your first time applying for a passport, the application must be lodged in person at an authorized facility.

Since we’re not an official government agency or representative thereof, you should always review the requirements right from the source – that is, the U.S. Department of State – before applying. They have a helpful passport wizard online, as well as a set of frequently asked questions.

Finally, once you’ve submitted your application, we recommend checking out the many ways we can help you travel abroad! Go get some stamps!

Weekend Adventures in and Around Vietnam

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!