Backpacking Teacher

Travel, teaching and things in between. Saigon is the focus for now.

Archive for February 2009

One week in the life of backpackingteacher

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I’ve begun to develop a few routines in my life in here in Saigon. Mornings I wake early and get to school an hour or so before the kids arrive. This gives me enough time to get a coffee, check emails and review what I’m going to teach that day. I also get to practice the few words of Vietnamese I have learned to speak with the cleaner on my floor – which is something like hello, how are you – and then I can speak no more. Yesterday the cleaner at the school tried to set me up with a date. I politely declined (or at least I think that’s what I did) but who knows, perhaps I agreed to get married as her English is only marginally better than my Vietnamese.goat place 001 saigon 003

Back to my routine – Monday afternoons are golf, Tuesday and Wednesdays vary but I generally try to have a Vietnamese lesson on one of these days and then occasionally try to get down to a local street side goat place that some friends and colleagues frequent. Thursdays have now been set aside for tennis and then a quietish beer afterwards. Every Friday thus far has been a night out on the town and even that has ended up in a routine as, in the wee small hours of the night, there are very few places still open. Despite my best intentions to stay home or do something a little quieter, Friday nights always end up being long nights. It always seems to be somebody’s birthday, or some other type of celebration going on. Saturday therefore becomes more sober, laid back, watching rugby and perhaps a quiet trip into district 1 (the cafe/restaurant area of Saigon).

Sundays I generally spend on my bike exploring Saigon after my morning Vietnamese lessons. I love riding around and seeing Saigon on a Sunday and stopping off for a coffee when I need a break. I also thoroughly enjoy my Vietnamese lessons and my teacher, who was also the mischievous dining companion who introduced me to trung vit long (embryo in egg) in this post, is also a lot of fun. She must however find our lessons to be quiet a drag because I’m a poor student and I still can’t seem to make a connection between the way things sound and how they look on paper. Sunday evenings I generally catch a movie or do some quick prep for Monday’s lessons.

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Despite the fact that I’ve begun to develop routines I haven’t had a dull or boring day in Saigon yet. If I feel even remotely bored I just head outside and I’ll see and taste things that are both unfamiliar and unexpected. Everyday is an onslaught of new words, smells, sounds and tastes. I’m still waiting for that post new country euphoria to die down and for me to enter that temporary slump where homesickness kicks in. I know it will come but, for the moment, I’m enjoying life in Saigon.


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February 22, 2009 at 12:05 am

Posted in expat, saigon, school, teacher

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Saigon Cyclo Challenge 2009

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saigon cyclo

In a few weeks time I’ll be taking part in the Saigon Cyclo Challenge. Our school is entering a team in this annual event and we start training in a couple of weeks. By training I mean we’ll probably rock up to a nearby site, look at the cyclo have a quick ride around and then head off to a local pub.

For those of you not familiar with a cyclo (pronounced sick low) this is what one looks like.


The cyclo can be seen in most parts of Saigon but they seem to be, primarily, a form of tourist transport as local Saigonese prefer to move around town using xe om’s (motorbike taxi). Years ago I remember riding a becak in Indonesia, which is pretty much the same thing as a cyclo, and I recall that it looked much simpler than it turned out to be. I’m sure the cyclo training will come in useful if only so that we manage to keep the thing upright.

The Saigon Cyclo Challenge, to be held on Saturday March 7th, is a charity event used to raise money for Saigon Children’s Charity and businesses, schools and embassy’s traditional enter teams in the race. There are several heats culminating in a final. However it’s not a straight out race. You and your team also have to participate in various pit stop games  which are going to be, by the sound of them, amusing and, if the goo they mention is anything to go by, very messy. I’m looking forward to the day and to enjoying myself with friends and colleagues from work.

This is the official blurb from the Saigon Cyclo Challenge 2009 Press Release. If you wish to find out more see their website at


On Saturday 7 March 2009, the ninth Saigon Cyclo Challenge will be held, re-igniting fierce rivalries forged each year since the Cyclo Challenge of 2001. The Cyclo Challenge is considered to be the premier Event in Saigon’s charity/ sporting calendar. In the nine years since its inception the Cyclo Challenge has proved an enduring Team Building event where Co-ordination and Team Spirit reap Rewards. Teams with Skills such as Imaginative Design, Choreography and Performing Arts and those with Stamina, Manual Dexterity and Determination will Win their Finest Hour.

The Cyclo Challenge is without parallel. It celebrates a unique Vietnamese cultural icon and major tourist attraction: the environmentally friendly, non-polluting Cyclo.

Seven cyclo races will be the feature of the day. Companies riding brightly decorated cyclos and supported by drumming bands and cheerleaders will do battle. This is the day for entertaining staff or corporate clients; the event will feature a VIP marquee, a ‘food village’, corporate hospitality tents, bars and coffee corners and a children’s activity zone.

Over the years hundreds of sponsors and thousands of participants have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the education of children in need. The growth of the Saigon Cyclo Challenge is a glowing testimony to the Health, Fitness and sense of Social Responsibility of Saigon’s business community. Our goal is to raise US$70,000 in 2009.

Spectator fees will be VND250,000 for adults, VND150,000 for children under 12, and free for the under 5s. The Children’s Activity Zone will boast dozens of activities including driving mini-cyclos, bouncy castle, face painting as well as free ice cream, drinks and prizes for our younger spectators to enjoy.


“Cyclo” photograph used under creative commons licence. Original version appears here

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February 14, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Reflections on my new school

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I’ve not made any blog posts about teaching here in Saigon so I thought it about time to do so. My school here employs expat teachers mainly from the UK but with a smattering of other nationalities including Chinese, Spanish, French, Kiwi and Aussie. The teachers are all uni trained and professional. The head is an exceptionally experienced international educator. Local staff are all friendly and, at least in senior positions, well educated with good English language skills. 

Students are predominantly expat Korean kids with quite a few wealthy and/or well connected Vietnamese. The other students range in nationalities with about 28 or so nationalities represented. The students are a respectful bunch but English language problems make for a teaching environment that often feels over simplified. The students are generally not lazy and work hard but their language skills make it difficult to deal with higher order type questioning and therefore their responses can often be ill formed and presented. Many a lesson is spent on glossary type excercises. Facts are generally easy for them and the senior kids make far more of an effort to learn basic facts than your average Aussie kid.

The school itself feels quite regimented to me and I’m not sure if this is because Australian schools are more laid back than your average overseas school. Students are given very little individual freedoms. This regimentation seems to me to breed an obedient but not a self regulating and mature student. I’m unsure why this school has this style – whether it is pressure from parents or the international style of schooling. Nonetheless it is a pleasant enough environment to work in and I’m sure the school will loosen up a bit as it gets older (it has grown at quite a strong pace and this has no doubt created some growing pains).

The physical environment is superb with well appointed classrooms, interactive whiteboards in each classroom, air-conditioning and a management team that is very supportive of the teaching staff. The school has real potential and for a school this young it has made massive strides in it’s quest to be a leading school in Saigon. This can be shown by the number of teachers and students who have moved to the school from other international schools in town. It’s an exciting place to be and makes for an environment that’s both challenging and a pleasure to teach in. I’m certainly happy with my choice and enjoy working here.

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February 11, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Some new videos taken from my iPhone – Saigon and Cambodia

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I hate carrying a camera around and the few times I’ve carried a video camera I found it a bit unnatural and a hindrance. Lucky for me my iPhone can take both pictures (albeit of dodgy quality as you’ll have seen elsewhere on this blog) and videos. The videos are a bit grainy but I like the fact that my video camera fits easily in my pocket.

When I take videos on my phone it uploads them to an account on a website called livecliq. I’m having a lazy (and slightly hungover) Saturday afternoon so I’ve just posted a couple of new videos there.


This one is of my apartment in Saigon’s district 7.

This one is of the temple of Beng Mealea in Cambodia that I blogged about here.

This is a video from the top of Mount Bakheng in Cambodia.

This is a street scene in Saigon.

The three coconut ladies outside the Opera House.

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February 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Beng Mealea – lots of trees and fallen rocks but not a T-Shirt seller in sight

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Angkor Wat, as I previously posted, is spectacular but I found that Beng Mealea, located about 40km’s out of Siem Reap, was far more evocative, peaceful, wild and untamed.


Unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom or  Ta Phrohm, Beng Mealea receives relatively few visitors. This makes for a quiet and introspective experience. However this is not the main reason I enjoyed the temple complex. Beng Mealea is evocative because it is surrounded by only paddy fields and small farmers huts. Outside the gates you will find a local village and only a couple of food places that vaguely cater to the tourist. There is not a T-Shirt or statue seller in sight. A solitary old man begging and a couple of kids asking for candy or pens are the only things that herald your entry as you walk past the gigantic seven snake headed statue. Inside the complex is old and worn and, deliberately, not one tiny bit reconstructed. The temple complex is decaying and trees grown through, round and over rocks. Rock walls lay strewn across the ground felled by the forces of nature. As I clambered over rocks and under stone door frames I felt like I had finally seen something similar to the sight which had greeted Henri Mahout the French botanist in 1860.

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Angkor Wat should definitely be on your bucket list but if you do make it this far don’t give up on Beng Mealea just because it’s another 40km’s out. Far from the maddening crowd of tourists, and for that matter the maddening crowd of reconstructing archaeologists lies the overgrown complex of Beng Mealea. In the middle of a Cambodia far removed from the tourist haven of Siem Reap with it’s bars and T-Shirt shops lies the decaying, tree enveloped beauty of this Hindu temple guarded by Naga the seven headed serpent. Get there soon before the T-Shirt sellers arrive.

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February 1, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Cambodia’s Angkor Wat – A spectacular side trip from Saigon

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Angkor Wat. It is most definitely worth the visit. I flew out from Saigon with a fellow teacher to to see the fabled temple complexes of which Angkor Wat is but one. Flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap are not cheap (about USD$300) but after briefly contemplating the bus (6 hours to Phnom Penh and then a further 6 to Siem Reap) we decided against it.

In Siem Reap we stayed in a nice little hotel near the old market area. The old market area is the centre of Siem Reap an out and out tourist town. The lingua Franca is English, the currency dollars and the drink of choice beer. The ATM’s dispense dollars, locals can say hello in half a dozen languages and convert between dollars, riels, dong, yuan and euros in the blink of an eye. Siem Reap though is not unattractive or dull. Pub Street and the tiny nearby alley, The Passage, are a delight of great pubs and restaurants of the type you might find in Bali or Phuket.

After spending a relaxing evening eating and drinking we decided to book a car to see Angkor Wat.
Car price was $20 for the day and this covers the  so-called “small circuit” and includes the key temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrohm and Bayon.

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What struck me was how large an area all these temples spread across – this is no walking tour (except within each temple complex). The temples themselves are either Buddhist or Hindu in origin. Many were destroyed by invasions from Siam (modern Thailand) or the Muslim influenced Champa of Central and South Vietnam.

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The temples are intricately carved and tell tales both true and mythical. Many of the temples have been carefully reconstructed but care has been taken in some parts, particularly at the photogenic Tomb Raider made famous temple of Ta Phrohm, to keep the splendidly massive trees that have grown through, over and under some of the temple complexes.

Angkor’s temples dwarf those I’ve seen elsewhere in Asia and whilst Indonesia’s Borobudur has a similar feel and architectural style it doesn’t come close in size or grandeur to the main temples of Angkor. Angkor is a must see destination, the local town is fun to hang out in and the temples are intricate and varied.



At the end of the first day of the small circuit I sat amongst the ruins of Mount Bakheng. Around me crowded many, many tourists. Cameras clicked and people jostled for the perfect photograph of the sun setting over the distant temple complex of Angkor Wat. Everyone faced the setting sun as if in some modern day version of sun worship. The spider infested jungle crowded around us. Below I could see elephants gamely bringing more tourists up the mount. It seemed to beautiful, so artificial, so surreal, so tacky, so noisy, so peaceful. I pulled out my iPod put on some Cesaria Evora and just chilled out as I watched the sun set over the plains of Cambodia. I felt alone and peaceful amongst the clicking and jostling crowd.

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February 1, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Haircuts for anime characters in Saigon

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Everything in Saigon is an experience. My hair has been getting unruly again. I generally dislike the rigmarole that goes along with getting your haircut so I tend to get my haircut only when things are getting desperate, I’m talking Chewbacca desperate here.

So I resolve to do the deed. Jumping on my bike I head off to the nearby shops around plush Phu My Hung (pronounced "foo me hoong"). I’d been recommended to go to a place called Saigon Moments. A few minutes jetting around on my bike I find the place. I walk and smiles greet me, they can clearly see that Chewbacca is here for a haircut. I sit down to discover we have no language in common. A few words of English on their side and the ability to say thank you on mine do not make for an efficient delivering of instructions on how I want my hair cut. They show me a few books, but unless I want to look like a Japanese anime character those books aren’t helping the situation. Eventually I decide to just go for it … I give a shrug and let them do what they will.
15 minutes later I have a haircut, it’s short and I don’t look like a character from Naruto so I’m happy. But wait … that’s not it … I am taken out back to a dark room with a bed (is this why the place came recommended I think?)

I’m asked to lie down, next to me, and somewhat worryingly, lies another customer asleep in the foetal position on another bed. My head slips into a bowl and my hair begins to be washed. By that I mean it’s is kneaded and soaked and stroked and kneaded some more. I’m in a state of bliss … and then it’s over. I knew I should have opted for the massage when she first offered it to me …. then I too could be curled up in a foetal position in a state of bliss after a Saigon Moments head wash and massage. Next time I might not wait so long to get my haircut.

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February 1, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Posted in expat, saigon, school, teacher

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