David Maxwell Goes to Vietnam

If you follow me on FaceBook or Twitter, then you already know I am planning to teach English abroad. This summer, I will be moving to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to complete TEFL/TESOL certification and begin teaching English to Vietnamese students while continuing my career as an author of science fiction thrillers.

In this blog, I will chronicle my journey in text, pictures and videos. Whether you are interested in teaching English abroad or simply following my adventures, you will find in these posts every challenge I face and every accomplishment I achieve.

Although I will not depart the United States until late July, I am already knee-deep in preparations. The amount of research and planning that goes into an endeavor of this sort can be mindbogglingly. My intent in sharing my own account is to demystify the process by detailing each step I take along the way.

So, I hope you find value in the posts that follow. From a general interest perspective, you will read details of my adventure, see descriptive pictures of my work and travel, and enjoy video accounts of the journey. From the perspective of someone interested in this career path, you will see every cost, every roadblock, every challenge faced along with the methods I employ in overcoming them all.

My blog will be unhampered by external influences. What I share will represent the reality. You’ll see both the good and the bad without censorship or embellishment. That said, I hope you enjoy my account of the journey as much as I enjoy the journey itself!

Why I Decided to Teach English in Vietnam

No doubt, you’ve heard all the hype – travel the world, make great money, live comfortably with a ridiculously low cost of living. Websites for programs around the world tout teaching English abroad as a dream career. Well, for better or worse, I’m here to tell you the truth.

For me, this career path seems like a no-brainer. Why? I have many reasons, actually. For starters, I am very flexible at the moment with no committed relationship, my children grown, and no 9-to-5 job. As a retired veteran of the U.S. Air Force, I am now living my childhood dream of writing books; my first two novel are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and I’m working on my third. I refuse to give up my dream of writing, but I can write anywhere. For me, the bottom line is that I have no pressing obligations that would prevent my travel abroad. Having spent the majority of my military career overseas, I also have an affinity for seeing the world and helping others. This career path not only gives me the opportunity to meet those inherent desire, but also affords me the chance to better my own command of the English language, which is a critical component of my success as a writer.

In my scenario, I don’t intend to pursue this career as a temporary opportunity for travel; instead, I see it as my final career, one that I will pursue until I decide (or health decides for me) that I am no longer able or willing to work. My goal is to spend time in one country teaching and writing, return to the states for a short visit with family, travel to another country to teach and write, and rinse and repeat ad infinitum.

WHAT’S THE POINT OF THIS BLOG/VLOG SERIES?

Great question! I’m glad you asked.

The purpose is two-fold. First, it will serve as a personal diary for my adventure. Second, I hope it will serve as an informative resource for those of you considering teaching abroad. From my own experience, I know that I sought out as many personal accounts as I could find before making a final decision. There is plenty of information out there if you look for it. However, what I found to be lacking was any comprehensive start to finish account. That is precisely what I intend to provide.

Just under three months from departure, I am going to begin sharing my experience. I will be detailing my research, preparations, travel, TEFL/TESOL course experience with Ninja Teacher (AVSE) in Ho Chi Minh City, job search efforts, employment experience, and lifestyle in Vietnam.

Unlike many of the forums, blogs and vlogs that are already out there, my account will be entirely objective. I have no affiliation with any TEFL/TESOL course, public school or learning center and no vested interest in whether or not my accounts push you one way or the other. I am simply sharing my personal experience from a completely open, honest, and uninfluenced perspective.

DISCLAIMER

Before I go on, I want to make a few things very clear:

  • I am not yet TEFL/TESOL certified
  • I have never taught English abroad
  • I have no affiliation with anyone but myself
  • My accounts are not intended to endorse or recommend any course, agency, school or location
  • My words are simply, for better or worse, my personal experience
  • I highly recommend, if you’re serious about teaching abroad, that you contact the experts

WELCOME

With all of that out of the way, I can finally say welcome. I hope you enjoy my accounts and find something of value in each post. Thank you for joining me on, and sharing in, my journey!

Making the Decision to Teach English Abroad

BACKGROUND

Several months ago, after a long day at the keyboard working on my latest novel, a stray thought entered my mind – why not take my writing on the road while teaching English abroad. Having dated a woman who teaches English in China, I already knew quite a bit about how it works.

Throughout my military career, and in the telecommunications engineering position that followed, I traveled the world extensively, not just spending time in other countries, but actually living and working in them. Since becoming a full-time author of science fiction novels, my nomadic tendencies have been gnawing at me, urging me to get back out there. Suddenly, I saw the solution.

By teaching English abroad, I could continue immersing myself in other cultures, help others better themselves, and still live my dream of being an author. The typical 15 to 30 hour work week of most TEFL/TESOL teachers fits leave ample time for writing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much it aligns with who I am as a person and what I want to do in life.

SELECTING A LOCATION

My interest effectively gained, it was time to do my research, and research I did! I started by looking for the best country (based on demand, cost of living, lifestyle, and average income). I researched Thailand, Taiwan, The Philippines, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and others. Having spent time in South-East Asia, I knew that’s where I really wanted to start. Ultimately, I decided that Vietnam was most suited for what I wanted.

As an important side-note, once I made that determination, I stopped looking for alternative locations. In my opinion, you could spend a lifetime trying to pick the best place to start. I can’t say with any certainty that Vietnam is the best place to start for someone who wishes to teach English abroad, but I can say, based on my circumstances, it felt right to me.

SELECTING A SCHOOL

Once I knew where I was going, I continued researching with even more vigor. I’m pretty sure I have watched every YouTube video by a TEFL/TESOL teacher in Vietnam that is out there. From city to living conditions, from course quality and experience to job placement success, from the expenses of those who live incredibly frugally to those who spend money like they are made of it. In the end, I honed my list of cities down to two, Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi; and, I refined my interest in TEFL/TESOL courses to five potential schools. I did consider online courses, but soon ruled them out. For me, the face-to-face, in class, in country training is far more valuable and informative than any online-based course.

The next step for me was deciding which of the five TEFL/TESOL courses I would attend. In making that decision, I considered the following for each:

  • Cost (the five I was considering ranged from $1,250 to $1,750)
  • Experience (how long have they or their associates been around)
  • Job Placement (do they assist or guarantee)
  • Accommodations (do they include a place to stay as part of the cost)
  • Reviews (what do their alumni have to say about the experience)

I also considered the number of hours in class and on practicum, but found all so similar to make that factor irrelevant.

After extensive research, it was time to reach out to the schools to see what they had to say. Some offered Skype “interviews” whereas others contacted me by phone. Prior to these conversations, I had a well drafted list of questions on best time of year for employment seeking, percent of graduates successfully placed after graduation, unique amenities or education offered, and accessibility for support, not only with coursework and employment, but also with living arrangements and transportation. My pre-interview questions were specific and extensive, but they addressed the questions I needed to have answered. Any schools that didn’t offer follow-up contact for additional questions, I ruled out immediately. Those that gave reasonable answers while offering to answer any additional questions I may have through email or phone calls made the top of my list.

At this point, I was able to whittle it down to two prospective schools – AVSE (via Ninja Teacher) and TEFLJunction. The deciding factor for me was the accessibility and comfort with Ninja Teacher and AVSE representatives. The fact that Ninja Teacher was founded, and is primarily staffed, by native English speakers went a long way toward influencing my final decision. In a nutshell, the thought of being able to easily communicate any concerns, challenges or questions with a native English speaker put them at the top of my list. It didn’t hurt that their founder, Alex Stevenson, has done an excellent job of putting out detail videos on all aspects of life teaching English in Vietnam. Additionally, they were the most responsive and timely. When they said they’d call me at 9pm, my phone rang at 9pm. When they said they’d answer my questions via email, I had answers the very next morning.

PRESENT DAY

Today, I am both excited and terrified. I’ve decided on a new career path – teaching English abroad. I’ve settled on a location – Vietnam. I’ve chosen a school – AVSE through Ninja Teacher. I have even decided on a course date – July 23rd. All that is left is for me to make it happen. This, my friends, is where the journey really begins.

You might wonder what could be so pressing nearly three months prior to departure. You might even wonder why I’m not waiting until in country before beginning this blog. I’m here to tell you that my hands are already full with preparations. If I skipped forward without covering my current efforts, I would be doing an injustice in providing a realistic picture of what it takes to transition into a career teaching English abroad.

As example of how much there is to do, let’s look at what I did yesterday. In the morning, I had my fifth doctor’s appointment of the last 30 days. Before leaving the country, I want to address all of my medical concerns. I’ve booked dental, vision, and general health appointments so I can be fully prepared before leaving the country. Once I leave, I’ll have the comfort of knowing that I have all of the medications and dental/vision supplies I’ll need. The last thing I’d want to do is arrive in Vietnam only to realize I need a new eye exam and a root canal!

After the doctor appointment, I began to work on my packing list. A Google search will tell you what others recommend you bring as well as what NOT to bring. Initially, I’m making an all-inclusive list which I hope to whittle down to what is necessary. What I don’t want to do is overlook something crucial that I should bring. Starting the list now gives me plenty of time to review and adjust accordingly. By the time I depart, I should have a pretty good list of what I will actually need.

In the afternoon, I continued to work on my budget, a process I started as soon as I decided this was something I was going to do. I revisit my budget daily, updating it based on forum conversations and other research. My goal with budgeting is to come within $100 per month of my actual required expenditures once in country.

Last night, I worked on my “to-do” list. A bit OCD, my “to-do” list is pretty comprehensive. In it, I address and forecast requirements such as flight booking, hotel arrangements, visa processing, documentation needs, and everything else I can think of that is prerequisite to my travel.

The short of it all is that, even three months out, there is much to do. The upside is that I’m chipping away at it each and every day. When I board my flight in just a few short months, I will be fully prepared for what is to come.

Cost and Profit of Teaching English Abroad

As my date of departure draws nearer, I’m focusing more and more on preparations and planning. As I’ve said before, my intent with the BLOG/VLOG is to share my journey, start to finish. The course I’ve chosen begins on July 23rd. Already, there is much to be done and many circumstances to be considered. So, let’s get started!

Let’s kick it off with a look at what I consider to be the biggest factor in planning to teach English abroad – money. If you are like me, you’ll be asking yourself: How much is this going to cost? How much of that do I already have available? How much more will I need to come up with? When will I need it by? How much will I earn? And, in addition to those questions, you might want to ask yourself: What will I do if it takes months or longer to find a job?

BUDGETS

In order to address all of financial concerns, I created five budget spreadsheets – Current, Transition, First Month, Unemployed and Employed. Depending on your own financial resources, you may not feel the need for a detailed forecast of budgeting. Regardless of your circumstances, I highly recommend taking the time create budgets for at least a few of the scenarios if for nothing else, to have a better idea of what is to come.

The Current budget is my right now budget. In it, I list all of my monthly bills and expenses along with my monthly income and resulting savings. Once I made my final decision to teach abroad, I revised this budget, whittling down as many expenditures as possible to maximize my monthly savings. Since that seems pretty common sense, and will vary from person to person, I won’t include my own Current budget in this BLOG. Just know that before you look at where you are going, you need to look at where you’re at.

My Transition budget is an open-ended (not monthly) accounting of all expenses I will incur in my transition from living in the U.S. to teaching in Vietnam. Personally, I consider this the most critical budget of them all. As you’ll see in the spreadsheet on the next page, I have not only included the itemized costs, but also the timeline and method for payment. You may also notice that wherever there is a variable cost range, I choose to lean towards the higher amount for safety.

Though I haven’t included it in my Transition budget, you may also wish to include methods of payment (visa, PayPal, cash, wire transfer, etc.) for each expense. And, if you are so inclined, you might add in source of funds to cover each expenditure (credit, savings, loan, etc.). Knowing what you’ll need to spend, when you need to spend it, and how you’ll cover it are key in effectively planning for and managing your transition. Through careful research of the country you plan to enter, the school you plan to attend, and all associated requirements for entry and self-sufficiency, you should be able to come up with a comprehensive Transition budget of your own.

TRANSITION BUDGET

With respect to my First Month budget, my goal is to accurately document all anticipated expenses during my time in the 4-week TEFL/TESOL course. I think it is important to separate this budget to address the specifics of that unique month which will undoubtedly differ in both expense and income from the months that follow.

For me, knowing what that first month will feel like, what resources it will require, gives me a sense of peace. I like to be prepared and I do not like surprises. Besides, your first few weeks in a new country, undoubtedly overwhelmed by culture shock and unexpected eventualities, is NOT the time be working off the cuff. In my opinion, you should have all your ducks in a row BEFORE jumping in the water!

Depending on country, school and circumstance, yours may be quite different. Regardless of the similarities or differences, I stand by my belief that having a realistic First Month budget is a prerequisite for traveling to teach English abroad.

FIRST MONTH BUDGET

I consider the Unemployed budget a critical consideration. Most schools and alumni reviews suggest, at least in Vietnam, securing a job is not difficult. Many say you can expect interviews and demo classes within a few days after certification and a solid position within the first couple weeks of searching. In my phone interview with Ninja Teacher, the representative assured me that even though I haven’t taught English before and only hold an Associates Degree, I should have no trouble finding a position within the first 30 days.

Though I appreciate the accounts of others and the encouragement of the school, I remain skeptical. In my mind, the reality is it may take several months to secure employment if I am able to secure it at all. That said, I believe it is very important to take a realistic look at life in country without work. Whether this is the case for you or not, you should at least consider what you will do if it takes a month or two to find employ.

Below is my Unemployed budget. It shows that, even without a teaching position or additional income, I can survive with a modest, but comfortable life in Vietnam. For me, that is a huge relief and an additional motivator for making this move. I will be cutting it close, but at least I know I can make it for as long as I choose to stay.

UNEMPLOYED BUDGET

My final budget, Employed, shows my projected monthly budget with teaching income. Obviously, this is the goal. Not only does this scenario insure my comfort and self-sufficiency, but as you can see, it also affords me the opportunity to work on debt reduction while building savings.

As with all factors, I tend to overestimate expenses while underestimating income. I believe it is much better to be safe than sorry. With respect to the teaching income, my research has showed that hourly pay ranges from as little as $15 to as much as $25. Likewise, hours worked per week tend to range from as little as 10 to as much as 30. I’ve tried to construct this budget at the lower, most reasonable target for both.

EMPLOYED BUDGET

In summary, with nearly three months to go before I even enter the country, I have created budgets for the expenses I’ll incur in the transition, my first month in country, my monthly budget without employment, and my monthly budget with the additional income of a teaching position. Additionally, I’ve updated my current monthly budget to optimize savings and cover initial expenses.

In all honesty, I would have discounted this endeavor as unachievable if any of those budgets proved unrealistic for my means. I understand that situations vary. Some people have ample savings to support such a drastic change in life. The cost of living varies from country to country and city to city. The cost of certification various by school and program selected. And, the lifestyle I’m willing to accept may not match the lifestyle you seek. Regardless of those differences, I know that completing these budgets as I have has helped me make my decision and grow more confident in it day by day. I can’t help but believe similar efforts will do the same for you. I’m not suggesting that my approach is perfect. Rather, I’m suggesting that going through a similar process yourself, in a way that suits your specific situation, will assist in both your decision making and underlying confidence in those decisions.

Two Months from Travel

Wow! Time flies. Just a few months ago, I made the decision to teach English abroad. Now, I’ve made the deposit on my TEFL/TESOL course and am working on my flight, visa, background check, financial arrangements, health checks, packing lists and many other preparations.

With each passing day, my excitement grows and my time to get things done dwindles. I am so glad that I started this process when I did. After making the decision, I spent three months on research – location, certification type and school, costs, employment opportunities, income ranges, experiences of those who’ve gone before me.

Now, with less than two months to go, I feel like I’ve given myself just enough time to get everything done. There is way more to it than you might at first think. Once I have all my required documents in hand, have paid the balance for the course, booked my flight, received my Visa on Arrival approval letter, adjusted my banking and auto-pay, and refined my what to bring list, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief.

In all honesty, I can’t wait to get the details out of the way so I can focus on the adventure.

Address Health Issues BEFORE Traveling Abroad

I’ve said it before in my blogs and vlogs, but I am going to say it again. If you are planning to teach English abroad (or traveling to another country for an extended period for any other reason), please take my advice – address your health concerns BEFORE you leave your home country.

In my case, I scheduled appointments with my doctors for check ups and prescription refills, optometrist for new eye exam and ample supply of disposable contact lenses, and the dentist for a permanent crown and a cleaning.

My dentist appointment proved critical as he identified a crack in one of my other teeth that I hadn’t realized was there. The very next day, a bad infection set in causing me excruciating pain. As he had already identified the crack, he knew exactly what was going on when I went back. He already had the x-rays and was able to immediately remove some of the infection, put me on antibiotics and steroids, and schedule treatment for the cracked tooth. Had I not seen him prior to travel and the infection not presented until I arrived in Vietnam, that issue could have been costly and the care provided less than optimal.

Besides the issues of quality of care and insurance implications, it just makes good sense to get everything checked out before you leave your home country. Since it can take time to get appointments scheduled, and they often require follow up appointments, I recommend you start the process at least two or three months before your departure date. Don’t forget to ask for a 90-day supply on your prescriptions; most doctors will accommodate if you explain your situation.

My Packing List for Vietnam

This is my personal plan for what I will take with me to teach English in Vietnam. In making the decisions, I conducted extensive research on the recommendations of others while taking into account issues such as weather conditions, portability, security, and weight. My overall goal is to bring no more than precisely what I will need.

LUGGAGE

Dry Backpack, Large Max: 50lbs, 62 inches total; checked luggage (non-critical items)
Dry Backpack, Medium Max: 15lbs, 20x15x10 inches; carry-on luggage (critical items)
Briefcase, Small For small electronics and critical documents

ELECTRONICS

Laptop Loaded with all applications and website credentials I will need
External Storage Drives 4 TB and 2 TB containing all my files; 1 TB empty for new files
Kindle Fire HD Loaded with applications all applications and ebooks I will need
GSM/CDMA Phone Old cellphone that may be able to use local SIM card
iPhone Loaded with all contacts and apps; serves as backup and camera
Camera 20 MP digital camera for quality photos; small and handy
Chargers/Adapters For all electronics; Vietnam compatible power adapter plugs
Toolkit, Small Small screwdriver kit, scissors, needle-nose pliers, tape measure

HYGIENE ITEMS

HEALTH ITEMS

Electric Razor Kit Prescription Medicines, 90-day supply
Razor with extra pack of blades OTC Medicines (Motrin, Tylenol, etc)
Two toothbrushes Small Toothache Medicine Kit
Dental Floss Sunscreen
Nail Clippers Small package of Band-Aids
Axe Body Spray, two-pack Contact Lenses, 180-day supply
Antiperspirant/Deodorant Contact Lens Solution, two-pack
Men’s Body Lotion Glasses (as backup)
Bar of favorite soap
Tube of favorite toothpaste
Small pack of Q-tips

CLOTHING ITEMS

HATS

COATS

BELTS

SHOES

Baseball Cap Rain Poncho Canvas Flip Flops
Sun Hat Windbreaker w/hood Leather, Reversible Sneakers

SUITS

Loafers

One Suit (for interviews and demo classes)

Oxfords

PANTS

SHORTS

SHIRTS

Dress (2) Dress (1) Dress, Long Sleeve (2)
Jeans (1) Casual (2) Dress, Short Sleeve (2)
Khaki (1) Cargo (1) T-Shirts, Short Sleeve (5)
Jogging (1) Swim Trunks (1) Light Sweater, Crew Neck (1)

SOCKS

Dress, Ankle (2) Athletic, Ankle (2)

DOCUMENTS

Medical Educational Financial Travel

IDENTIFICATION

Current Passport Old Passport Driver’s License Military I.D.

I believe the items above should cover everything I will need, at least initially. Anything else I need, I expect to buy over there. Sometime in the next week or two, I will actually pack all the items in the luggage, weigh them to see if they are within the weight limits, and post an update.

If you have any suggestions from your own experience, please share by adding some comments.