Category Archives: English Teaching Abroad

The Stuff of Nightmares.

On the darker side of teaching English abroad…

‘What are you running away from?’ a fellow teacher asked.  I had only recently arrived in Hangzhou, a fresher on the ESL-teacher scene in China.  It seemed a strange question, and a strange introduction.  ‘You watch these young teachers…  They are not here for the love of teaching English,’ he added. 

And admittedly, he had a fair point.  With a few exceptions of course, for many the ‘teaching-in-China’ episode is hardly part of a well-laid career plan.  More of an option for those in limbo after graduating with a dead-end degree and poor career – or no career – prospects in a home country.  Although I did not exactly fit into that category age- or career-wise, my life certainly felt like the fast road to nowhere and at least a change of scenery was bound to make the ride more palatable.  It was early days and I was filled with the optimism of the novice!  I am discounting India here; being the only white face in a small hamlet in Kerala meant I missed out on any immersion in the world of expats, ‘teaching expats’ in particular.  The few brushes with the wider world beyond the village only happened during my monthly visits to Varkala, the latest hip town with the hippy vibe, an awesome beach and decent coffee…

On the bright side, Hangzhou had a lively expat community, mostly populated by a teaching fraternity and a spatter of businessmen and women employed in the diverse world of manufacturing, engineering, banking or accounting.   In other words, one of the more desirable places to hang about for a while, rather than being farmed out to more rural and remote areas of China.  ESL agencies and schools in Hangzhou had the pick of the teachers’ bunch, preferring white and young above experience, qualifications and even the ability to speak English.  Still, at least most of the undesirables and incompetents were quickly weeded out and replaced from the rich pool of available and keen talent.  Of course, there were stories… but they were far and few between and mostly about contract-related disputes between agencies/schools and foreign employees.  In a country where everyone is under permanent CCTV scrutiny, not much goes unnoticed and unpunished without the leverage of backhanders.  Deportations abound.

Fast forward to working in one of the less affluent states in Vietnam.  On my arrival, the language school had just survived a major staffing crisis and fresh blood had been hastily drafted in to cover the unexpected avalanche of vacancies…  With an hourly pay rate for ESL teachers way below the national average and a workload well in excess of the national average, applications were scarce on the ground.  For me the only redeeming factors were the school’s proximity to the beach and the mirage of a social life: surely communal living on the school premises and organized trips would be conducive to having a bit of fun and interaction?  And of course, there was also the minor issue that I needed a job…

Being a little short-staffed, I had been put under pressure to get to the language school early, five days before I was due to start teaching.  It took me only a few days to seriously consider desertion.  My room was a claustrophobic nightmare with no window to the outside world, the poorly equipped communal kitchen a germ factory of piled up, unwashed dishes and festering leftovers hogging the only two pots at our disposal.  A descent into the horrors of a student life I had left behind decades ago… 

And then there was my first encounter with J, one of the recent recruits and about to emerge from his stint of probation.  My induction kicked off with two days of unpaid observation of J’s teaching.  Unpaid???  Obviously, this was never mentioned in the interview… I let it wash over me, but silently rued the days of exploring Vietnam I had given up for this.  The first day, Sunday, I lived through seven and a half hours of non-teaching, the unmistakable whiff of alcohol intensifying as the day wore on.  Whilst I was asked to supervise the students playing games with balloons and being engaged in other questionable ‘educational’ activities, J. disappeared from the classroom for multiple extended breaks…   

Dread engulfed me at the prospect of spending another four and a half hours in that classroom the next day.  I dutifully turned up but drew the line at being instructed by J. to do some team-teaching, or me teaching and him observing or learning more likely…

‘No way,’ I insisted, ‘I’m not being paid for this…’

‘You will regret this,’ his words blasted across the ethanol vapours. ‘I am a secret manager and I have special powers. I don’t want you in my classroom and I will report you to ‘Xxx’ for insubordination.’  (Xxx being the owner of the language school and our actual boss…)

Granted, I had refused to stay in his previous lesson, a one-to-one.  Instead of focusing on teaching the student, he had proposed discussing the lessons I would be covering whilst he and his Vietnamese wife, Mrs J., flew off to Bangkok for a visa run.  Professionalism got the better of me… Surely talking through a handover should not be done during lessons.  How old fashioned of me…

My suitcase barely unpacked I was all set for a return to Hanoi but a few laughs with colleagues over a beer and dinner persuaded me to at least give it a bit more time. 

‘Watch our words,’ they reassured me, ‘he won’t last.  Xxx knows very well what goes on in the classroom.  She just needs to find a replacement.’   

‘You can move into my room,’ another one tagged on. ‘I leave at the end of September.’  At least her room was spacious and had massive windows with fresh air wafting through. A promise of some improvement on the bleak horizon.

For a few weeks, all was well.  J and I taught in classrooms on different floors and, when our paths crossed in the kitchen, exchanged polite conversation.  Mrs J, aloof and reticent, refrained from chatting to any of the foreign teachers, although her English was deemed good enough to work as an English teacher at the centre, a position she relished. The recycling bin regularly overflowed with empty beer cans and bottles but those of us with a sense of responsibility and community took turns dealing with the debris.   

Nevertheless, the kitchen remained a battle ground as nothing was more irritating than having to wash up other people’s pots and pans before being able to start preparing your own meal.  And as you may well have guessed, J and his wife were some of the main culprits.  ‘Of course we will wash up our things, as and when WE feel like it…  If you don’t like it, maybe you should not be living here…’  So much for being considerate.

It was however in one of such moments that I disposed of a pot of rice that had been inviting bacteria on the counter for a day or two.  Provenance of the rice unknown and in dire need of sustenance and a clean cooking vessel, I put the rice where it belonged: in the bin. I didn’t have the time nor the energy to knock on doors to find out whose rice it was. It was an impulse that would come back to haunt me, but not until later, weeks later…

By the end of October, rumours were rife, J being the source of the whispers that were spreading like wildfire: he had handed in his notice, just a matter of deciding a convenient date; Xxx had decided not to renew his contract; he had better job offers elsewhere.  Versions varied but the gist was clear: J and his wife were in the throes of their last swan song…  The building heaved a sigh of relief!

When a sudden drastic time table revision was emailed to me and I inherited 50% of J’s classes, I logically assumed the gossip was true and J was indeed about to pack his bags.  I did not often find myself alone in the kitchen with Mrs J, but that day I did and curiosity got the better of me. 

‘I hear you’re leaving soon,’ I said.

She looked up, shocked and antagonistic. ‘It’s not true.  Who told you that?’

‘Hmmm….  Your husband has been telling everyone for days now… and I have been asked to take over many of his classes.  I just wondered…’  I continued hesitantly, sensing that maybe Mrs J had not been privy to the information that was doing the rounds.  The rift between the pair over whether to stay at the school or not was very well known to all of us: she wanted in; he wanted out or pretended it was his choice to leave.

‘It’s not true.  You’re lying.  We’re not going anywhere,’ she maintained.

‘That’s great,’ I added.  ‘I will speak to Xxx and ask her not to change my timetable; no need if J is not leaving…’

The conversation seemed innocent enough, but sparked a chain of events that quickly spiraled out of control.

I did indeed have a meeting with Xxx and refused to take over J’s classes.  Had there been any complaints about MY teaching?  I tried to broach the subject of J’s teaching when I observed him in early September, but this was not deemed important and brushed under the carpet. The thought of some of my younger students ending up in a classroom with J horrified me.  Too young to understand the reality, they obviously would not complain to their parents. Nevertheless, I agreed to swap one of my classes with J; parents had threatened to pull out their children unless J was no longer their teacher. 

The next day, I walked into the kitchen and found the walls covered in abusive messages written by J’s wife, all aimed at me.  Three weeks after throwing out a small amount of rice, it suddenly became a hot issue… I carefully removed the paper from the wall and offered amends.  Did she want me to cook some rice for her…? The messages on the walls continued and became more aggressive.  What on earth was she talking about?  Was this really about a bowl of rice that three weeks before did not even raise an eyebrow?  In the meantime my food in the kitchen gradually disappeared.  Anything labelled with my name went down the sink and in the bin, the empties left on the shelf as a clear message.  Trying to defuse the situation I did not react and moved anything still unopened, and therefore not spiked or spoiled, into my room…  Could I be sure that my half-filled jar of peanut butter was still fit for human consumption???

Roll on Friday, my day off, when things really started to escalate.  Being in the kitchen on my own, I was preparing my evening meal whilst most of the other teachers were in their classrooms. Windows perpetually open to allow some fresh air, what ensued was witnessed by many teachers and students.  J and his wife turned up in the kitchen.  I stood in silence as I was caught in the middle of their explosive domestic over whether or not they would be leaving soon, whilst J., entirely for my benefit, tried to persuade his screaming wife that the bowl of rice was not important.  Every time I attempted to leave, my escape route was barred by J., looking at me menacingly.   

Feeling uneasy throughout, it was his parting message that made chills run along my spine.

‘Can I have a word with you?’  He stopped me in my tracks and wedged against the fridge, the smile on his lips belying the threat conveyed in his message.

‘You fuck with my wife, I will fuck with you.  We will make your life here hell and you will be glad to leave… You mark my words.’

What I witnessed was not reasonable behaviour by any standards but it was hard to decide who of the two was behaving the more psychopathic.  All of this over a bowl of rice??  Or was it because I inadvertently made Mrs J aware of the fact that all was not well with J’s job prospects at the centre and I was the scapegoat for refusing to put my young students at risk?? 

As the whole episode had echoed within the walls of the school through the open windows and had piqued the curiosity of both staff and students, one of my colleagues sent a message to the boss, who unfortunately was out of town for a few days.  There was no response.  That evening, over a couple of beers to steady my nerves, it was decided that I should never be in the kitchen on my own as long as J and his wife were still at the school.  It was a comfort to know that the rest of the teachers were on my side!

Saturday morning, the circus continued.  My first class was with very young learners, four and five-year olds.  The lesson had barely started when Mrs J burst in ranting and raving and screaming abuse at me.  The previous night’s ambush in the kitchen was bad enough, but this outpouring of venom in front of my young students was not just outrageous, it was also very frightening.  In the end, I had to lock my classroom door and ask the office staff to keep an eye on Mrs J.  She was spending the morning in her husband’s classroom whilst he was ‘teaching’ and concocting the next step of intimidation.

Saturday lunch time, Mr and Mrs J took up residence in the kitchen.  Being one of our busier days, I normally ate out, but had arranged to meet one of the teachers near the kitchen.  Another barrage of insults headed my way.  Luckily J’s attempt to involve other teachers in their attacks were quickly rebuked. 

‘We are quite capable of making up our own mind,’ they said.

In the afternoon, I answered a knock on my door to find Mrs J waiting.  Although she seemed much calmer and composed, the message remained the same.  ‘Give me back my rice, give me back my food!’  ‘’What food are you talking about?  It was a bit of rice…’  I thought it wiser not to mention my food that had mysteriously vanished.  Since I had not actually witnessed it, there was no evidence Mr and Mrs J were the culprits but suspicions ran deep…

Later that afternoon, I went to the kitchen to get some fruit out of the fridge.  Mrs J followed close on my heels and blocked my way to the kitchen sink. 

‘Don’t come near me,’ she warned.

‘I need to get something from the sink,’ I dared carefully. 

She turned to the sink herself, picked up a knife and swiveled around facing me knife pointed…  In fairness to her, at the time she was holding a papaya, so it could have been entirely innocent, but it made my blood run cold. 

Luckily, the next day Xxx arrived back into the office, and alerted to the volatile nature of happenings in the teachers’ block, she called me into the office.  If I had expected any sympathy from her, I was in for a surprise…  Whilst I had waited for the storm to pass, Mr and Mrs J had been busy feeding their side of the story to the boss and suddenly the inflammatory outburst from Friday began to make sense…  I was no longer accused of throwing out a bowl of rice, but food Mr and Mrs J bought in the supermarket Friday morning. 

‘What food??  I threw out some rice a few weeks ago that was left on the counter.  We needed to cook…  I haven’t thrown anything else out.  By the way, my food has been disappearing…’   But Mrs J was Vietnamese, and I was not.  Ultimately, saving face would always prevail over honesty and apart from Mrs J’s vile intrusion into my classroom, most encounters had happened when no one else was in sight.  J was clever, a master of manipulation and his wife perfect putty in his hands.  I had to give them that…

‘I cannot get involved in what goes on in the teachers’ block.  It is not my responsibility…’ Xxx maintained.  Really?  None of us other teachers had the means or authority to ask Mr and Mrs J to leave.  ‘Anyway, keep your cool.  J will be leaving at the end of November, he has been given notice…’

‘Another whole month?  In any Western country, the police would have been called and Mrs J would have been removed from the premises with a restraining order to keep her away from me.  Especially after barging into my classroom and scaring all the students…’  

I resigned myself to the situation. Ironically, just a few days before I had finally, against my better judgement, signed the contract and tied myself to the school in the spirit of ‘better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.’ But then again, I am not the type to be allow myself to be bullied by the likes of Mr and Mrs J, so I decided to keep my head down and ride out the storm.

I can only thank the quick wit of one of my colleagues that the whole episode had a speedy and positive outcome.  The next day, another encounter happened in the kitchen when both Mr and Mrs J cornered me yet again.  On hearing the noise and shouting, N came to the kitchen and videoed part of the altercation on his phone.  As soon as the warring couple were aware of the camera, they retreated to the privacy of their room.  

Incensed at being caught on camera, Mrs J took action and demanded a meeting with Xxx where she insisted the police be called to deal with the matter of the video.  As most of us were in our classrooms at the time, no one witnessed the discussion that took place between Mr J, Mrs J and Xxx.  Suffice it to say that Mrs J’s way of acting resulted in the immediate dismissal of both Mr and Mrs J…  Maybe once Xxx had had her own measure of the irrational behaviour at first hand, she could understand my point and what I had been subjected to.

In our subsequent meeting that evening, Xxx explained the situation.  Of course, she had needed to intervene, she had a care of duty to her foreign teachers.  This clearly had not been a pressing matter the day before…  Could it have been the spectre of a less than flattering video circulating on social media and potentially harming her and the school’s reputation that made her change her mind??  Or am I being cynical?  N was also called into the office and was requested to delete the damaging footage…

On his last day in the building, J. came to see me.  He apologized and brought me a present: a calendar for 2018.  It was the 31st of October and Halloween.  Did I, in the coming year, really need daily reminders of the events of the last few days?

About a week later, around midnight, several teachers received an email from J.  He would be visiting town shortly, bringing some friends and showering us with presents..  We all sensed the Clockwork Orange shadow of Alex.  J was a knowledgeable film buff after all.

Luckily there was no visit, but it took several weeks before I felt safe enough not to look over my shoulder when leaving the cocoon of the school’s premises and my home in Vietnam.

PS.  Please rest assured that this tale is an aberration.  The majority of teachers are honest, hardworking, law-abiding and sane.   But of course, there are the ‘characters’, life would be boring without them.  Luckily their stories are more often than not hilarious and have become the legends we reminisce about.  Just this one had a particularly nasty and personal streak to it for me.

Unfortunately, although the ESL teacher scene is sobering up as government requirements and checks increase, the demand for suitably qualified and experienced foreign teachers outstrips the supply.  Some dubious individuals still manage to slip through the net, especially in jobs with less attractive terms or in less desirable locations…

Twenty Four Hours of Seascapes.

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I don’t know what I love most…  The mighty call of the mountains wrapped in the mystique and mystery of a nebular mist draped over the valleys.  Or the ever-changing moods and caprices of the sea, bowing to the will of whimsical winds chasing wispy or thunderous clouds…

Depends upon my frame of mind, I suppose…  Do I crave testing how long I can hold out traipsing up and down the slopes, or do I fancy something a little gentler such as a peaceful stroll along the beach, adding to my year-round tan and maybe dipping in a toe..  Just not too far, just in case Jaws lies in wait in nearby waters.  How can a seventies movie nightmare still have me in its unyielding grip… but I admit I only feel save when I can touch the seabed and spy my toes through a glass-bottomed surface..  And definitely not too many waves or ripples to obscure what may lurk beneath.  I am a coward at heart, I know…

After nine months of feeling like  a virtual prisoner in Quang Ngai, I finally managed to persuade the powers that be to change my day off.  It used to be Fridays but with only one day out of the shackles each week, the Friday sentence was like having eternal doom cast on you…  Death row, with Saturdays and Sundays hard labour: seven and a half hours of face-to-face teaching, starting at 8.00am and persevering until 8.45 pm with, granted, a generous break for lunch and a short break around 5.00 pm.  Exhausting!  Being allocated Friday as my day off certainly limited my travel opportunities, as I could never venture anywhere that would involve an overnight stay… Maybe if I had been braver and got on a motorbike I might have seen more than my weekly glimpse of My Khe beach…  The sights of Quang Ngai – enthralling as they may have appeared in week one – have long since lost their luster.  Still, on the upside, things have changed for the better since the June break and with Monday being my new day of freedom, and my classes on Tuesday starting in the evening, I can finally explore and go a bit further afield…

I heard about the Sa Huynh Beach Resort from fellow expats: an American couple who work in Duc Pho with victims of Agent Orange (watch later posts in a couple of weeks…).  The perfect place for a bit of relaxation and replenishing sapped energy after a long week at work.  As a bonus for me, Sa Huynh is also easily accessible by local bus, just over an hour to the South of Quang Ngai.  And Vietnamese public transport is quite affordable, maybe not as cheap as in China, but still a good option for those who’d rather not be in charge of motorized two-wheelers…

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I arrive in Sa Huynh just before lunchtime and, through the pine trees, a pristine beach is beckoning.  Behind a generous stretch of golden sand, a cerulean sea expands into a rivaling azure sky, fleetingly brushed with white wispy clouds.  The beach is deserted, only the soothing whispers of the tranquil waves my company.  At midday, when beach-loving Westerners chase the sun and a tan, Vietnamese locals shy away from the heat, instead staying indoors for lunch and a siesta.  The beach resort is not yet on the touristy agenda and most of the visitors I encounter at the resort are Vietnamese holidaymakers.

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After lunch, I venture back to the great outdoors, the sea still blue.  But behind me, over the hills, a storm is brewing, the searing heat over the water boosting the moisture in a leaden sky.  A Vietnamese summer is hot, and often very wet with heavy afternoon showers. Thankfully those violent bursts of pelting rain are usually rather short-lived, a mere reminder that we shouldn’t take the sunny weather for granted and should set about our business and the world armed with the ubiquitous umbrella.  A handy gadget come rain or shine.   Of course, my umbrella has long since been windswept into the bin and I now live in hope that I can survive, if not entirely avoid, the odd shower.  Compared to England, this is warm rain, a heavenly blessing sent from above.  It’s only water after all, another baptism will surely not do any harm.

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I stay on the beach as long as seems sensible, but retreat to safer and drier ground when the big drops make their entrance.  Not to my hotel room though, I think I have plenty of time… I make a detour to the hotel reception to find out tomorrow’s bus times, a good pastime on a rainy afternoon.  Within minutes the heavens are in full fury.  Bright lightning flashes clash swords across the blackened sky, explosive booms echo through the endless hollow over the waves.  A loud crack knocks out the power, and the resort descends into darkness, if only briefly.  An hour later, the storm dissipates to leave the air refreshed and I once again make it to the beach…

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The deluge of water has drawn new patterns in the sand and raging rivulets of water have chiselled new channels across the beach.  On the horizon, a watery rainbow slowly creeps up. Hardly noticeable at first, but slowly gaining in prominence and brightness, and eventually, however briefly, stretching to a full arch.  But by then, I have taken my phone back to my room, so I can join the locals and swim in the sea and enjoy the last couple of hours of daylight.

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I am not a fan of very early mornings, although these days I seem to be awake around 6 am every day…  But I want to catch the sunrise and set my alarm for 5.00 am..  Yesterday’s dense clouds linger and obscure where the sun slowly edges itself above the horizon, but the resulting sunrise is no less spectacular as a palette of pastel clouds and a faint sun mirror themselves in the still waters below.  And I am not the only one making the most of the cooler hours.  Whereas the beaches look pretty much abandoned later on when the sun climbs to its zenith, in the early hours Vietnamese people are out in droves on the beach enjoying vigorous exercise, brisk walks and playful swimming.

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Work forces me back to reality, I have classes on Tuesday evening.  But before leaving, I spend more time on the beach.  Almost solitary, bar one small Vietnamese family not afraid of the sun, but it’s only 9.00am.  The early clouds have all but vanished leaving the sky and sea yet again an enviable blue, as if the last 24 hours never happened.

Picture perfect.

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Tales of incense and pagodas.

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I may have incensed the ancestors.  Very much unwittingly, I should add.

It happened quite some time ago, one early morning, when I crossed the court yard in the language centre where I work.  Captivated by the seductive waft of incense caught in a breeze, and being particularly nosy by nature, I could not resist taking a closer peek at a table laden with the telltale signs of offerings to the beyond.

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Of course, I was not totally oblivious to the piety of it all, but since we had not received any warning about dress code and various other observances during such rituals, I quite happily flaunted my short shorts and strappy t-shirt in front of the table.  Don’t worry, I have the legs and body to match!  And as there were no morning classes, surely my off-duty attire in a tropical climate should not have caused any offence.

Maybe not to the souls of the living, but on that day, they were of lesser importance than the souls of the departed hovering above and keeping a close eye on the scene below…  Still, without even a hint or explanation about the impending event, surely some blame for my lapse of etiquette should rest on the shoulders of those in the know.  A little heads-up anyone??  I would have walked behind the table shrouded in long pants and long-sleeved shirt, even covered my head if necessary, and left the ancestors to their ethereal musings and mumblings…  Less of a chance to incur their wrath and jinx the good fortunes and luck of the centre for the coming year.

In the office, my questions about the goings-on were met with stony silence, and hushed tones suggested that it was best to leave things unsaid.  You could never be sure who might be listening in.  Really?  Not being that hot on the ancestor philosophy, I definitely did not sense the presence of specters.  It could have been my lack of a certain susceptibility to non-matter.   And taking photographs??  A definite no-no, only by the time anyone had the courtesy to spell this out to me, I had long since taken the snapshots I wanted.

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We were eventually put in the picture about the relevance of the auspicious occasion, but only after the proceedings were completed and we were invited to the breakfast feast.  The ritual, part of the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, is carried out at each and every household or business on a secret day to be decided by the monks of a nearby pagoda.   Best to keep ancestors on your side by offering food, incense and prayers.  Whereas the owner of the centre was made aware of the date in advance, staff were alerted at the last minute and, only those Vietnamese staff in the know would have understood what was happening…

Although Vietnam is officially an atheist state, most people are affiliated to one or other religion, as well as – equally and firmly – adhering to the ancient traditions and customs of ancestor worship.  Not a religion or belief, it represents the gratitude of the descendants to the ancestors.  The tradition is rooted in the conviction that all human beings consist of two parts: body and mind.  Upon death, the body is buried but the spirit, who continues to live with the families, must be taken care of and placated to keep potential future mishaps at bay.  On the anniversary of a death, a feast is laid on for relatives, neighbours and friends to celebrate the passing of someone from the precarious life after birth to the eternal life after death.

To ensure the ancestors’ needs in the hereafter are fully met, the families build an ancestral altar, either inside their home or sometimes in a small shrine flanking the house.   Food, water and flowers are placed on the altar and, on auspicious days, paper versions of worldly essentials, such as shoes, hats, etc are presented, and subsequently set aflame…  Probably earthly media may be a tad more convenient to the ancestors in the guise of a vapour.

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Happy tidings call for generous offerings to the ancestors, whereas sad events are marked by prayers and the burning of incense sticks.   Equally, pleas for help from the forebears in troubled times may be more forthcoming when transported with the sweet perfume of burning incense.  And judging by the ubiquitousness of ash covered incense sticks in front of shrines, a fair few requests seem to be heading in their direction…

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The Vietnamese landscape is dotted with temples, pagodas and shrines and many have become famous landmarks and tourist attractions.  To the uninitiated, pagodas and temples with their unmistakable tiered structures and arched entrances, look very much alike.  Only a closer inspection of the items displayed inside the complex will shed light on which one it is.  Whereas pagodas are linked to Buddhism and are filled with huge, towering statues of various aspects of the Buddha, temples are built to pay respect to important people who are held in high regard.  But whichever one you visit, you can be sure to be greeted by the unmistakable waft of incense..

Thien An Pagoda, Quang Ngai

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Marble Mountain, DaNang

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Linh Ung Pagoda & Giant Lady Buddha, DaNang

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Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

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Inside a local pagoda, Tu Nghia near Quang Ngai

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The perils of booking ‘.com’ …

Once in a while, Vietnam has national or public holidays…  Cause for celebration at our language centre: no classes, we get a day (or days) off!  An opportunity to escape the drudgery of teaching English in a smallish provincial town.  Quang Ngai may well be the capital of Quang Ngai Province, but it has still a lot of catching up to do with the more well-known and touristy coastal towns of Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue.

With Reunification Day (04/30 marking the fall of Saigon in 1975) followed on the heel by Labour Day (05/01), a two day stretch lay ahead of us.  Definitely enough time to explore what Vietnam has to offer further afield than the local beach and Da Nang.  Still, since Vietnam does not yet have a fleet of high-speed bullet trains like China, even travel by rail has its limitations for such a short break, especially as the whole of Vietnam might be taking advantage of the holiday and be on the move as well.

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The imperial city of Hue beckoned and came highly recommended on travel sites.  Located just a little to the north of Da Nang, Hue was the national capital from 1802 until 1945.  As the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, Hue is steeped in history and there are plenty of the emperors’ legacies left for visitors to admire.  Beyond a moat and thick walls, Hue’s 19th-century Dai Noi Citadel encompasses the palaces and shrines of the Imperial City, as well as the Forbidden Purple City which was once the emperors’ home, and a replica of the Royal Theatre.  And just out of town, dotted along the Perfume River, majestic mausoleums are nestled between lush green hills, ensuring the emperors a peaceful final resting place.   Definitely a city worth our attention…

Train tickets booked well in advance – although not early enough to snap up comfortable beds in a sleeper compartment – the only thing left to organize was accommodation.  Booking.com all the way!!  No need to pay anything online, just pay cash on arrival.  What is there not to like about such an arrangement??  We selected a guesthouse on the periphery of the busy centre, one with plenty of excellent reviews of course, and forewarned them of our very late arrival in the wee hours of Monday morning.  As we were teaching on Sunday until past 7:00 pm, our train options had been limited and the 8.20pm train would get us to Hue just after 1.30 am.  A well-laid plan.  What could go wrong?

Sunday lunchtime: a quick glance at my phone alerted me of missed calls from a Vietnam number, and a text message….  ‘Sorry, we cannot accept your booking’.  It transpired the guesthouse had seen it entirely within their rights to give our room to other guests.  As Booking.com does not ask for payment in advance or a deposit, the guesthouse probably felt safer to fill their rooms with guests who just turned up on the day rather than risking a no-show in the middle of the night.   Of course, a little panic ensued: this two-day break was not just for us teachers, but the whole of Vietnam would be on the move…  How to find a place to sleep on our arrival in the dead of night?   Luckily, just a call to Booking.com in the UK was all that was needed to find another hotel.  Saved by the skin of our teeth, or so we thought…

Our train left late, no reason to fret: this is Vietnam.. It will happen when it happens.  Instead of our scheduled arrival in Hue at 01.30 am, the train finally pulled in closer to 02.30 am.  Not to worry, I had again indicated on the booking form that we would reach the hotel sometime after 2:00 am and the internet blurb suggested a 24-hour manned reception desk.   At least we’d been able to fit in a little bit of a kip, just like other passengers who opted to try the comfort of the train floor instead of the reclining ‘soft’ seats.

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As we left the station, rain pelted down…  Umbrella?  Rain coat?  Quang Ngai had been basking in glorious sunshine that afternoon; practicalities such as taking waterproofs had completely slipped our mind.  Our plan to walk to our hotel, a mere 1.5 kms away, washed down the drains…  Although there were plenty of taxis on the station forecourt, sleepy taxi drivers shook their heads on reading our intended destination.  Clearly the distance was not worth waking up for.  We almost resigned ourselves to a soggy midnight jaunt through town, when an eager motorbike taxi pulled up.  After some haggling, we wheedled the fare down to a realistic figure and squeezed on the back seat.  A tight fit indeed… one driver, two adult passengers and bulging backpacks…

I cannot discount the possibility of an error on my behalf.  Vietnamese addresses with multiple numbers at the front flummox me… and I may inadvertently have ignored a vital digit or two.  To cut a long story short, sometime between 2.30 and 3:00 am, we were dropped off at the end of the longest road in the middle of nowhere in Hue, nowhere near our hotel…  The rain continued unabated and we resorted to the help of Google Maps…  If phoning the hotel had seemed a sensible move, we duly tried it but the ringing at the other end fell on very deaf ears..  So much for a 24 hour reception desk!  We walked on guided by the blue dot on Google Maps, but even the satellite directions failed to pinpoint the exact location of the guesthouse…   We spotted a man on the pavement, busily washing pots and pans – a mystery to me why anyone would need to attend to washing dishes at 3.00 am at night – whose vision immediately deteriorated at the sight of the address of my phone.  Even enlarging the address did not improve his reading ability…  Eventually,  we bumped into some tourists, foreigners, who kindly pointed us in the right direction.  Finally, just after 3:00 am, we made it to the hotel… and found the door unlocked!!  We were in!!

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We never made it beyond the lobby. We snatched the receptionist from the arms of Morpheus, only to be told… ‘No rooms, go find other hotel.’  What about our reservation from Booking.com? It happened to be the middle of the night and raining relentlessly??  Obviously booking ‘.com’ did not guarantee us a bed; with no deposit paid, the room had again been given to other guests…  The receptionist was unperturbed, rolled over and immediately returned to his slumber.  Leaving the hotel well after the witching hour was not an option, so we camped on the cold lobby floor.  When ‘numb bum’ syndrome finally got the better of us and daybreak heralded the prospect of an early coffee, we sneaked out into the drizzle.  Luckily, it did not take us too long to locate another hotel, in a much more exciting part of town…  We only had to stay upright until midday to check in…

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That first morning passed in a haze…  We trailed the perfume River and, along with a sea of other tourists, visited the much-praised Imperial City.  It may have been the lack of sleep, but somehow the Imperial City did not impress and the only thing that kept us going was the thought of a soft bed around midday and the abundance of exotic food… pizza, bruschetta, granola as well as local Hue cuisine…  It would be a culinary experience to savour!!!

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Of course, the next day our sentiments regarding Hue greatly improved.  A long rest, a great breakfast and we felt fit to explore the outskirt of Hue by bicycle.  We set our sights on one of the famous tombs, the Tomb of Dong Khanh, about 9 km from our hotel.  Hardly worth breaking a sweat over…  only, following the walking route recommended by Google Maps may have been a tad over-optimistic.  City bikes were hardly a match for the dirt tracks we encountered.  On the upside, we rattled over luscious green hills, were mesmerized by the impressive looking statues of a military figure and a giant buddha, passed the entrance to a hidden pagoda and definitely found someone’s tomb tucked away in the depths of nowhere ..  but it sure wasn’t the one we were looking for.

 

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weird tomb

‘Only three kilometers along the path,’ a helpful local had indicated. By then Google Maps’ guardian angel had completely lost interest in our plight and it seemed safer to withdraw to a nearby tarmacked road – at least we had spotted some signs of life there.  And lo and behold, just around the corner, a large tomb complex appeared and … masses of tourists.   A sure sign we had finally found the tomb we were looking for, much closer than the three kilometers away…

As it transpired, it was one of ‘the tombs’ alright, but not the one we had intended to visit, the one with the row upon row of military figures watching over the burial chamber.  In fact, this was the Tu Duc Tomb, more famous and touristy than the one we were heading to.  At least we did not miss out on the mandarins lining the Honour Courtyard; there just were not as many as we had expected and all rather diminutive, in keeping with the emperor’s actual stature of just 153 cm!

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The emperor himself designed the tomb complex and as it was completed well ahead of his demise, he took ample advantage of the amenities during his life time… A separate building to house his more than one hundred concubines, a pond for fishing, temples and pagodas…  Impressive quarters fit for a ruler!

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The Stele Pavilion, bearing an inscription about the Emperor’s life – composed by none other than the Emperor himself – was neatly covered for restoration work, but the sepulcher was accessible.

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Not that the Emperor was actually laid to rest there… Although his wife and adopted son are buried in far flung corners of the grounds, the whereabouts of the Emperor’s real grave are to this day unknown.  To keep the secret safe and make sure there would be no grave robberies, the 200 labourers involved in the burial were all beheaded by the mandarins after their return from the undisclosed route…

We spent the rest of the day lazing about on our bikes and, of course, making the most of the availability of Western food: another pizza feast.  It could be a while before we would have another opportunity to indulge in pizza…

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Camping in memory of Ho Chi Minh

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Sometimes you just know that you are flogging a dead horse…  No amount of cajoling, coaxing, threatening or inflicting sheer terror is going to breathe life into the corpse.

When a class of 15-16 year olds (grade 10…) looks and acts more lifeless than me (after a week of battling the worst bout of gastroenteritis I have succumbed to in just over three and a half years of exploring the great beyond divorce), something is seriously amiss.  Whilst the girls were at least minimally attentive and not shy of some input, the boys were basically overwhelmed by persistent inertia… M’s head immediately settled on the desk upon his late entrance into the classroom and no matter of gentle – or otherwise – prodding got more than a grunt out of him.  Normal behaviour for a teenager, you say… only Vietnamese teenagers buck the trend.  They are, on the whole, a very polite, well-behaved, eager-to-learn bunch and make teaching a pleasure…

In their defence, I admit that watching a Youtube video of daredevil Danny MacAskell enjoying an endorphin high whilst doing awe-inspiring stunts on his mountain bike, may not have exactly produced the same adrenaline rush in the classroom.  Especially as the video was merely a prelude to a reading exercise analyzing tenses such as past simple, present perfect and present perfect continuous…  Lesser things have been known to drive teenagers to distraction and into oblivion in an English classroom.  I should know, I once sat on the other side and I can assure you, we did not even have the likes of Youtube videos to liven up the monotony of conjugations and verb patterns…

‘It’s the ‘camping’,’ H assured me, hovering just above a comatose state.  ‘We’ve been busy getting everything ready at school…’  His eyes glazed over, the mere effort of one sentence sapped him.  We shelved the grammar, my capitulation inevitable.  I relented, ‘OK, tell me all about it…’

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Being a rather nosy specimen of the human race, I already had a pretty good inkling of what ‘camping Vietnamese-style’ entailed…  Only a day earlier, I had witnessed the transformation of the nearby city square and put out feelers about what exciting event was about to unfold.  Normally a quiet, peaceful area, occasionally frequented by teenage cyclists on their way home from school and early morning or late evening exercise fanatics making ample use of the street-gym-apparatus, that day every corner was beset by youngsters wielding massive bamboo poles and erecting intriguing structures…

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Of course, I enquired about the goings-on at the English Centre where I work.  Surely, someone would be able to give me the low-down and all the details…  ‘Well,’ B in the office started, ‘to be quite honest, I have no idea…  It’s the camping… Something to do with 26th March springs to mind.’  It was a start indeed… Like all good traditions in any country, Wikipedia and the internet probably could shed more light on folklore than the locals who live and breathe it.

Surprisingly, even cyber-space was particularly tight-lipped about this auspicious occasion, but as it transpires, the ‘camping’ is an annual event, celebrated nationwide on or around 26th March to commemorate the inauguration of the Youth division of the Communist Party, in 1931.  Founded and initially led by Ho Chi Minh himself, the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union is the largest social-political organisation of Vietnamese youth.

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Participating groups – either in the town square or in schools – pitch up against each other in exciting and fun-filled competitions, such as building the most spectacular and eye-catching entrance to their tent, hence the bamboo poles…  Cooking skills are also hotly contested and there are even prizes for organizing the most exciting game such as tug-of-war, or possibly even for piggy-backing the girls across the square after performing manly acrobatics on bamboo poles under the watchful eye of Ho Chi Minh himself peering out from the inside of every tent… It is camping after all, and after dark, swarms of teenagers circle campfires whilst singing suitable songs and daring a bit of flash mobbing, and at least some of the lucky  ones will be enjoying a sleepover…  Teenage adventure as it should be.

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Although the origin of the camping event may be largely lost on today’s Vietnamese teenagers, it is clearly one of the highlights on their calendar..  And who can begrudge them the fun, because just like their Chinese counterparts, the burden on Vietnamese students to do well, work hard and even harder, and build a successful future is immense.   More classes after more classes, a diet of relentless studying.

So what if the past simple and present perfect continuous send my students to sleep?? They probably earned and needed the rest….  At the end of the day, grammar or camping?? No contest at all!!

No escaping China’s clutches…

I may well have finished with China last summer, but it appears China has far from finished with me…  Am I famous, or is it more a case of infamy???

Only just about two weeks ago, a friend in Hangzhou sent me a copy of a newspaper article…

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‘Look,’ my friend L. exclaimed, ‘your name is in the newspapers in China!!’

‘Hmmm,’ I replied.  ‘It may well be my name… but it’s clearly your mugshot and your husband’s….’

‘Don’t you fret…  Your mugshot is there!! On that wall…  We’re looking at it.  Just check it out in the left-hand corner..,’ she carried on.  Or did she mean right-hand corner?  The photographs are far too small and far too grainy for me to recognise my own self in them…

Not exactly thinking rationally at the time, and being in the grip of a definite black period in my life, panic ensued at seeing my name – LIEVE LEE – plastered in several places across the paper.  And did I  spot the unmistakable word ‘FAMILY’ in capital letters?  Somehow the only logical connection I could see was to my rather unorthodox exit from China.  I certainly could not recall any grand achievements that would have warranted the attention of the media.  Maybe my agent was pursuing me after all!!  Or maybe the Chinese mafia were trying to get at me via my family in the UK…  What had I been thinking in the summer?  That escaping the past unscathed would just be a plane ride away?  Although granted, a wanted poster usually features the ‘wanted’ person, and not a handful of  nosy loawai staring at some photographs pinned up on a wall…

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‘On the upside,’ a colleague in Vietnam remarked after studying the photograph, ‘there is no mention of a telephone number to get in touch with the police if anyone was to know your whereabouts and decided to report it.’  But was I really sure??  Do the Chinese use the Arabic numerals or do they have their own unintelligible (to the uninitiated…) characters??  I rued my careless decision not to at least acquire a rudimentary grasp of the Chinese language.  Isn’t counting to ten one of the most basic things we learn in any new language???

The problem was that neither my friend L., nor I, learned a single iota of Mandarin during our stay in China.  So how to get a translation and from whom?  A real Catch-22…  Who to trust?  Would they be friend or foe if indeed the article was less than complementary about my exploits on Chinese soil?  Until I could ascertain the content of the article, it was tricky to decide who would be the most appropriate person to approach to translate it…

After a day or two of some head scratching and digging deep into my list of loyal expats in China, I remembered J from the UK…  A man with a bone to pick with his own agent and well aware of the reasons of my sudden departure from China AND with sound contacts whose command of the Chinese language was undisputed.  I sent him the photograph of the newspaper article and was keeping my fingers crossed.

As expected, a man of his word, he put out some feelers and got the gist of the article to me in no time.  Far from me being added to a blacklist or wanted list, it was all a whole lot more innocent.  The article merely related how J, a Taiwanese friend in Hangzhou, came to the rescue when I needed a lift back home from the hospital after my knee surgery…  Funnily enough, whereas my guardian angel at the time was only referred to as an Australian (???) Chinese member of the ‘family’ – the community where I lived – the journalist clearly deemed it entirely appropriate to add my name in full, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding…  Still, it felt good to have the mystery solved.  I could breathe a sigh of relief; I was not ‘wanted’ after all…

No sooner was the issue laid to rest, than more evidence came to light of my lasting impact on China.  A photograph featuring yours truly is being used by a small Hangzhou-based travel company to promote exciting and adventure packed day and weekend trips in and around the area… Although I am of course flattered, I cannot shift the feeling that, as I was on most trips organized by them between last March and last August, they may have struggled to find any suitable photographs that did not star me…

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Personally??  I would have gone for the photograph below.  I much prefer the incognito look. Wanted.  Dead or Alive.

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Vietnam from the sea to the table.

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Living in the provincial town of Quang Ngai, it can be hard to forget that just a few miles beyond the confines of the city a totally different world unfolds.  As in any urban environment, people’s lives in the city seemingly revolve around providing services: coffee shops, restaurants, clothes shops, the wet market and the supermarket, the local hospital just around the corner.  At peak times, on crowded roads, hordes of motorbikes jostle for space with cyclists and cars, and even a few hapless pedestrians as cafes, food carts and street vendors spill out onto the pavements making them impassable.

The sea breeze, emanating from the South China Sea along the Vietnamese coastline, does not reach here to clear the stuffiness of stagnant, stifling air or ease the closeness of the oppressive summer swelter.  Verdant hillocks beckon in the distance, too far to get to by bicycle and, after my e-bike adventures in China, I am not too keen on braving the traffic on a motorized vehicle…  But the beach is only a bike ride away, one hour there and another on the way back.  Thirty-four kilometers of unbridled cycling freedom, whilst the rush of warm air keeps the worst of the heat at bay.   A treat in the cooler winter months, when cloud cover and occasional heavy downpours made for soggy but enjoyable ventures.  These days, bike rides are more likely to coincide with slathering on sun cream, sporting my wide-brimmed hiking hat and, lately, even a long-sleeved shirt.  Better to be safe than sorry; the wise words of my daughter!!!.  The sun can indeed be relentless.

But whilst MY trips to the beach focus on relaxing with a Vietnamese coffee, indulging in Ban Xeo (rice pancakes), dipping my toes in the gentle waves and building sand castles on a whim, the locals are busy making a living from what the sea has to offer.  With a coastline extending to the full length of the country, and plenty of deltas, waterways and lakes inland, it is no surprise that Vietnam’s fishing industry is buoyant.  Not only is the sea exploited to provide much needed protein – sumptuous seafood and fish – to supplement the diet of the local population, Vietnam is also a major exporter of shrimp and other seafood delicacies.   And as is still often the case in the developing world, the work involved is backbreaking and arduous.

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Beaches are littered with fishermen’s paraphernalia.  Of course, there are the usual fishing boats, elongated in their shape with a distinct bow and stern, but circular tub-shaped boats are equally common.  Many of them are equipped with battery-run lighting for nighttime trips out to sea as fishermen take to the deeper waters along the coast to cast their nets.

Later, taking advantage of the force of the incoming tide, two lines of men and women, patiently and laboriously, tiny step by tiny step, draw in the nets from both ends, hauling in the catch.  Groups of villagers, or tourists, flock out of nowhere to inspect or photograph a (hopefully) abundant yield, whilst the workers carefully sort the various species brought ashore ready to be dispatched to fish markets and stalls.  Local housewives or restaurant owners come along to have the first pick of what the tide turned in.

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On another occasion, we watch three people trawl the shallow waters edging the beach.  They plod on slowly and doggedly, dragging an unusual tool just below the sand.  Every now and again, one of them stops dipping a hand under the water as the metal bar at the bottom of their pitched wooden fork clangs.  They are collecting a type of shellfish, buried in the sand just below the sea surface…

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But spare a thought for the makeshift scuba divers, earning their keep by scouring the seabed for shrimp or baby lobster…  We never found out what they were really looking for; a mixture of the obscurity of my photograph and translation problems…  It just seemed a lot of risk for a handful of shrimp…

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Initially my curiosity was piqued by bobbing heads breaking through the waves in the shallower water and the humming of a battery perched on some slippery rocks near the water’s edge.  Attached to the battery was what very much looked like a garden hosepipe, supplying air to one of a team of snorkelers and scuba divers who were locating and collecting the precious seafood.  At least they were kitted out with wet suits and snorkeling masks but it is difficult to underestimate the damage the excessive air pressure must cause to the divers’ lungs…

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Maybe it is befitting to give thanks to the Vietnamese fishermen, as well as the Almighty, for ‘giving us our daily bread’ and seafood….