English Teaching in Asia leads to lots of good stuff

Learning to give and take, that's one of the things American expat Sam has learned from living in Asian countries like Vietnam. The lifestyle sacrifices he has had to make have been more than compensated by the beneficial, interesting, and eye-opening daily occurrences he has experienced since moving to Vietnam. Read on for more of what expat life in ever-awake Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is like for this American businessman.
Sam Brier, director of AEA-Asia
Sam Brier
-Where were you born?

Houston, Texas, USA

-In which country and city are you living now?

Saigon, Vietnam

-Are you living alone or with your family?

With my wife

-How long have you been living in Vietnam?

8 months this time

-What is your age?


-When did you come up with the idea of living in Vietnam?

I've lived in many Asian countries since graduating university but had only visited Vietnam. When I got married (my wife was born in Saigon), a part of the deal (IE- it was something I wanted to do) was that we'd move to Saigon for a year or two, or several months a year for me to study Vietnamese, develop aspects the study abroad business here, and explore other opportunities together. Since she's bilingual and has family here, we figured this would be the best place for us to make things happen.

We had both been to Saigon a few times (separately and together), but we spent 2 months here on a test run to feel it out and see if we wanted to move back for a longer stay. That went well, so we rented out our house in the US and made the move.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

Easy as pie for US citizens. The Vietnamese embassy in DC is prompt with email replies, which is important since the information on their website is pretty outdated.

If you're planning to move here for more than a month, and you're coming direct from the US, I'd recommend getting a visa on arrival through a Vietnamese travel agency. They can arrange a 3 or 6-month multiple entry business visa for about $80 and $120. They will email you a letter that you show at the airport on check-in and someone will meet you at the airport upon arrival; you pay in cash there. It's a great, hassle-free service. Each time you extend these visas, they get a little cheaper, and if you're in country, it's cheaper. They also have a one-year visa now for about $250 or so.

If you're coming from China or another country in Asia, it is usually cheaper to get your visa there, but it depends on the country.

These days there are lots of websites that are legit that get you a visa on arrival. That's the cheapest and best way to go in my opinion.

Since my wife was born here, she can get a 5-year visa, but we're still exploring that option.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

I don't have to tell Americans that medical insurance is expensive, and from experience they don't usually pay for services rendered overseas without a fight. There are other options worth exploring that cover you overseas, but not in the US. In Vietnam, we've been meaning to look into a Vietnamese company called Bao Minh. Bupa is supposed to be pretty good as well. And there are others, like TieCare and CareMed. Healthcare is so much cheaper, and often better in Thailand, than in the US, that we will probably end up getting a coverage that takes care of us in Asia and get rid of our costly US coverage the next time we come here for an extended stay.

-How do you make your living in Vietnam? Do you have any type of income generated?

I am the director of a study abroad business called Academic Experiences Abroad (AEA-Asia). www.aea-asia.com. We develop customized programs & logistics to Asia for university groups. I'm based part of the year in Asia (recently in Saigon) improving and expanding our services in Asia, and part of the year in the US when I need to be on the same time zone as my clients regularly.

My wife has had many job offers that she has found through friends and acquaintances she's made while here. It helps that she has many years of experience working in American companies and that she is bilingual. She has also had some luck with online job boards. She contacted one company that didn't have a job posting for her, per se, but she inquired, went in for three interviews, and they created a position for her.

-Do you speak Vietnamese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?

I've studied the language everywhere I've lived, and I highly recommend it. Vietnamese is by far the most difficult Asian language I've studied, but at least it has a Roman alphabet, which makes reading and writing easier than most other Asian languages. If you have a background in Cantonese, it should be easier than it would be for others.

I study about 4.5 hours a week with a private tutor who meets me at a quiet coffee shop near my house for 1.5 hours each lesson, three times a week. It's cheaper than taking a group class, and more rewarding.

My wife and I have finished a Vietnam phrasebook that will be coming out in 2011. The title is Instant Vietnamese, and Tuttle is the publisher.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?

Having lived abroad so much of my adult life, I am surprised that I am actually looking forward to returning to the US for the first time in my life. I think there are reasons though that had not applied to me in the past:

  1. having a nice, comfy home and garden to return to;
  2. the air and noise pollution in Saigon is pretty severe, so we're looking forward to our serenity spell in the US where we can exercise outdoors and relax with a book in the park; and 
  3. it will be good to see my clients and be on the same time zone as them- IE when it's 5pm, the office shuts rather than opens.

We have wonderful family and friends, and it's always good to see them when we are in the US, but that's not a reason to stay in one place. We stay in touch through chatting, FB, Skype, etc., just as we'll do with the new friends and family that we make during our stay in Vietnam this time around.

-Do you have other plans for the future?

We're always planning, even though plans always change. It goes without saying that we'll be back in Asia for extended stays for work and exploration. With so many friends living around the world now, we plan to visit a few that have moved to different countries in the US and Africa, among other places.

One of my goals is to offer great internships through AEA to students wishing to gain work experiences in Asia. We have a couple in Thailand and China, and hope to start offering a few in Vietnam and Cambodia.

On another note, we are avid members of www.couchsurfing.com and we plan to stay active members no matter where we travel to or live. It's the best way to meet people and change the world that I've come across. Plus, you can stay with people for free all over the world.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

All sorts of rental options are available in Saigon, from $150 shared to as much as you can afford for private.

-What is the cost of living in Vietnam?

As others have mentioned, Saigon has very good food for very cheap prices. Some of my favorite meals are less than $1 and are sold on the street around the corner from our house. My wife uses a cup of coffee as her Big Mac Index. The best coffee I've ever had is sold in a gorgeous café near our house for about $1. Of course, you can spend $3-4 at a fancy café in the center of the tourist district.

So, in Saigon, you can spend as little or as much as you want. Housing tends to be the most expensive part of anyone's lifestyle here, although if you eat at expensive restaurants and drink a lot of alcohol, your money can evaporate rather quickly.

Transportation is cheap. We have a motorbike that we fill up once a week for about $3. When we don't want to ride, we take a taxi for about $4 into town, each way. Short rides are about $1 in a taxi, and motorbike taxis are about half the price of a taxi most of the time, but that varies according to many factors, including your ability to bargain.

-What do you think about the Vietnamese?

As in most countries, most foreigners are treated quite well by the locals here, but if you're staying in the main tourist area, of course you have to expect strange encounters from time to time. In general, Vietnamese are warm and welcoming and genuinely interested in you.

More Vietnamese can speak English than in the past, which is helpful if your Vietnamese skills are lacking.

If you spend a lot of time in the markets, you'll hear some angry tirades from some of the women in there arguing; and if you speak Vietnamese well enough, you're bound to hear some pretty ugly comments from time to time, but I don't think that's unusual in any country.

What is unusual, coming from the US, is how safe Asia is, and Saigon is no exception - aside from the traffic.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Vietnam?

On the ups, we've got great food, a city that never sleeps, wonderful places to visit not far away (including most of Asia), and a very easy/comfortable lifestyle.

The downers are the noise and air pollution; the lack of areas to ride bikes or go on hikes near town; and the guilt that you might feel by living such a good life while so many others have it so rough.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Vietnam?

Bring earplugs, a soft pillow and lots of patience. We have to make sacrifices living in different parts of the world, and living here, you sacrifice the quiet, the clean air, the variety of talks, events and things to do for the excitement of living in a place that never sleeps, for the amazing choices of excellent food and drinks, for the affordable cost of living, for the friends you'll make from around the world, for the experiences you'll have each day that you'll never have at home, and for the sheer opportunity that presents itself on a daily basis.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Vietnam?

My company's website is www.aea-asia.com. On it we have blog with useful links for people who are traveling to, living in and learning about different parts of the world. Some of those links are below:

Blogs change all of the time, but I like http://saigon-today.blogspot.com/, a photo blog. The guy has been pretty consistent for a long time. If you want to see some photos I took while there for a few months, check out http://saigon24.blogspot.com/

Just in case you missed it above: www.couchsurfing.com. It's going to change the world and you can be a part of it.

could i do it?

john seaabrook's picture

i am a very bored 42 year old single man,i have done it here,got the t shirts and drank the beer,i am so looking for a new way to live,i am educated to o level standard,i am polite,honest and hard working,do you or does any body feel that i could get on a plane,go to vietnam and get an english teaching job just like that? i would love to know if any body has been in a similar situation to what i am in now and gone out there and done it? could it really be done?could it really be done?

living in Saigon...

bkbbowling's picture

Yes it can be done. I am an American living here in Saigon with my Vietnamese wife and our son. I teach english from our apartment. I know I could make more working for one of the many english schools here but I prefer teaching at home to small groups of students. Mostly two students in each class. We are not rich by any means but I make enough for us to live a pretty comfortable life. Things are alot cheaper here than back home in America that is for sure. And here in Saigon they do have some american fast food places whenever you miss home. There are many great things about living in a place such as Vietnam that is so different from our own country but like Sam says you have to bring some patience. It is noisy and polluted and the traffic is downright insane. If you drove like that in America you would probably spend a few years in prison. It seems they have absolutly no fear of death here. But other than that each day is an adventure and I have made many friends here.


Candice Boulton's picture

My boyfriend is Vietnamese-Korean and currently working in Vietnam. I've been teaching in South Korea for 10 years now and would love to join my boyfriend in Vietnam. He, however, is quite concerned that the weather would be too harsh and the working conditions too poor. He is right in wondering about me when it gets hot. I don't handle it too well...but the benefit of being in the same country outweights the inconvenience of weather. As for work...what are the possibilities for a teacher like me who's sole experience in teaching English has been in Korea?

Bored Housewife

jakimadely's picture

I am living in Vung Tau Vietnam which is an hour and a half by ferry from Saigon. I was wondering if anyone might have any ideas of how to spend my time, when back home in the Uk I had a full time job in retail and other activities gym walking and meeting up with friends and family so things are now alot different for me, can't drive and the weather is far too hot for walking don't want to spend all my time lunching and coffee mornings. I go to the gym and have just started Vietnamese lesson which are very hard other than that not alot. I am more a person for doing activities but just haven't a clue what or how to get started. Hope there is someone who can give me some ideas

John- sorry for the late

SamB's picture

John- sorry for the late response, but if you haven't decided what to do yet, yes, you can fly to Saigon, or pretty much anywhere these days, enroll in a TESOL course, and after a couple of months, get a job teaching. You can also start teaching out of your apartment or house that you rent. You can also look at http://www.eslcafe.com/joblist/ to see what they have to offer. It's a job site. It may be best to arrange your job before you get there if you're worried about things. I've done it both ways. There are many options. Don't let age or language get in the way. If you want to do it, you can do it. But you can't do it from the US.

Hi Candice, sorry for the

SamB's picture

Hi Candice, sorry for the late response! Are you still in Korea? If you have a teaching cert, it's easier to get a good job than without. But either way, with your experience, you'd have no problem finding a job. There are many options. Have a look at http://www.eslcafe.com/joblist/ to get an idea of what's out there. If nothing else, just go and figure it out from there. As you said, it's better together.

Hi Jaki: Viung Tau has the

SamB's picture

Hi Jaki:

Viung Tau has the beach! Haha. Just kidding. I imagine it is boring out there. I think you've started along the right path, with the gym and the language lessons. You might want to check out the Anphu list serve in Saigon. I know it's far from you, but there may be others on the list who are out there or who post things that you can get ideas from: anphuneighbours@googlegroups.com

I imagine there are other ladies living out there in a similar situation? Get them together and start a few groups to keep from going mad. Finding a hobby is really important, or start a business. When I lived in Lao, I only worked about 10 hours per week and got pretty bored even though I had a lot of friends. So I started working on a Lao language learning book with a Lao friend. Then I wrote another one. They were both published- after looking very hard and waiting several years! But it kept me busy :)