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The Soul of Saigon: Teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Written by: Gabriela Fernandez
Last Updated: April 22, 2021
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly (and famously) known as Saigon and abbreviated as "HCMC", is the largest city in Vietnam and one of the most dynamic and engaging cities in Southeast Asia. Known for its old French colonial charm, and its central role in the Vietnam War, HCMC was once famous as a city of intrigue immortalized in Graham Greene's legendary novel The Quiet American.
Today Ho Chi Minh City represents the new Vietnam, a young energetic nation that has left the wars and conflicts of the past behind and is open to the world after decades of conflict and isolation. For nearly two decades, Vietnam has boasted one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the world and cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are now teeming with upscale automobiles, grand shopping malls and endless construction that stands astride ancient pagodas and French colonial palaces and villas.
Vietnam: One of the Top Job Markets for Teaching English in Asia
Huge growth in international trade and tourism have combined to make Vietnam one of the largest job markets for teaching English abroad in the world, and within Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh city is by far the largest job market. Those interested in teaching English in Vietnam will discover a wide array of opportunities to work with both younger students and adults, and due to the low cost of living (monthly rent in a furnished apartment is typically $200 - $400 a month), most English teachers in Vietnam can make enough to save the equivalent of $400 - $600 (USD) a month after expenses. Earning a TEFL certification is key as most schools will not hire prospective teachers who do not have an accredited certification and you may not get a work visa without one either.
The Fascinating History of Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City is now home to more than 9 million people and represents a major center of Vietnamese culture, but it was originally settled and built as a port by the Khmer civilization, based in what is now Cambodia (the Khmers built the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat). In fact, according to Vietnamese legend, the territory encompassing Ho Chi Minh City was ceded to Vietnam as part of a dowry for marriage of a Vietnamese princess to a Khmer Prince. In reality, the region was taken under Vietnamese control in the 1690s through political and military force. The French made Saigon a center of their colonial efforts and the city became a major center of commerce (largely dominated by the local Chinese community) endowed with beautiful boulevards and French colonial architecture. For much of the 20th century it was a focal point of rebellion and conflict and even after Vietnamese nationalist leader, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam in 1945 after the Japanese defeat at the end of World War II, Vietnam and Saigon remained in a state of war for 30 more years. When the government of South Vietnam fell in 1975 and Vietnam became reunited and independent for the first time in more than a century, the city was renamed to honor nationalist leader and founding father of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.
Today the former Saigon is one of the most vibrant cities in Vietnam; everything is changing fast and it's a metropolis on the move. Khmer, Chinese, French and American influences can all be felt, but the identity of Ho Chi Minh City is proudly and distinctly Vietnamese. Here, millions of motorbikes swerve past old pagodas, French colonial villas, and sparkling new skyscrapers.
If you are considering living and teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, here are some highlights that you do not want to miss while you’re teaching English in this fantastic country...
Jade Emperor & Khanh Van Nam Vien Pagodas/strong>
Built during the fist half of the 20th century these beautiful Taoist pagodas stand as testaments to Ho Chi Minh City's historic Chinese heritage. Like many countries throughout Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City specifically, has historically been home to a substantial Chinese population (until the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 led to the exodus of most).Through invasion and trade, nearly all elements of Vietnamese culture, from language and religion to cuisine, have been strongly influenced by China and in Saigon, the local Chinese population played an important role in local commerce and trade for generations. A visit to these pagodas not only provides great insight into Chinese influence in Vietnam, but also a peaceful and welcome refuge from hustle and bustle of the surrounding streets.
Ben Thanh Market
To test your bargaining skills and explore one of HCMC's most historic institutions, head to the frenetic Ben Thanh Market. Here you can find virtually everything under the sun from tourist souvenirs like Ho Chi Minh t-shirts, to fresh flowers, fantastic produce and live seafood, including frogs! Built in 1912 (the market itself dates to the 19th century), the current building is a classic remnant of the French colonial age. If you plan on shopping, particularly for souvenirs, bargaining is a must if you don't want to overpay for that lacquer box or silk scarf that you plan on taking back home to your mom.
Once home to the President of the Republic of Vietnam - commonly known as "South Vietnam," when the nation was divided during the Vietnam War - Reunification Palace is place that seems frozen in 1975. Renamed by the Communist forces after they took the city and reunified Vietnam in 1975, it has been converted into a museum to commemorate the Communist victory and reunification. The furnishings, decor, and even the electrical appliances have been left intact, providing a great look at the taste in style of South Vietnamese elites in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The War Remnants Museum
If you want to discover the Vietnam War with your own eyes, this is the place to go. For Americans, the Vietnam War represented a transformational and painful historical experience that shaped a generation and still influences American policy. For the Vietnamese, the war - known as the "American War" - represents the last phase of a 50 struggle for independence against the Japanese, French and Americans. It also divided Vietnam itself at massive cost. This museum is particularly fascinating for those who have always seen the conflict through American eyes as it presents the war from the distinct perspective of the North Vietnamese Communists and their South Vietnamese comrades (commonly known as the Viet Cong).
Dong Khoi Street & District One
The past and the future of Ho Chi Minh City come together in the downtown District One, a primary center of shopping, nightlife and dining. This is the place to experience the booming Vietnamese economy as you explore the area's luxury hotels, buzzing boulevards, inviting restaurants and popular night clubs. Take a stroll along Dong Khoi Street and you will also enjoy an opportunity some of the city's most famous and historic landmarks, including the old French Opera House, and the Rex and Cosmopolitan hotels where journalists, military officers and intelligence agents would mingle,plot and congregate during the height of the Vietnam war.
District One is a also a perfect locale to experience many of Vietnam's greatest culinary treats. From a world class cup of coffee to a streetside bowl of pho noodle soup, Vietnam is known for producing some of Asia's tastiest food and beverages.
Undoubtedly this is a city when the modernity meets its past and there are thousands of places to discover, to learn and enjoy. These are just the highlights of what you can find in Ho Chi Minh while teaching English in Vietnam.
Gabriela Fernandez is a passionate traveler, journalist, writer and political scientist with extensive international experience working as a broadcaster, writer and actress for television channels, radio stations and magazines across the globe. With a Master's Degree in International Development & Cooperation, she has explored cultures and cuisines the world over while traveling to 6 continents, more than 20 countries and hundreds of cities worldwide.
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