Dark days for foreign teachers in Vietnam

By Long Nguyen   April 21, 2020 | 09:25 pm PT
A Covid-19 stigma and loneliness add to the woes of foreign teachers who have lost their livelihoods due to the closure of schools.

"No job. Please donate money to buy food. Thank you."

These words, in Vietnamese, were on a piece of paper held up by a British man on a Saigon street last week. He was seeking alms.

John, 53, said he was suffering since he could not earn a living from teaching English as he used to after schools and English centers shut down three months ago.

John, a 53-year-old English teacher in HCMC, holds a placard on a street on April 8, 2020, saying: No job. Please donate money to buy food. Thank you. Photo courtesy of Phong Bui.

John, a 53-year-old English teacher in HCMC, holds a placard on a street on April 8, 2020, saying: "No job. Please donate money to buy food. Thank you." Photo courtesy of Phong Bui.

He is among many foreign teachers facing great difficulties these days. Many had been casual workers paid by the hour, and are now without a livelihood.

For Thomas Evans, this is "one of the toughest periods in everyone's life."

The Briton had traveled around Southeast Asia and returned to Vietnam after the Lunar New Year (in January) to prepare for classes set to resume at the beginning of February. But the closure of his English center meant the man who used to earn around $1,500 a month began to struggle to find a source of income.

He said: "Since March I have been using my savings. I had to ask my landlord to delay my rent payment for April and reduce my spending on food." He is still paying off his student loan.

Many language teachers have tried to teach online, but parents are not willing to pay the full fee for online lessons.

According to Marie Price, an English teacher in Hanoi, most of her friends are okay with the income they earn from online lessons though it is only about a third of the regular fee since "something is better than nothing."

Some are trying other means to earn money.

A British woman teacher posted on a Facebook group for English teachers in Ho Chi Minh City: "Due to the coronavirus situation, I am looking for extra work. I have experience in professional cookery, babysitting and tutoring."

Besides the financial hardship, many are also facing a stigma and ostracism.

Chris Russell, 34, cannot forget how when he walked into a pharmacy on Hanoi's Hang Ma Street recently people looked at him as if he was a zombie.

"They stepped away from me, and the sellers waved me away. I just wanted to buy masks for my girlfriend and me."

Before the semi-lockdown saw all restaurants close, he was also refused permission to enter many of them since people feared foreigners could have brought the infection with them. After all, 160 of the 268 Covid-19 patients in Vietnam so far have been people, both Vietnamese and foreigners, who came from abroad.

"I cause fear because I am white, it is not my fault," Russell said. He only ventures out once every two weeks to "avoid weird looks from people."

Some foreigners in Hanoi carry a placard written in English and Vietnamese saying how long they have been in Vietnam and the last time they left the country.

"I have been living in Hanoi for more than two years and I am not a traveler wandering around with that virus in my body," Isabelle Lee, Russell’s girlfriend and also an English teacher, said.

Many teachers who live alone also lamented they felt increasingly lonely.

Matt Fenton, an American teacher in Saigon's District 7, said he has experienced loneliness and sometimes jealousy toward those who have a partner or family amid the social distancing campaign.

"I cannot see my colleagues or go to my favorite coffee shop. I miss the personal interactions and cannot wait for this ordeal to be over."

Glimmer of hope

The situation has made many people think about leaving for home.

One of Evans's friends returned to the U.K. in March after being jobless for one month.

But then there are travel restrictions and the fear of infection while traveling or in their own hometown.

Evans said: "I was thinking about leaving. I told my landlord and decided to return the apartment at the end of March, but then the country (Vietnam) suspended all international flights."

There was a commercial flight organized by the British embassy on April 14, but it was from Hanoi.

Luke Fraser, a Canadian teacher in the capital, said, "I am thinking about going home, but commercial flights are limited, so I am holding on a little longer."

He started working part-time as a bartender at a bar on Hang Buom Street in March but became unemployed once more due to the stay-at-home orders since the beginning of this month.

A foreigner teaches English to Vietnamese students of an English center at an open park in HCMC. The outdoor class is held every Sunday afternoon. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nguyen.

A foreigner teaches English to Vietnamese students of an English center at an open park in HCMC in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nguyen.

Amid the hullabaloo, for many teachers, visa extension has become another problem.

According to Domicile Corporate Service, Vietnamese authorities temporarily stopped accepting new applications for work permits in March and only approved a limited number of renewals.

Maria, a Philippine teacher in Saigon's District 2, has been fretting for the last few months since her business visa will expire on May 4.

"I was worried, then I paid $300 to a firm to extend my visa, but I do not know if they can do it."

But Maria and many other teachers know that Vietnam offers safety and stability, especially when "there are millions of people who are poorer and facing a more difficult situation amid the pandemic."

Russell said he has made up his mind about staying in Vietnam since the country has been coping well with the novel coronavirus, giving him hope and ease of mind.

"My country has been struggling with this virus. We feel safer in Vietnam. So being jobless for a period of time is somehow acceptable."

Isabelle agreed, adding she felt safe in Hanoi and could not wait for things to return to normal after "this semi-lockdown ends and children can go back to school after the longest spring break they have ever had."

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