Girl Meets World
By Ginny Tonkin staff blogger
Girl Meets World is a multimedia look at the sights, sounds, and insights of experiencing a different culture through teaching English as a foreign language.   Read more about this blog.
Posted: December 4th, 2010
No news is good news
We took our students to a bakery for a goodbye party on the last day. Needless to say the cake we had went to good use.

We took our students to a bakery for a goodbye party on the last day. Needless to say the cake we had went to good use.

No news is sometimes good news. But sometimes an update is just long overdue. I’ve already started working, but here’s an overview of the past month:

I have so much to be grateful for during this season of cheer. The CELTA course, which I would recommend to anyone up for a challenge and who’s serious about ESL, was fantastic. I received a Pass B, which is good (only 20% of applicants achieve a Pass B). The majority of our students were university-aged and a handful were middle-aged to older women—all the sweetest people imaginable, all interested in improving their English, which really makes a difference as a newbie teacher.

After the end of the course, a one of the ladies invited us to their hometown to do some charity work in Ben Tre, an outlying area that took us more than two hours out of the city with a group of local university students through a program called JumpStart. Started by a Vietnamese woman, JumpStart focuses on improving the educational opportunities for children in the more rural areas.

One of the Canadian teachers talks with the school kids peaking into the room

One of the Canadian teachers talks with the school kids peaking into the room

We spent the morning playing English learning games at a local school with some of our students, paired with some local HCMC university students and teachers from the Canadian International School. At first I was confused why so many students were flooding the school-yard—did that many students go to one school? I found out later that some of the students rode bikes and paddled up river by boat just because they heard foreign teachers were coming.

Another component of the JumpStart program are child sponsorships. For $45 a year, you can send a Vietnamese kid to school, with a uniform, and medical insurance. We visited a couple of the students sponsored by our Canadian friends. I hope to work with JumpStart again, because they are a well-run local charity.

Unfortunately, charity also happens to be big business in developing areas and places often prey on foreigners with little local knowledge, big guilt, and currency with a favorable exchange rate. This article by NYT columnist Nick Kristoff gives some great ideas for charitable giving during the holiday season.

If you’re interested in getting involved with volunteer work while abroad, do your homework first. While in Phnom Phen, I met with a friend working in an NGO, who recommended this article from the Guardian. He says volunteerism is the new colonialism, and explains how western tourist needs to placate their fleeting guilt in the developing world can lead to get rich quick schemes for the scrupulous who can slap the phrase “NGO” or “charity” to their business. That being said, there are some great opportunities to volunteer while abroad, just please, do your homework before you go.

After the CELTA ended, I decided to take the time to travel a bit more before starting work, a trip that took me to two new destinations in Vietnam and week through Cambodia. A group of four of us went to the small town of Mui Ne to be beach bums for a couple days. From a developing standpoint, Mui Ne is a great case study in the affect of tourism on an area. Just “discovered” ten years ago by tourism, the small fishing village is now a bustling destination, and the main street is lined with resorts to fit any kind of budget.

Mui Ne's sand dunes are just one attraction for tourists.

Mui Ne's sand dunes are just one attraction for tourists.

Resorts line the one, long stretch of highway that is the town of Mui Ne. The fishing village at the end of the point has now become a destination stop-over for tour groups wanting an “authentic” Mui Ne experience before they trot back to a fully-loaded buffet lunch at their resort. Banners from the Miss Earth Competition (another interesting case study on the affects the attention from any kind of “international” competition or conference can have on an area) hung on signs by the newly developed golf courses and above the busier strips of street.

The development tourism brings to Mui Ne is quite incredible; the infrastructure being installed is not only good for business, but well-planned, with an eye for expansion. The road just above Mui Ne, which leads to their now-famed red and white sand dunes, is wide, well lit, and has a row of manicured shrubs in the centerline. The coastal town is also known for its wind sports, and kite surfing is developing as an adrenaline-pumping opportunity for both locals and Australians wanting to start a business with Mui Ne’s unique location. I’ll be interested to see the difference just a year makes for the development of this small town.

After our fun in the sun (I got sunburn after running at 9am, so do be careful about covering up.), a friend and I took the next bus to Da Lat, a famed domestic tourist spot. Known as the land of eternal spring-time, Da Lat was the cool mountain getaway for the French colonials. We spent our time hiking and motor biking, appreciating that we actually had to wear layers to stay warm. Next stop: Cambodia.

This country makes the list of places I’ve always wanted to visit, and I wanted to see if what I heard compared to what I saw. My friend and I needed to stop back in Saigon to catch a bus to Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia. The first thing I noticed after we crossed the border was the lack of trees and infrastructure. Cambodia makes Vietnam look developed in comparison. For example, the big road we were on NH1, the national highway, was built by NGO money, along with the handful of highways that wind their way through the country.

Phnom Phen felt like a relaxing vacation in comparison to HCMC: streets are wider, less crowded, and the Cambodian people really do have the smiling faces the tourist books tout. That being said, there is a dark side to Cambodia, a sinister past with an unknown future. During the terror of the Khmer Rouge, all people who were against the terrorist political group, educated, had glasses, or otherwise opposed the group were brutally executed. This left what my friend calls Cambodia’s “Nascar generation” to pick up the pieces and move forward.

Piling as many people (and things) as possible into a truck is the way to travel in Cambodia.

Piling as many people (and things) as possible into a truck is the way to travel in Cambodia.

The best description I read came from Lonely Planet, describing the country as a promising teenager on the rise: although everybody wants a piece, not everybody is going act in her best interest. The government is horribly corrupt, and certain members still have links to the Khmer Rouge. Although there many NGOs doing good work in the city, sometimes certain groups can just be a revolving door of interns that don’t stay long enough to make an impact for good.

The sex and drug trade is developing, and some tourists seek out Cambodia for the wrong reasons. In the local paper I read that during the Water Festival, sex workers could expect an increase from 20-30 clients a night to 100. My friend described the city as “a Petri dish of filth” during this time, and booked a weekend vacation away from PP. In retrospect after the stampede during the festival, this was eerily, a good idea. The city has a lot of promise, but it just needs the right direction.

That promise comes from the Cambodian youth: 40% of the population is under the age of 15. One of the coolest things I saw in Cambodia was in one of the town squares in PP, rows of youth dancing in synchronized lines.  With just a laptop, power cord, and amplifier, teens watched a leader work his magic of the makeshift dance floor, following him to create lines of synchronized dancing. Anybody could jump in whenever they wanted, and within the one square at least three groups were dancing, albeit to different kinds of music. You’d never see that kind of impromptu community in the United States.

We also visited a few of the famed temples of Angkor, including Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but I feel that trip deserves its own blog post.

Although I loved my time in Cambodia, coming back to Ho Chi Minh City felt like a homecoming, and in a bizarre way, loaded with amenities. Saigon really is more cosmopolitan than I expected while still back home, and a bustling metropolis, especially in comparison to Cambodia. Shuttling back and forth to interviews and schools on the back of a motorbike, I felt for the first time, like I was really a member of the city, part of the breathing mass that is the population of HCMC.

We came home the week of Thanksgiving. In the expat community, suddenly everybody’s celebrating the American holiday, less a time of thanks and more an opportunity to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffets at the big hotels in town. I celebrated Thanksgiving the only way I would have wanted to in HCMC, at a nice Vietnamese restaurant with friends I made from the course. Two Brits, an Aussie, a Pilipino, and me, an American, celebrating Thanksgiving for well under $10 a piece.

I’ve already started working now, something to be very grateful for; however, since it’s exam time for Vietnamese schools, my schedule won’t be finalized for a few weeks.

More photos and videos to be uploaded soon from my trip to Cambodia. Thanks for reading and stay in touch.

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