Teaching English in Vietnam vs. South Korea

One question that comes up a lot from friends, family, & curious randoms– what’s the difference in teaching/living in Korea & Vietnam? Life here couldn’t be more opposite. Obviously, the massive temperature difference and the luxury of missing out on Korea’s brutal winters is a given. The pace of life, culture, expectations, quality of life, job duties, hours, pay, prices, vacations.. everything is different.

  1. Korea was cushioning. I was taken care of. My life was ready & waiting for me before I even got there. My apartment, my school, students, teachers.. even making friends was taken care of for me in the first week of orientation.
  2. Vietnam = dive into it, holding your breath, crossing your fingers, & hoping for the best & not falling flat on your face. We moved here with a plane ticket, lived in a hostel for a month & busted butts emailing resumes, handing resumes out, interviewing, calling about apartments & motorbikes for sale– it was all on us, no one was here to soften the blow of moving to an Asian country. It made it a hell of a lot more exciting!
  3. I am almost certain that Korean public school students are spawns of Satan. Most Korean kids are in school 8am-9pm or even later, so school is their time for play. A class where you can’t understand your teacher when she is yelling at you is definitely the class you want to play in too. Plus, I didn’t hit the kids with big wooden poles like the Korean teachers  did, so that made my class even more like playtime for the students. Playing baseball, leap frog, gambling in class… you name it and I probably sent a student out for it.
  4. Vietnamese students listen to me. They even respect me! They ask questions, listen intently, and I can safely say I’ve taught at more than 3 schools and have found it to be the same case at all of them. Maybe I’m just lucky, but all of my friends that teach here say the same thing. 90% of my classes have fantastic, attentive students.
  5. The job. In Korea it was 8-5 Monday-Friday, without fail. If the students and other teachers weren’t there, it didn’t matter I would still be sitting there in my cold classroom shivering with no heat on fulfilling my chair warming duties. In Vietnam, the sky’s the limit. I have one friend teaching guitar lessons, I teach US History & Geography in a private school (hurray for a break from grammar!), Rhys teaches American Law at a high school,  some people work nights & weekends at Language Centers. It’s all up to you. Basically choose the hours and days you want to work & find something that fits it. Nothing is set in stone, and things are constantly changing & new opportunities always emerging. If you don’t like your school, quit & go apply at 20 other ones. I guarantee 6 of them will ask you to come in for a interview. For a while my work day in Vietnam didn’t start until 1pm & I only worked 25 hours a week!
  6. Hours. It can be really hard to find a job that allows you to work 30 hours a week. If you are coming to Vietnam to save as much as you can than you need to work around 25-30 hours a week. It’s easy to find teaching jobs hiring for 10-2o teaching hours a week, but finding a steady job that guarantees you 30 hours every week can be very challenging. Don’t get me wrong, you can live on 20 hours a week here no problem. Meals can be 50 cents and a beer 15 cents. But, you won’t save much unless you are working over 25 hours. If you’re planning on moving to Vietnam, understand that it might take you 6 months of searching and picking up random teaching jobs until you find that stable income every week. We moved here expecting 30 hours from the get-go, and found out quickly that wasn’t the case for many teachers. 20 hours a week does allow for plenty of playtime and fun though!
  7. The lifestyle. Life in Saigon is so fast-paced with motorbikes constantly zipping by you and a big travel/backpacking scene that sadly skips over Korea. You either jump on board or get left behind in a city this manic! Saigon is pretty dirty & has poverty everywhere you look. At times I miss Korea’s development with clean street, and technology, and well… nice things to put it plainly. On the contrary that is what makes me love Saigon, the fact that is far from being very developed. It’s underdevelopment compared to other major cities keeps it crazy, fun, and always keeps you guessing. Things in Korea got a little boring from time to time, but life here keeps me on my toes constantly.
  8. We chose our life here. Our life was handed to us in Korea, which was fantastic but it has also been great to pick and choose what we want. I didn’t like my first job in Saigon, so I found another one. We looked at 20 apartments until we found what we felt was home. Freedom.
  9. Show me the money. Korea is a gold mine, it’s no secret.. if you want to make a lot of money go to Korea, Japan, and if you’ve got the experience get to the Middle East. You’ll make a fortune. We make a great wage in Vietnam, especially compared to the CHEAP lifestyle but… I won’t be saving the same kind of money I did in Korea. I’ll probably save $5,000-$9,000 less than I did in Korea. That’s because flights, housing, and bonuses are non-existent for most teachers in Vietnam & everything was paid for us in Korea plus a contract completion bonus. In Korea your school tries to pay you for every little brainless thing you do. Why did we leave that kind of money? Things got boring. I don’t want to make teaching ESL my career & I  moved to Asia to teach as a way to travel. That means leaving good wages in the name of new cultures, new challenges, and new fun. It was time to go, I left Korea while I still loved my life there, another year and I’d have felt suffocated by the conforming lifestyle and Korean culture.
So, comparing teaching in Vietnam to teaching in Korea is like comparing apples to oranges. They are a little bit the same, I am still teaching in English in Asia afterall… but they’re so different that it is an impossible question to answer. I wish I could bring some things from Korea here (like the money  & lack of crime) but also bring things from Saigon (the exciting/CHEAP lifestyle) and combine them into my own country where I could live and teach English forever because nothing would ever piss me off!
24 Responses to “Teaching English in Vietnam vs. South Korea”
  1. Tricia Mitchell says:

    I wish I could save money and only work 25-30 hours a week. Where do I sign up?

    • Nicky says:

      && our friends here complain if they work over 25/week! One girl here works 32 hours a week and everyone thinks she’s some crazy work-a-holic haha. Living the breezy life for sure, do 40hr work weeks still exist?

  2. alexaabroad says:

    “We chose our life here. Our life was handed to us in Korea, which was fantastic but it has also been great to pick and choose what we want. I didn’t like my first job in Saigon, so I found another one. We looked at 20 apartments until we found what we felt was home. Freedom.”

    Absolutely what I’m looking for in my next move! My contract is up next March and I’m ready to drop to company furnished apartment and pre-planned curriculums of Korea 🙂

    • Nicky says:

      Power to you!! Korea is a great platform to get your bearings on teaching and Asian culture… but after a year, moving on to something harder and more of an adventure is definitely a plus! Cuts all complaining too, if you don’t like something than change it 🙂

  3. Kyle says:

    I had a friend who taught English in Korea and had said many of the same things you did, so this comparison was really fascinating!

    • Nicky says:

      Teaching in Vietnam and Korea is soooo different, but both have been incredible experiences that I would recommend to anyone up for an adventure!

  4. Tom says:

    Exciting, that’s Saigon. Things are un-settled here so opportunities are flying out there.
    Though I haven’t been in Korea before, just guessing that the developed environment simply gets me bored like Singapore. Really really nice post here!

    Tom from Saigonstay

    • Nicky says:

      Things here NEVER get boring that is a fact! The “never getting boring thing” really starts to wear on me sometimes!.. it’s always something– especially when cruising around on a motorbike 🙂

  5. I wonder how different it is from teaching in southern Asia and teaching English in Brazil or Colombia or any other South American country. Maybe there may be people who can also compare both situations like what you did between Vietname and Korea.

  6. Anji says:

    Huge contrast! I think an interesting way of discovering the culture of a country is in classrooms. Observing the behavior and mannerism of children can tell you so much about the kind of life they lead! Traveling and teaching is definitely a great combo to learn and explore cultures!

    • Nicky says:

      Our little traveling motto has turned out to be, “Teach to Travel, and Travel to Teach!” Teaching gives a whole new look on a culture, and saving money while traveling and living abroad isn’t to shabby!

  7. George says:

    Hi Nicky,

    Thank you for the excellent overview of the differences in teaching between Korea and Vietnam. I have found this very valuable. My girlfriend and I are considering making a move to Vietnam for exactly the same reason you did– the action. We taught in Korea for a year and found it to be a mixed experience. We had our share of the ups and downs of Korea… I don’t want to get into it but let’s just say it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride (oh… and I disagree with your statement about “lack of crime” in Korea). That said, we found the life there to be incredibly insulated. Not just because you are a social outisder (that’s a different set of problems), but because of the relative security of the situation… the work is piss easy, everything is paid for, society is relatively scripted, teach-eat-drink-drink-drink-sleep etc etc… it’s missing an element of action. I suppose the right word would be “unstimulating.” It’s Asia, but it’s not the right Asia.

    That said, we’re seriously considering Vietnam as a destination. We want the action, we want the autonomy, but we also need to know that it is economically viable. For our personal goals we need to be able to bank a reasonable amount per month. We understand it won’t be the fantastic sums you’ll rack up in Korea, our expectations are adjusted. The money isn’t really the point, we just need to know that there is enough there to make it worthwhile– we don’t want to end up sinking slowly i.e. Thailand. We want an experience that we are able to walk away from with enough dosh to move into the next setup.

    Also, I’m pretty curious about the expat scene. We’re a fairly normal couple with fairly normal expectations for socializing. That said– and pardon my lack of eloquence– we found that of the pile of Westerner’s in Korea at least 66% were freaks of some description. I don’t if it’s the easy money, the promise of oriental women that are dying fr a white guy (like they are dying for a Coach handbag), crazy Asian culture or all of the above, but for some reason we met alot of outcasts. That said, I’ve actually been to HCMC before and found the place to have a fairly lively expat scene. It seems most people out there are in it for the adventure– which is exactly why we went to Korea in the first place. How would you describe the social scene there?

    Any advice you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Basically we’re wondering if the money is enough to live comfortably and bank a few hundred month? Is the social scene solid? Any problems with schools? Any challenges in getting by with locals, Etc etc

    Much respect for the post, I admire your ethos.

    • Nicky says:

      Vietnam is totally different than life in Korea. I am at my year mark here, and the same as in Korea I am getting the itch to leave. Life here is far from mundane like it was in Korea though. Living in a developing nation leads to crazy/funny/’I can’t believe I am doing this’ situations all the time.I explained in the post that teachers can choose their lives here. You find your apartment, your job, and if you don’t like it than quit and find another one. Finding jobs here is definitely not what you need to be worried about. They are a dime a dozen. The tricky part is finding the job that leaves you the hours and the pay you want to make. Most people here work in language centers which operate night and weekends. You’ll work roughly 20-30 hours a week at $20/hour. Life is super cheap. You don’t need much to get by on. I work at an elementary school and have a salary much the same as Korea and can budget my savings that way. There is a huge expat scene with every sport available to play and an endless list of bars and restuarants to make you feel as if you escaped Vietnam and went home while you’re there.There are hundreds of problems with schools, and then there are hundreds of schools that are great. You have to find the one that works for you, every school is different. Hope this helps, if not shoot me an email via our contact page! I don’t mind answering all of your questions, I was buzzing with them before we made the big jump and moved here. Safe travels.

  8. George says:

    Hi there guys!
    I’m know in Korea and planning to visit Danang. Is there any job opening websites in English you guys know about besides craigslist?
    thanks a million!

    • A list of schools can be found here (http://eslvietnamzone.com/download-page/). I made the list 3 years ago … so, some of the schools might not exist now. It is written in Vietnamese language but all you need is the address then go there with your CV/resume. Don’t send email, you won’t get any answer. Be aware that most of the teachers in Vietnam work without having a working contract. However, more information about ESL environment in Vietnam can be found at http://eslvietnamzone.com

      The article is great but is hard for me to believe that you can eat with 50 cents (maybe at those restaurants on the streets which I highly recommend to be avoided). I came to Vietnam 7 years ago and everything WAS cheap. Now it is not a cheap country anymore. To be better understood, I am giving you an example: gas price in 2005 was 9000 vnd (my salary was $15/hour …. gas price in 2012 is 22000 vnd (my salry is $15/hour). Well paid salary offered by serious schools can be found but it is not easy.

  9. CJ says:

    Hi there! Have been researching and thinking of TEFLing in Saigon for a while now and found this article greatly informative with a new slant to the others, thanks! My main concern is employer expectations, if anyone could fill me in i’d be eternally grateful. I have a 2.1 History BA, no criminal record and am not heading out to Nam to drown in drugs or shack up with local hookers (!), but i’m coming off the back of 18 terrible months where nothing seemed to go right for me, i dont wish to bore anyone but esentially my confidence is low and am concerned if i take the plunge that i might fail to deliver good enough lessons. i’ve done 100hrs with i-to-i (on-line certificate) but the classroom cert was about a yr ago and am concerned the fact i m a newbie teacher with no practical experience might derail my ability to sustain the trip. I have the price of a ticket and about £1200, would this be enough? If anyone could shed some light on what the expectations/assistance are for new teachers, that’d be great…i’m a quick learner but, as i’ve said, my confidence is just a little shot at the moment but feel a change of scenery would greatly help my mindset, as travelling se asia was the happiest i’ve ever been. Hope you’re all well, many thanks!

    • Hi CJ
      You might want to try doing CELTA in Saigon offered by ILA Vietnam. As I know they DO hire those who complete the CELTA certificate with them. The salary is about $18 an hour (this is what my friends told me). I can give you some other suggestions not that well paid but still good to get some teaching experience and get use with the environment

  10. CJ says:

    no idea where the post went but cheers to George from Vancouver for the reply – have sorted my CRB application and am looking into VISAs as i write… – have met a few quality ppl from Vancouver, and maybe come June/July i ll take you up on that frosty Beer Saigon! Hope your trip goes smoothly and thanks once again for the advice and encouragement – take it easy and hopefully see you on the ground

  11. I’ve taught only in Korea which makes me specifically interested in this post 🙂 I’m very keen to try teaching elsewhere for a new challenge.

  12. JD says:

    Dear Nicky or Jenny,

    Holy Cow, first let me say that I’ve learned more on Asia TEFLing from a few posts in your blog than from a hundred other sites. Thanks so much!! You guys really seem to have a great attitude and sense of adventure. I am thinking seriously about teaching in Korea. I have a few questions if that is OK.

    *You mentioned in an older post that no TEFL certification is required but things might be changing in that direction. It’s been about a year since the post – do you know if that is the case? I know you may not be up on the latest there since you are in Vietnam. In your experience and the TEFLs you know, what about certification in general in Asia – necessary in your experience?

    *Do schools care that much what type of cert you have, ie quick-and-easy versus pricier 100 hr course?

    *I’d think I’d lean towards teaching in a public school. But public or hakwon – in lieu of TEFL certification do graduate degrees get you anything (ie decent pay without cert, decent pick of schools)? I have a law degree and law experience an MBA in International Management. Do those make me a more attractive candidate or does only teaching experience matter? I have no TEFL experience other than helping teach a few classes with fellow US Peace Corps volunteers who were TEFLs.

    Again, thanks for the blog. It’s so refreshing to hear someone’s real experiences delivered with a sense of joy and enthusiasm. A person can tell that you both really enjoy travel and new experiences.

  13. Klue_Sedgrib says:

    I have taught in Korea for one year, i now have a better offer from a public school ( more holidays, less work etc) however i have an offer from language link in Hanoi. Money is not as good in Vietnam but im torn between a new experience and easy money maker Korea.

  14. George says:

    I’m the same George that posted back in January. I am here in HCMC with the missus. Both of us have been to Korea, and so far….

    …we absolutely love Vietnam!

    I was underwhelmed by Korea, in my opinion the only redeeming factors are: 1) the cash (it’s good), and 2) the food. I have many friends that stayed on in Korea, perpetually trapped there because of the recurring “better offers” they predictably receive annually. These are exactly the guys you will see in Korea that have woken up and realized 4 years have got behind them. The fact of the matter is that many have hit the glass ceiling there but are held hostage by the stupifyingly low money/work ratio… nowhere else in the world will you be a university professor with a BA in art history!

    So… They have a good deal going, but they are wearing a pair of golden handcuffs.

    Vietnam has been amazing so far! You will not earn as much dosh but there is exponentially more to experience here. The country is beautiful, the people are relatively open minded (CANNOT say that about Korea), food is good (Korean debatably better), and life can be as cheap or cosmopolitan as you wish (in SGN at least). My school is pretty good, we work aboutn24 hours a week for just under 20 an hour. Of course we don’t save as much as in Korea because we pay rent and all expenses (on that note, our house here is miles better than our k-land “one room,” garden terrace ahoy). That said, this place is way more fun; way more free. Last thing I would mention is that in SGN there are loads of expats and social,opportunities. Korean social life is very much determined by geography, which, like many things there, you do not choose. You end up with whoever happens to be around.

    In summary, if you need cash, Korea is your winner. If you are somewhat concerned that you may die without ever having really lived, Vietnam hands down.

    Dunno if this will work but CJ if you get this, let’s go get some 50 cent beers.

  15. Nikki says:

    Hi guys,

    Just fantastic getting to read all about your experiences – I’m considering leaving New Zealand and doing the trip to Vietnam in January – its my understanding that I will need to do an online TSOL course beforehand and they will provide me with my initial placement. My question to you is, as a 22 year old female traveling alone on this adventure, how dangerous is it in reality? I also plan to bring my video camera and audio gear with me and do a documentary – is this sort of equipment likely to be targeted if I was using it out and about?
    Thanks for your insight 🙂

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