Being Trained in Vietnam
Sezgi Yalin, Turkey
Sezgi Yalin earned her MA in teaching English as a foreign language at the University of
Illinois in Chicago. She holds a BA in Journalism and English Literature. She worked as
an English teacher and teacher trainer in US and Poland, and also gained experience in the
same field in countries such as Spain, Egypt, China, Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam and Turkey.
Now, she works as CELTA trainer at the English Preparatory School of the Eastern
Mediterranean University in North Cyprus. Her research interests are teacher training and
My love for lotus flowers is now even stronger than before. And that is not because
my students in Tibet named me Pe Ma Kadro – the lotus flower which feels. It is
rather because I am so impressed by how much this beautiful flower has penetrated
lives in Vietnam, if not in other parts of the world.
“We used to make noodles out of the petals when we were kids,” says Chau, one of
my Vietnamese teacher trainees. We are riding her moped back after visiting a lotus
farm on a hot and sunny day in Hanoi, where I spend about a month working as a
teacher trainer on a Cambridge University teacher training course called CELTA at
International House (IH), more commonly known in Vietnam as the Apollo Education
and Training Centre.
The giant green oval leaves seem inviting, and not just to children, offering to take
you into their bosom for a ride on the waters of the many lotus farms in Hanoi. You
might even wish you were rocked or sung a lullaby to, on such welcomingly
And their flowers in white and pink – who would not want a garden of these giant
sensual flowers gliding over the surface of a pond like swans?
The lake in the neighborhood where Chau and her family live used to be home to
these flowers. Now, it is nothing but a plain lake with a bomb, dropped by the
Americans during the 8-year-long Vietnam War, on the bottom.
“We would roll the lotus petals into tiny snails and place them into bowls,” Chau
continues telling me about the lotus noodles and I try to listen to her as closely as I
can through my motorcycle helmet and the various noises coming from all directions.
“We would then role-play – one of us would be a customer and the other the
salesperson,” says Chau as I try to imagine a bowl full of pink and white noodles
made of lotus petals.
Another game Chau used to play was when she became her sisters’ teacher during the
summers and taught them physics and mathematics, using their wardrobe door as a
blackboard. Her passion for teaching started then, and she is now a 28-year-old
university teacher with an extremely high grade from the CELTA course.
“Since then, I have known that role-playing is very important for communicative
teaching,” jokes Chau, reminding me of my many suggestions to incorporate role-
playing into lessons.
Chau also played with dolls, Vietnamese as well as others her uncle sent her from
Switzerland. As I look at her, I can just imagine the kind of smile she must have had
as she played with dolls. With the same smile, she drops mussels, squid, and fish into
the boiling sauce in a pot in the middle of a table at one of her favorite hot pot
restaurants in Hanoi. We are the only lunch customers on this hot day, and our
waitress happens to be Chau’s sister who works here when not studying and helps out
her boyfriend’s family who owns the restaurant. She is only 21 but she is certainly
going to get married to her high school sweetheart. His family likes her very much
and cannot wait till she marries their son.
When we are on Chau’s moped in the old town of Hanoi earlier that morning, I try to
imagine bicycles instead of millions of mopeds choking the streets. Chau confirms
that there were only mostly bicycles in the streets before Vietnam opened its doors to
the rest of the world in the late 1980s.
“Feel like ice-cream?” Chau asks, unable to hide her own desire to have one, and
takes me to the ice-cream parlor of her childhood. This is not your traditional ice-
cream parlor. Imagine the vendor at the end of a long wide corridor, which you enter
on your moped (or bike in the old days). You buy your green sticky rice ice cream
and go back to your moped parked inside the parlor. Young and old couples,
students, all sitting or leaning back on their bikes, enjoy a chilled scoop of coconut
flavored ice cream or a cone with green bean flavor. This place, like so many others
that Chau has taken me to over the last few days, is one of the many that Hanoians
would go out of their ways to visit.
“Any lotus flower flavored ice-cream?” I ask Chau, jokingly. They would simply
have to use the sweet juice produced from the seeds to make ice cream, I think.
Really delicious juice… The first time I tasted it and ate the giant, chickpea-like
seeds bought from a street vendor, I was accompanied by Ha, the teacher training
administrator at International House, where lotus flowers fill the big vase on the
And of course, my mind jumps back to the day when Chau took me to eat lotus roots
flavored with cilantro and lemon grass. Everything reminds one of the lotus, as do the
many street vendors who use the leaves to wrap the sticky rice instead of placing it in
The lake in my neighborhood park where I take a walk each night is not only teeming
with tiny silver fish feeding on tiny flies crowding the surface of the dirty green
mossy water, but also proudly exhibits white lotus flowers—not quite yet in bloom
but ready to burst, their giant heads sticking out of the water.
Around the same lake, people of all ages and of all walks of life jog, run, or stride at a
fast pace in spite of the soaking humidity on the clearly designated paths under the
green tropical trees. In other parts of the park, a group of over 30 women, young and
old, do aerobics to the rhythm of Vietnamese pop songs, very dynamic and energetic.
They seem to be aware of the survival of the fittest in life.
I try to survive too during my short lunch break in our office at school. I quickly eat
my golden and crispy fried silk worms scattered over white rice and dark green leaves
of morning glory. Ha, the teacher training administrator, has brought my ‘rice bowl’
(as she calls it), as usual, with a sweet grin on her face. She buys it right at 12
o’clock—the strict lunch time in Hanoi—from a street vendor. She enjoys the fact
that I like Vietnamese food, especially of the street kind, and she is even happier
today as I have asked for silk worms. As if they were salty peanuts, they explode into
tiny bits in my mouth, even tastier with a small snowball of rice.
A knife hacks as sharply, slicing through a thick bunch of slender green onions on one
of the main arteries of Hanoi. I go through it every day, on my way to the school.
The vendor’s survival depends on how many green onions she is able to put into the
bowls of soup she serves the passers-by. All of her life, perhaps, she has been making
soups and chopping green onions—when she was young, and then as she got older,
and now that she is old, perhaps forever... onions, onions, onions—in the one of the
corners of Vietnam.
In another corner, I sit in the dim lights of Passion Café, one of several on the street
where I live in Hanoi and remembering the sweet taste of the passion fruit juice I
drank the night before at a restaurant by the Hoan Kiem Lake with my German friend
Marco. A short palm tree in the garden of the same restaurant decorated with white
Christmas lights is firmly holding on to the soil feeding it. The lake itself is hugged
by mighty tropical trees, some ready to dive into its waters, the most beautiful ones
being the tall and slim weeping willows, changing the mood of their surroundings and
allowing their delicate long thin branches to weep their sorrows into the water.
The smile on Marco’s chiseled face, away from any type of sorrow, is as sweet and
detached as that of our waiter. The tip I leave is worth less than a dollar. “Will this
help him survive?” I wonder. Probably, somehow, I conclude. My thoughts take me
back to Marco’s account of a small village he visited about a month before in China
and of how his emotions flared when faced with the poverty there. Marco rapidly
transmits mental pictures to me: first, a boy on a water buffalo, then, a little girl
becoming ecstatic when given a single one-dollar bill, and then, a restaurant menu in
Germany—more than enough choices on it, and, in his wallet, more than one dollar to
spend on more than one dish, if his heart desires.
When presented with a variety of choices, what my heart usually desires is fresh hot
French baguettes, donuts, chocolate muffins, sliced white bread, all arranged on large
silver trays in a bakery on the same Hanoian main street I walk twice a day.
Like the ice cream parlor, this bakery is also a ride-through (or park-through)
business. Some, if not most, Hanoians must do this on a daily basis for there may be
no other option for breaking the monotony: park the motorbike, choose a pastry, pay,
rush back home, share and eat, survive one more day.
The backpackers on the boat Marco and I take to go to Ha Long Bay are all after
survival, too—a bit different than the survival of the bakery customers or soup
vendors on the streets of Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay proudly exhibits its beautiful limestone peaks, perhaps hundreds of
them scattered in the middle of the South China Sea in Northern Vietnam like green
and gray emeralds on the dirty green waters. Slowly, with the group of backpackers,
we travel into one of the hearts of this picture perfect design of limestone peaks. The
silence engulfing us is every so often broken by the conversations in Australian, New
Zealand, Canadian, and American English. There is not much room for
Vietnamese or the quiet language of nature. Mostly in their 20s, these people are on
the holy trail of backpackers, and the conversations mostly revolve around the
previous or the next destination, the kinds of beer to be drunk, and the ‘fun stuff’ soon
to be planned.
Not much attention is paid to the Vietnamese serving us on the boat—the captain and
his crew who are as jaded. Each day of their life, they are probably imprisoned or
liberated by the millions of tourists that flock to this beautiful area of Vietnam. The
usual Vietnamese smile does not seem as sincere on their faces and they respond
with less than enthusiasm to my attempts to start a conversation with them or my
efforts to use my limited Vietnamese.
“What does life mean to you?” I ask Marco, disappointed by the limited conversations
of the backpackers.
“To breathe, to eat, to sleep...” he answers with no hesitation.
“So, to survive? To survive only?”
“Yes,” he responds with the same sharp certainty.
The next day, I watch Ha, our administrator of teacher training, having an enjoyable
and serene time arranging her newly bought country flowers of crimson red. They are
tall and slim and very simple, like a reflection of Ha herself. Pure satisfaction and
happiness she draws from each flower, as she loses herself in each everlasting
moment of placing them in a tall instant coffee jar.
Ha has been working at the International House for two months only, and makes
about 300 dollars a month.
“We cannot find these kinds of flowers anymore in Hanoi,” Ha points out. The
simplicity of country flowers has been replaced in Hanoi by giant lotus flowers,
orchids, and roses.
“My previous job at a state university was very stressful,” she explains how she is
now happier. “There was never free time,” she adds. And probably she earned even
less, I think.
As we eat our lunch, this time not in the office but at a hole-in-the-wall diner, and as I
enjoy my pumpkin leaves with tofu, shrimp and tiny fish, Ha briefly mentions that her
father was wounded in the Vietnam War but does not dwell much on it. I do not ask
much, either. I do not know what Vietnamese people’s reactions might be to a
possibly very sensitive subject.
Ha has recently been accepted to an MA program at a university in Australia and she
is about to apply for a scholarship. Like many others, she dreams about studying
“I have not even seen my own passport,” she jokes when I make copies of my
passport and Vietnamese visa in case I lose the originals. It is difficult for many
Vietnamese to go abroad because of financial reasons and therefore, they may never
even get to apply for a passport their whole lives.
When she finishes her degree and gets back to Vietnam, she will be able to find a job,
probably with a better salary. After all, like the rest of us, she wants a better life—
better means of survival.
Two days before our teacher training course ends, my trainee Chau starts crying
during our individual feedback session. And her tears are enough to start off mine.
CELTA, mainly for native speakers of English in the past, now invites non-native
speakers, too, but for people like Chau whose native language does not share any
similarities at all with English, the course can be quite a bit more challenging. Even
though she does better than most of the native speakers on the course from Australia,
Fiji, Canada, and the UK and the non-native speaker from Austria, Chau releases her
stress by crying, to me, another non-native speaker of English.
Chau had doubts about applying for the course but now feels she has made one of the
best decisions in her life. She is interested in advancing in her career—not that she is
overly ambitious but she is after, like many others, the survival of her mental being.
She wants to be challenged, to become better at what she does. She is paying 1,500
US dollars to attend the teacher training course even though she only makes 300
dollars a month at the university she works for.
Chau admits she has problems in pronunciation like many others whose native
language makes it difficult for them to pronounce English clearly. She does not yet
know she has obtained one of the best grades among the trainees. I tell her not to ever
give up something she loves doing. She can keep working on her English
pronunciation. After all, she is a very good teacher.
“I was and still am on the same boat,” I try comforting Chau. Unfortunately, native
speakers who might not be qualified in teaching will always get better jobs than those
who are good teachers with a good command of English but a slight accent.
“Never stop trusting your abilities,” I insist, remembering how a director at a
university in America stopped me quitting when she told me she had trusted me as a
teacher more than some of the others whose first language was English.
Chau is trying to survive through new mental challenges. Those unlike her in Hanoi
who may prefer easier challenges but still want to survive the mental stresses of life,
usually put on their pajamas and walk barefoot on the cement paths that cut through
the patches of grass in front of Ho Chi Minh’s (Uncle Ho) Mausoleum. They sit in
their pajamas, facing their ‘uncle’, chatting, relaxing, and trying to make the best of
I think about them as I cruise through the streets of Hanoi on a motorbike with a
friend from Cameroon. The people chopping onions and making ten times less than
us in the west, continue their lives—perhaps within the great vision of their beloved
leader, who still survives to this day, not only in the Mausoleum but in the hearts and
brains of his people—and if not within that vision, they still find a way to persevere,
The From Teaching to Training course can be viewed here.