Here are some tips, tricks and pieces of advice I wish someone had told me on my first day teaching English abroad.

1. Full Time Contracts are Almost Never a Good Idea

This was meant to be a category of this list, but it turned into it’s own post. You can read the breakdown here.

2. Spend a Day Learning the Tax System of Your New Home

In Vietnam, these two tax tricks are huge and can mean a difference of thousands of dollars over a year:

A) First, vietnamese tax law allows for two structures of taxation

One is a 20% flat tax on foreigners working in their lands.  The other is to be considered a “Tax Resident,” wherein you’ll enjoy a graduated, multi-tier tax system similar to what we have in most Western countries. Obviously, you want the graduated system, depicted in the chart below. 

Monthly Income in VNDMonthly Income in USDTax Rate
0 to 5m$0 to $2205%
5 to 10m$220 to $44010%
10 to 18m$440 to $80015%
18 to 32m$800 to $1,42020%
32 to 52m$1,420 to $2,30025%
52 to 80m$2,300 to $3,55030%
Over 80m$3,550 and over35%

To get onto the graduated system, you usually just need to give a copy of your housing contract (with your name on it somewhere) to your school’s HR department.  The contract should say that you have entered into a lease for more than six months.  Basically, prove to the HR girl that you will be in Vietnam for longer than six months, and he or she will be able to enter you into the graduated scheme.  English teachers will usually make between $1350 to $1,600 a month for their first year.  Even at the low end, you’ll pay over $3,000 a year in taxes on the 20% scheme.  On the graduated scheme, your taxes will average out to about 13%.  You can get this down to an even lower percentage with the next trick.

Note that you do not have to have a work permit to be considered a tax resident. Wait, seriously?  Yes. Because Vietnam is cool like that.

Also, if you’re off the grid and don’t have a housing contract, you are eligible to enter the graduated system if you can prove you’ve already been in Vietnam for more than six months.  Your visas will prove this.

B) Vietnam allows the first 9 million ($430) of your monthly pay to be tax free

 They call it a “Personal Income Tax Exemption.”  Just ask your school for the form.  This will slide your whole salary down the tax scale and significantly reduce your taxes.  Not only will you get the first 9 million for free, it will also serve to take 9 million off the top of your salary where it gets taxed the heaviest. This is a must-do. Do note that you’re only legally supposed to do this at one school at a time, however I am unclear as to how this is actually enforced.

3.   Two Part Time Jobs are Ideal if You’re Trying to Maximise Income

This works on a few levels.  First, due to the graduated tax system, you get more bang for your buck (read: hour) if you work less.  Nine million is free.  The next 5 million is 5%, etc.  Meanwhile, if you’re smashing 80 hours a month at one place and cranking out 40m ($1,600) a month, you’re getting hit with a 20% tax on everything above 18 million. This is simply the law of diminishing marginal returns. 

Secondly, you have way more control over your schedule.  If school A tells you they need you for a 7:30am Sunday class, you can just tell them you are already teaching a class at school B at that time and vice-versa.

Thirdly, they will compete over you during dry spells. You can use this to drive your hourly rate up when it comes time to renew contracts, providing you’re actually a good teacher and an asset to both companies.

4. Set a Day Off, and Defend it With Fire

This is especially a problem if you are working at two schools as we recommended above, since neither school will know your full schedule. If Monday is your day off, do not let anyone under any circumstance infringe upon that day.  Even if you agree to cover one class as a favour on this day, it will show the scheduler that there is a crack in your armour.  They will gradually pound this weakness until you’re suddenly working seven days a week.  Even though you may only be teaching two hours a day during the week, not having a day off to relax, eat dinner at a normal time, or take the occasional day trip will start to mess with you after about a month. Without a day off to look forward to, your brain loses pacing and the days start to flow together. Even on a leisurely 20 hour per week schedule, you need at least one day to do you.

Protip: If you get a dreaded phone call from your scheduler on your day off, the single best way to resist pressure to cover is to repeat this line: 

“Thanks for offering, and I really would like to help, but today is my day off, and I’ve already had three Bloody Mary’s with brunch.  I could still teach if this is an emergency, but you should know that I have been drinking.”

This will stop them dead in their tracks.  Don’t worry about looking like an alcoholic- they already think Westerners are all alcoholics, anyway.

5. Marketing Events or “Speaking Clubs” are Traps

If you’re full time, you have no power to resist these.  As a part timer (and you should be part time,) resist these events as much as you can. For one, they are almost always at sunrise at some public school on the far side of town.  Also, they pay a reduced rate- between $10 and $15 an hour (for reasons unknown.) Finally, they are usually woefully unorganised chaos.  I was once drafted to host a game show at a public school super early in the morning.  The schools computers used keynote, and the guy in charge of making the game show designed it in powerpoint.  They suggested that I lead a dance instead. This was quite a problem, seeing as I don’t dance. It remains one of my worst days.

vietnam school marketing event

The business end of a marketing event. I don’t mind kids, but 600 of anything freaks me out.

Also, you’re paid to be a white person, not a teacher.  For moral/ethical reasons, I don’t like this and chose to avoid it like a bag full of spiders. Personal preference.

As for speaking clubs, these are basically normal lessons without text books or materials.  You are meant to stand in front of a room full of people and prompt them to speak for two hours in English. This is exhausting and impractical (who can sit there and rattle off conversation in a foreign language for two full hours?)  They require a tremendous amount of planning and prep, and every one I have ever attended has been an awkward catastrophe and a waste of everyones time. Hard pass.

6. Teaching Starts Off Hard and Gets Easier Every Day

I was always the introverted kid who would get so nervous before oral presentations in school, that i would have to go to the bathroom before class to throw up.  The idea of speaking in front of a class terrified me.  When i started teaching, my students could smell my fear.  My classes were awkward, nervous and stale. I would watch the clock, waiting for those two hours to be over. I would spend three hours painstakingly preparing a two hour lesson. I hated every minute of it, and was sure I wanted to quit after four months.

However, I gave it another month.  I started to come into work later and later to give myself less time to plan.  I adapted under these constraints. What took three hours now took two, and then one.  Now, I can plan a quality, student centred three hour test prep lesson in about 15 minutes.

After I started to understand the system and students started to seem like they enjoyed my classes, my confidence skyrocketed. Society values extroverts, so I adopted a mask.  I picked “Tony Stark from Ironman” as my character and kind of channel that in every class.  I once nervously walked into class, scared to make eye contact with my students.  Now, I kick in the door like I’m everybody’s problem and start lobbing imperatives.  I come off so cocky it borders hostile, and the students love it for some reason.  I refuse to tell them my name and make grandiose lies about my background (I’m a millionaire tax-exile currently dating Taylor Swift) which builds this aura of mystery among the students. This leads into a sort of cult of personality. 

In short, I found a “thing” that worked for me. Now, teaching is the easiest, most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  Two hours goes by in what feels like 20 minutes. Don’t lose hope, and find your own “thing” that works for you.

Hasta la victoria Saigon,

Z