Life in Nam Dinh- the good, the bad and the lonely

My time in Nam Dinh has been a roller coaster of emotions. From moments of pure joy thinking, this is it! I’ve found my calling to moments of crying for hours wondering, what the fuck am I doing here?!

During my first month here, it became evident that living in this city would be challenging. But nonetheless, I was happy to be here. I was fueled by the excitement of experiencing something new and I was grateful to have the opportunity to learn and grow in my new role as a teacher. It was all very new and exciting. I was stressed af, but I was happy. I riding a high of the new job, and the weather was warm and sunny.

I was surrounded by an amazing group of people. The foreign teachers came from South Africa, North America, the U.K. and Australia. We created a family amongst each other. It was the start of the school year and we carried a “we are in this together attitude”. Every dinner we would laugh and reminisce about how cute the kids were or what crazy things happened in class that day.  It was wonderful. Until suddenly it wasn’t.


Record-breaking floods happened and the weather turned dark and cold, drowning our happy moods. We realized how over-worked and under-appreciated we are and cultural differences between the West and East started piling up. The pay stopped outweighing the cons for a lot of teachers. Our dinner conversations turned grumpy and bitter. By Thanksgiving, half of the original group left.

Everyone leaving made me feel sentimental and lonely. I felt isolated and alone. Left to bear the winter on my own. New teachers began to trickle in as the semi-holiday season rolled in with them. They were cheerful and positive and had a hopeful outlook on the job (as did I in September) and all I could do was try not to be Grinch and ruin their Christmas.


Now, I am just trying to figure out how to survive the winter, figuratively and literally.


I have been tempted to quit and leave this job and town behind me countless times. I could move to Hanoi where life would be a lot easier, but I would be saving about $1,000 less a month. The money is keeping me here and my will not to quit. I came here with a saving goal in mind and I’m not leaving this town without it. I don’t want to look back on my time teaching English and feel like I quit or left without finishing a job. I want to be proud of myself for completing something and working through a challenging time in my life.

To remind myself why I am here I consider the pros and cons of this experience.

The pros are obvious, I am living and teaching English in Vietnam! It’s amazing!! What a unique opportunity I have. This is such cool experience! I certainly won’t run out of conversation topics at a cocktail party down the road. I am growing and learning as a person by teaching English and getting paid a lot of money to do so. I get paid to be around kids all day?! You have to love that. I enjoy teaching. Kids are such a blessing. They radiate true happiness and joy. It’s incredible. They are the best gift I could ask for at this time of my life, all 1,200 of them. Well, maybe all 1,190 of the 1,200. There’s always a few sour apples. Did I say that out loud?

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5th-grade class I teach Friday mornings.

Cons, I live and breathe English teaching. The foreign teachers live above the office so there is no escaping work. And we work a lot… Teaching, lesson planning, admin work, ugh. After a year of traveling, I forgot what the working world was like. Alarm clocks, deadlines, what is that?! (Queue, do you need some cheese with that wine?)


Then the most challenging aspect of this experience is living in Nam Dinh. Nam Dinh is a non-touristy town 1.5 hours outside of Hanoi. I decided to move here because they pay a lot more money and I knew I would have fewer distractions and opportunities to spend money. (All true, I am saving 90+% of my salary).


The city isn’t exactly beautiful. It is an industrial city with busy roads, cement buildings, train tracks, lakes and lots of people.  Because there isn’t any western influence, I have the unique opportunity to see pure Vietnam. And I have the not-so-unique opportunity to be bored. I live in a city where the most exciting thing to do is have coffee at a modern coffee shop.

I am immersed in untainted Vietnam. If I lived in a foreigner-friendly city like Hanoi, with a big expat community, I would have lived within the expat bubble and I wouldn’t have learned as much about Vietnam and the Vietnamese as I have here.

I have embraced their lifestyle (as much as I can) and am learning to do as the Vietnamese do. No one speaks English so I have learned some of the language! I am proud to say that I know some essential Vietnamese words and phrases!! Like how to tell someone they are beautiful, how to order food, bargain, ask for the bathroom, etc. It’s not much, but I am learning!! Being here has also reminded of the simple pleasures of life. Like toast and butter. Things I didn’t think of as holding any importance in my life back home are now greatly appreciated.

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But the little things add up. The cultural difference between Eastern and Western lifestyle is exhausting to navigate. It gets claustrophobic. It feels like I can’t escape the mundane Vietnamese way of life (post to explain that point to come). Sometimes it’d be nice to forget I am in Vietnam (again, did I say that out loud?).

Being surrounded by everyone that is different from you gets terribly lonely. I feel isolated. Everyone stares at me everywhere I go. They follow me in the supermarket, take pictures of me when they think I’m not looking and point and talk about me as if I wasn’t standing next to them. I feel like an alien. For once I would like to walk down the street or into a room and not know everyone was staring at me. I stick out in this country like a sore thumb. I physically look the exact opposite of my short and dark-haired and skinned Vietnamese peers.


But I’m making life work here. And I’m doing my best to provide myself with happiness. I

One thought on “Life in Nam Dinh- the good, the bad and the lonely

  1. Phil Carter says:

    Good post Norah. You’re an amazing young woman doing an incredible job under incredible circumstances. I think of you often, wondering how you’re doing. I’m sure you stay in touch with mom and dad and Paula, but I thoroughly enjoy your reports. My neighbor’s daughter is teaching English in South Korea. Her mom is visiting her now. I can’t wait till she gets home next week so I can hear her stories. Hang in there!

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