By Harry Hodge

It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday. I was busy like a madman 2.5 weeks ago, teaching summer school science in the mornings and ripping around Saigon for different tutoring clients in the afternoon. Then pick up the kids after daycare at 5 p.m. Some nights I’d hit the pillow and it was lights out.

Towards the end of the summer school, I had an interview and, eventually, an offer for a full-time (F/T) position which would have meant I’d be in training this very minute, prepping to start teaching this coming Monday. But I ended up turning it down, as well as the chance to take on part-time (P/T) hours at my old university lecturing gig.

Knowing I hadn’t been back to Canada for more than four years, with two grandchildren who haven’t met the family in the Toronto area, I figured the time home was needed. I also find now that I’m 43, I still have a fairly high motor, but it doesn’t rev like it did 10 years ago. Teaching classes full of hormonal teens demands energy, and I’m drifting closer to avoiding burnout than boredom. Or so I thought.


Get those hours up!

Apologies if the focus here drifts somewhat; today I’m just offering views on the F/T set schedule vs. the freelance “easy rider” method. I can see the pros and cons of both at this point.

The worry when you’re freelancing is that (A) you won’t get the same hours/work as if you had a permanent employer; and (B) what happens when your students cancel. No play, no pay as they say. I left my office gig in February feeling like the drive across town and the general tedium that the position started to bring outweighed the (decent) salary, freedom to choose holidays, etc. This coming after I worked at an international school where paid holiday time was the main draw, making up for what I considered wasted time “lesson-planning” all day just to keep you on the school grounds after you’d taught the requisite 18 hours of classroom time.

The beauty of those full-time posts were having daily social interaction and feeling “anchored,” as in when you told someone “I work at ______” it equates to some degree of professionalism, work stability, whatever you like. The number of times I’ve meet other “freelancers” in Saigon (usually writers) and left the conversation having no real clue what they did or who paid their bills left me more bewildered than envious.

The gamble for me at this point is, of course, financing our family unit. We have land payments, condo payments, daycare payments. Usually I just hand cash straight to my wife and watch the mountain crumble away. We still live comfortably enough, although before the summer school gig and after a copywriting post dried up, I had a month of “reflection.”


Idle hands

That time, as now, left me with a few side-gigs that ensured cash flow hadn’t completely dried up while I sought out replacement revenue. In Saigon, if you’re a foreigner with voicework, writing/editing/proofreading and teaching experience, as well as a decent network. you don’t need to worry (much). In fact, as long as no one cancels, I exceed my income at that old international school job, quite easily in fact. However, it’s the solitude that I struggle with.

If you’re someone who just happened upon this blog without knowing me, you’re likely unaware that I’m an extrovert. This is probably why I got into journalism, and teaching. I talk, I express opinions. I like having people around (generally). Working from home has perks and cutting commuting time in Saigon has been good for me health-wise, there’s no argument. But it’s so … QUIET. I live in one of the noisiest cities in the world, and yet my fingers tapping on the keyboard is echoing in my condo right now.

So when our whirlwind Canada trip wraps up in late October, and we return to town, I foresee getting back into the game full-time. Industry? Employer? Salary? Unaware at this point. I’d love to know those answers myself, but life has been so interesting getting this far with no clue where I’ll end up or what I’ll be doing week to week, year to year. I can see until September 23rd, when my family boards the flight to Vancouver. After that, let the chips fall where they may.

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Coping when Revenue Streams Dry Up

By Harry Hodge

As I near my mid-40s, I have become accustomed to hustling for work. Over a lifetime of relying on writing and teaching as revenue streams, you (luckily? sadly?) develop a personal process for what to do when work dries up.

The best approach is to not have any one source of income; that said, many of us still have a MAIN one, which generates more cash than the others. When that happens, the traditional ideas are to (A) get more work from the other streams; or (B) find a new MAIN, whether it’s temporary or permanent.

I’ve been good since moving to Saigon to always have a hand on one branch as I swing to another. A recent roll-of-the-dice crapped out for me with a writing gig, meaning I needed to get my head in the game and find new work pronto. With a trip to Canada with the wife and children four years(!) in the making, we’ve come too close for a hiccup in revenue to be an issue. So the typical process, based on my experience, goes as follows:


(1) The initial surprise and annoyance.

There are two ways to deal with this one. Sit and dwell or get on the job search ASAP. Luckily, there are generally a lot of job postings in Saigon in April and May for Summer Studies. This is good because my university teaching gig seems to dwindle around that time, and pick up steam in August. Within a week or two I had half-a-dozen interviews lined up and a couple of offers. There were also some chats about online teaching, but I’d like to give my thoughts on that industry in a different blog post.


(2) The wait and keeping costs low.

So, now that you’ve got an offer, it may start right away… or in a few weeks. In the meantime, you’re hoping there’s cash coming in from your other streams. Like I said, I was still at the university until about two weeks ago, with a trip to Nha Trang in between. As well, tutoring at home, a gig teaching staff at a shipping company and a couple of writing gigs have meant that the cash flow hasn’t actually stopped, it’s simply decreased for a (roughly) four-week period. Compare this with people who spend months looking for a new job, like in Canada for example. I’d lose my mind, no joke.

Keeping costs low means doing away with craft beer, sharp imported cheddars and all the other stuff you enjoy when you’re flush. You start to seek out free stuff too; I went to a gym near our place simply because I had a three-day free trial voucher. You go to The Coffee House where a ca phe sua nong is 28,000 VND instead of Starbucks where a short fresh brew is 42,000 VND. You have instant noodles for lunch more. You walk 10-15 minutes up the street for 25,000 VND broken rice because the guy at your building sells it for 36,000. You take a trip and stay with in-laws over a hotel and buy ice cream to eat on the sand instead of paying triple for it at a coffee shop.

In short, you go into spending lockdown. Everything becomes a luxury. Essentials like baby formula, dish soap, paying for daycare and the cleaning lady (she is an essential, trust me) all take precedence. Your phone stops working but you put off buying a new one. And all this is going on while you have a fair amount tucked away in the bank! But that’s for trips abroad, future real estate purchases, and general rainy day stuff.

The fact of the matter is, it’s also a form of self-punishment. How did I allow this to take place? I need to pay for my shortsightedness, relying on “shady company X” when that has rarely panned out in the past.

Also, I’m not gonna lie: When you have a shortage of work, boredom sets in. Especially when you worked like a maniac for the last three years solid, and steadily for the past six. You drop the kids off at daycare, your wife goes to work, and BOOM! You are on your own. But you don’t wanna dip into the cash for outings to the casino or swanky spas. You go running, get back to that online course you’ve been neglecting, read a bit. Funny it took so long to blog about it!

Your focus is getting back to getting back to something like what you were doing two months earlier. It’s difficult to wrap your head around.

The only thing I can really say about it is I’m thankful that Monday, I’m back to being as overworked as ever.

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What Journalism Taught Me (Not What You Think)


By Harry Hodge

So the headline is not necessarily what you’re expecting to read, I reckon. I could mention some of the skills I picked up during my years working in the media, whether in full-time, part-time or freelance capacities. Things like the art of the interview, the ability to multi-task, honing my speed to slaughter deadlines. But the key thing I learned is likely what anyone who writes for income has come to understand.

It can all end tomorrow. So don’t put all of your proverbial eggs in one basket. Get as much as you can from as many employers as possible. 

When the decision was handed down I’d no longer be needed at my former workplace in Canada, I felt a mix of relief and bewilderment. The atmosphere at the company was pretty toxic, so I was relieved to get out of it. Bewilderment at the fact that I’d had steady cash flow for (at the time) six years straight, and how was I going to move forward without money?

There’s a reason why you’ll see multiple freelance credits on a journalist’s CV; the money simply isn’t there from any one employer anymore. When I was in university, the health of the industry was beginning to decline, but none of us really noticed. Unpaid internships were normal, even 20 years ago. But now, you read horror stories about editors and newsmen in their 50s working in the pro shop at the local country club because their position was downsized at a daily newspaper.

Or, in the case of Canadian newspapers, the entire publication was downsized, as dozens were last year in Ontario. That whole shady transaction is another matter, which you can read more about here if you so choose: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/documents-reveal-competition-watchdogs-concerns-over-torstar-postmedia-deal/article38316813/


Better to be in Vietnam

Of course, any time you’re replaced it’s a negative feeling. Depending on you as an individual, it can be a minore annoyance or hugely depressing. No one wants to feel like they’re interchangeable or inferior in some way to whoever’s moving into their spot. And if you’re simply a cost-cutting move, the issue of how you cope still needs to be addressed. Some even posit that grieving moves in stages: https://lifehacker.com/the-five-stages-of-grief-after-losing-a-job-1725201444

Since I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve tried to steer clear of relying on a single revenue stream. One of my writing gigs recently said they’d be putting resources elsewhere and that I wasn’t to be in the mix; so what do you do? Try to cajole or coax them into funnelling that cash back to you? Or not waste time and find solutions where that shortfall can be made up? The latter is the most obvious, and quickest, solution.

One of the good things about living in Vietnam is, as a native speaker of English, there are a number of routes you can choose to follow. Dwelling on previous gigs, unless you parted on good terms and see some possibilities there, is a fruitless endeavour. So you do what you do when you have been in this mindset for what seems like eternity; start beating the bushes. Examine your budget and calculate how much you made at that position, whether it’s copywriting, freelance journalism or whatever, and look for how much you need to do to fill that gap.

Copywriting can be just as volatile and unpredictable as journalism; companies will elect for the cheaper option when possible. One company forgot to tell me I’d been replaced, and only after a few weeks did someone bother to elaborate on it. But the point that I wasn’t too bothered can either be viewed as (A) confidence in the volume of opportunities; or (B) a lack of expectations regarding employers. The latter could be construed as somewhat cynical, but if we’re being honest it’s the most practical and rational viewpoint.

Companies are always looking out for their bottom lines. Treat yourself like they treat themselves. We’re all in it to win it.




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Alab extinguish Heat playoff run



By Harry Hodge

Everyone deserves a second chance. In basketball, that attitude will take you far in the playoffs.

Fighting for their postseason lives against a larger opponent, the Saigon Heat simply surrendered too many rebounds and second chances to San Miguel Alab Pilipinas, and the visitors made them pay with a 96-85 defeat and a quarterfinal sweep of the Vietnamese side in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) Playoffs.

Dominating the boards by a 60-25 margin, Alab was spurred on by a vocal contingent of Filipino fans behind their bench in a standing room-only playoff atmosphere. The Heat kept the game close with a 46-42 deficit, but it was all Alab in the third. Former New York Knick Renaldo Balkman netted 21 points and 12 rebounds in an affair that was chippy at times, with each team dishing out some hard fouls throughout.

“You can’t teach height,” observed Heat gunner Akeem Scott, who led all scorers with 22 points. “They packed the paint. At the end of the day, the rebounding killed us.”

Acknowledging the Heat’s playoff run coming to an end, the entertaining Scott said the franchise could take away some positives from the season, notably a .500 finish with a team-record 10 wins.

“It’s about building a culture here, and winning ways,” Scott said. “After a few days (of digesting the loss) we’ll be able to appreciate it.”

The quarterfinal series had already generated some headlines with the suspension of Heat bench boss Kyle Julius, who was slapped with a technical foul in Game One. Verbal sparring ensued with the officiating crew and Julius was suspended for the remainder of the round, leaving assistant Dave Singleton to assume head coaching duties.

“I’m just an extension of Coach Julius tonight,” Singleton said, having already served multiple seasons as an assistant with former skipper Tony Garbelotto and head coaching stints in the Vietnam Basketball Association. “(Alab) are a talented team. They have a lot of guys with unique skill sets. It’s unfortunate we lost, but we’ll be back.”

The general feeling was Alab will provide a formidable opponent as the postseason marches on. For Heat fans, it’s a familiar ending: The Heat have made it to the playoffs four years in a row, and have yet to win a game in the postseason. For Saigon to have taken down Alab, they would have had to play a mistake-free game. But Heat owner Henry Nguyen remained upbeat as players and fans co-mingled on the court to say their goodbyes.

“We’re still developing basketball in this country,” Nguyen said. “We’ve set a good foundation to keep getting better. (Tonight is) a disappointment, but I’m proud of our team. We’re making progress.”

For Vietnamese hoops fans, the sting of one season ending will be soothed with the knowledge another is about to begin, with the VBA set to kick off in a couple of months. So basketball isn’t gone; it’s just taking a short holiday. For more information about the Saigon Heat’s VBA side and competing teams, visit the league Facebook page.

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Hitting the Wall – Light Days and Heavy Days


By Harry Hodge

Today is going to be a “heavy day.” You know how I know? It’s a Thursday.

For more than a year now, I’ve been doing “heavy” Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as recently Wednesdays sometimes. This dates back to my old job and my two (new/current) jobs. But they only really became truly “heavy” when my mother-in-law left, and I had to add a new spin to the days: Picking up the kids, playing with them and feeding them. Before I teach private lessons at home for an hour after dinner.

When I was working near the airport, my main concern was just getting through traffic and making it through the day. But now I face two battles in my work-from-home situation; getting the kids to school in the morning and dealing with them when they come back.

My son and daughter are super-cute, but they’re also very young and needy.

“Make me milk please.”

“I don’t want to eat that one.”

“I don’t want to go to school.”

And so on. Every morning is a plea bargain, and then there’s the brief spell of unwinding in front of the computer. Until I have to go teach at the university. Managing 30-40 students of middling ability in English for a couple of hours a day has its own pitfalls. I don’t know that I’d want to add to my current teaching load.

Then coming back, picking the chill’uns up, etc. Hear what they did in the day. Maybe cranky, maybe not. I seriously have no idea how single parents do it, especially with more than one kid. My wife gets home at 6:45, which gives me some time to mentally prepare to teach again at 7:30.


Streamlining the Schedule

I wrote recently about placing too much emphasis on “stress.” But I neglected to look at different needs: Fatigue and free time. Once that last student is taught, all I want to do is close my eyes. This means not wanting to read a story, make small talk, do anything. I feel like this is an adjustment period, and have taken some steps to streamline my daily workload:

  1. Many mornings I go for a run as I’m hoping that will give me energy throughout the day.
  2. I have experimented with little catnaps when possible – something I couldn’t do at my old regime.
  3. I have cut well back on my coverage of Saigon Heat games, only enough to ensure I can produce a final chapter for a book I’m completing with the team.
  4. I wrote my final sports column for Word Magazine last month. Whatever I think can help me avoid “hitting the wall.”

Grandma has missed the little ones, and is returning for a visit this weekend for a couple of weeks. She was always a case study in organization, so I intend to observe her more closely in person before she heads to Nha Trang to attend the birth of yet another grandkid! Learning from the best is always the ideal way to go. Everything always works out, I just hope to make it so sooner than later.

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Saigon: Why A Year Here Became Seven

29356493_10155108030842364_7178033586010849280_oBy Harry Hodge

Saigon isn’t for everybody. Especially when they look at other cities in Asia to find their fortune.

Sexier destinations tend to be your classic “Rat Race” cities: Tokyo; Seoul; Shanghai. Gleaming glass towers and bankers and modern transit and Formula 1 races and the list goes on.

Saigon? Foreigners often wonder if it’s the same place as Ho Chi Minh City (which it is).

Yes, it’s disorganized; congested; muggy; prone to floods. There can be a language barrier sometimes. It has the traits and baggage that one should expect in an “emerging market”. Tried to do any banking here? Wonder why Facebook just stops working sometimes?

But despite all this, many see OPPORTUNITY.

Full disclosure: I came here more than seven years ago to: (A) Get employed quickly following my layoff; and (B) Avoid another Canadian winter. Being shown the door from my old newspaper gig in Edmonton made me consider: Stay put, collect EI (Employment Insurance) for six months and freeze my gonads off in -25C until March? Why not go “find myself” for a year? Unmarried, no major debts, 35. Why not?

I’ve met some expats here who had the same mindset: Just hang out for a year and play the old teacher/backpacker stereotype. Drink and smoke like it’s going out of style. Eat yummy/cheap pho. But I’ve also met another demographic who see this city and country as being ON THE RISE. If only I’d had this mindset when I arrived, but better late than never.


No More Countdowns

There have been jobs I’ve had or cities that I lived in where I gave myself a “completion date” and would count down towards it. Dating back to the final months of my university degree in Montreal; the end of my one-year contract at China Daily; my final days at the Timmins Daily Press. All of those times when I could spit out the exact number of days at that lay ahead before I’d be moving on.

Vietnam? I honestly have no idea. I was supposed to be gone six years ago.

I can teach. I can write. I can do voicework. I can act, although it’s super-disorganized and the pay is crap. I can buy property (well, my wife can). We can afford to feed, clothe and school our two children, whereas daycare costs in Toronto are through the roof.

How can I enjoy so much “freedom” here compared to the “democracy” I left behind? At the moment, it’s basic economics.

Canada is headed for a major financial crash; its own media has been saying as much for ages. I believe that will come in the next three years or so. Meanwhile, Vietnam has been joining trade blocs with various partners, like the reworked TPP and the long-standing ASEAN group.

People may think I’m a caveman, but I like paying for things in cash and not “shutting my mind off” to the debt I’d pile up with a credit card. That was the direction I was headed in for the last six years I spent in Alberta and Ontario. And I was hardly a high-roller. Living on the fringes of Toronto with a roommate and in a (comfortable) basement unit in Edmonton’s best neighbourhood (my opinion), I still wasn’t putting much away. I took the odd trip abroad, but many of those were paid for; movie junkets to New York and L.A. A trip to Punta Cana I won at a CFL game (no joke!). I footed my own travel to Frankfurt, London and Vancouver, but each place I had free stay set up; ate street food and the like.

But I felt like I was the man! This delusion was from working at a newspaper and getting everything handed to me for free in the form of complimentary concert tickets (preview a festival), free beer (I had a beer column), NBA tickets (from advertising), and more. I’d usually get two passes and take a friend.

Still, I was treading water. Canada’s criminal phone and Internet monopolies; a money-pit in the form of a 2003 KIA Rio (which I eventually gave away to cut costs); and just plain old high income tax ensured I wasn’t really finding a way forward. But this isn’t a “feel bad for me” scenario. This explains why Canadians are some of the most debt-heavy citizens ON THE PLANET.


Saigon Is Never Boring

I think a big part of why people choose Saigon is it’s so RANDOM. Like any given day you can see a guy walking his dog by PULLING IT BEHIND HIS MOTORBIKE WHILE HE SMOKES. Or an eight-year-old with a “RICH AS F#CK” baseball cap. Or the simple joy of a 50-cent banh mi sandwich from a lady who’ll also sell you phone credit.

I’m 43 in July, so my all-night bender days are behind me. But I did that stuff when I arrived. Meeting the woman I’d marry and starting a family with her was totally NOT part of the plan when I moved here. But I used to plan everything, and look where that got me.

Vietnam has given me everything the last seven years: I foresee spending at least a few more here.



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Daddy Daycare: Multitasking to the Max


By Harry Hodge

We knew Granny was gonna leave sooner or later. But we spent the next few days reeling from her departure.

No sooner did she hop on the airplane that Saturday than my daughter Cherry started running a high fever and barfing. Luckily that day my wife My had the day off, but when the children get sick this stresses her out and the household gets tense. The following day she had to work for the morning, so it was me and the little ones.

My wound up taking Cherry to see doctors that Monday, and wound up going back a couple of days later when my son Speedy woke up with his eyes covered in slime. He had been rubbing them the previous day, and when she took him to the doctors that Wednesday – yup, pink eye.

All of this was happening while I was still adjusting to my new writing job while also starting off that Tuesday lecturing at Ton Duc Thang University. All to say it was a bit overwhelming.


Daddy steps in

My took those first three days off sick to deal with the kids, we hoped they’d be able to return to daycare that Thursday because it would probably start to affect her relationship with her work if she kept on cancelling. She’s less than a year into working there herself.

So we knew that I’d be the one picking up the kids after school and having to feed them. They’re both little (aged three+ for my daughter and 19 months for my son) and particular about food, and I still haven’t mastered using a rice cooker.

I’m 43 in July. I make no secret of being fairly basic on a number of levels. If something is kept as simple and straightforward as possible, I may still louse it up. I give myself due dates on how long sunglasses, phones and other items I own will be destroyed or lost because I can be so scatterbrained.

Managing two little lives was a daunting prospect, even if it’s just a few hours at a time.


Don’t overthink things

That Thursday was a kick in the head. Go to the uni and teach a class with almost 40 students more or less on the fly (that’s a whole other story); rushing home and getting the rice cooker going (with mixed results); then, rushing downstairs to pick the youngsters up. My head was spinning.

I stick out at my building as it is, but I don’t know if many Vietnamese are used to seeing a foreigner carrying one baby and two backpacks and pushing another one around in a stroller. While trying to keep a sunny disposition.

The kids are little, but they’re not blind. They know something’s up. Granny is the one who usually picks them up, feeds them, gives them a bath. (My now does that later in the evening.) I wondered how they’d react to me taking over this stuff.

It turns out: Mostly OK. There was still some tension that my son had a cough, but overall they’ve met the challenge like little champs. This day was bound to come sooner or later, Granny was with us for three years. And money doesn’t grow on trees.

But they’re pretty great. I just gotta keep them fed and entertained. I’m developing systems to make things automatic. Broth and noodles are waiting for when they get up. I’m trying to get the jump on work stuff knowing that next week will be more of the same. Devising ways to make it all run like clockwork.

I try to get out every once in a while, I took the laptop to a cafe to hang with my brother-in-law and work from there for a bit. So much has changed in the past month, I’m still getting my head around it all.

Early days yet, but I feel optimistic. Once I get everything down, I believe Week Four will be infinitely better than Week One.

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