Tet à Tet: Reflecting before the Year of the Pig

pink paper origami

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By Harry Hodge

One thing about the holidays in Vietnam: You always have a lot of free time.

Gyms are closed. Coffee shops closed. Hotels and flights are all booked. Your kids’ daycare is closed. You may as well try to relax because… What else is there?

Since New Year in the West is typically a day off, two weeks seems to me like an eternity every year. Why so long? I used to get frustrated and angry about it, but no point in getting upset, since there’s nothing I can do about it.

This year, I feared I’d be watching my kids solo for two weeks with my wife working at the hotel. Once they saw they’d be paying a manager double salary through the holidays, they scrapped her remaining days. This was good as I’d not be solo for two full weeks (it has been a week already, though) but bad they decided to do it so late it’s difficult to really go anywhere.

Staycation it is.


Reflection time and looking ahead

I had a few things that ended up disappointing me in 2018 and I just rolled with them, knowing good things would be happening as well. Canada for the first time in four years was a high point. Some minor things like a longstanding book deal being squashed became an annoyance, but it had been pushed so far back it seemed inevitable anyway.

As the (Lunar) New Year was drawing to a close, a new business opportunity has presented itself. I’ll provide more detail on that one when it becomes more concrete, but it could change my day-to-day drastically. Last year was about me proving to myself I could still make a buck and not be tied to any one employer, in so doing having more free time for other pursuits without taking a major financial hit. That calculation didn’t include all the driving I had to do, of course. It’s a work in progress.

Hopefully this year, I can make use of this flexibility and work on the new opportunity before me. I’m also going back to a former employer, Ton Duc Thang University, so as to be a short drive from my place two days a week, half the distance as was on my previous schedule.

Avoiding the trolls

I’m trying to make my time online more practical when possible, and not get myself drawn into useless arguments with keyboard warriors I’m unlikely to ever meet in person. I’ve taken myself off pages that trigger me, and generally give Twitter a miss these days anyway.

Being physically present with my children when I play with them is increasingly important as they become more aware of day-to-day things, so this past year of spending much more time with them has helped our relationship. They’re both getting pretty quick on their mini-scooters, and are super-inquisitive. Questions, questions, questions.

I turn 44 this year, and can see my window to generate revenue starting to narrow. For some people, they’d say that their working days are half-over. Making a decent profit off a recent land sale was exciting, although I still find real estate transactions ridiculously old school in Vietnam. But money’s money; even if you have to drive with 40 large in cash through the dark in the Vietnamese countryside!

Positivity. Streamline stresses and commutes. Avoiding triggers. Showing some gumption and taking some risks, and worrying about the outcome later.

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2019 – Stay the Course or Man Overboard?

Reflecting on 2018, there were some pitfalls and paydays. Betting on yourself, this is often the case.

I’ve now developed a flexibility I may not have had a few years ago – I now feel like I can be dropped into any situation (teaching-wise, anyway) and come out the other side. I was tasked with a 60-hour course with a useless book for content that none of the students bought anyway, and found myself scrapping it and throwing together six-hour sessions from scratch. When you’re standing in front of a class, that’s a lifetime. Jumping through mental hoops was trying.

person swimming on body of water

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Sink or Swim

That may have been the toughest test I’ve encountered yet, so I had to get creative. I found myself moving classes around to buy myself time and come up with stuff for them to do. Sandwiching in material from a crappy book none of them even had was another test. Also, try keeping a room of late teens engaged for six hours a day…. On any subject.

I give them credit, they clued in that all wasn’t right but stuck with me anyway. Barring a couple of exceptions, I left the experience with more positive feeling than negative. But this “baptism by fire” approach in Vietnam will either test your resolve or leave you broken.

In the end, I refused that there was a no-win scenario and pulled a Kobayashi Maru (Star Trek fans know what I’m talkin’ ’bout) and toughed it out. Going from that to teaching noisy six-year-olds how to make snowflakes at Christmas is now relatively painless, and I may yet seek out another full-time gig in a real bricks-and-mortar classroom setting.

abstract art blur bright

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Embrace the 21st Century

More and more last year, I tried to sort how to join the rest of the world and get into modern technology. I started teaching students online, doing copywriting for websites and a POS (choose the acronym you feel is most suitable here, haha) company, completed an online course with the University of New Brunswick. I even pop up in the odd podcast! (after the 16-minute mark) https://saigoneer.com/saigon-arts-culture/arts-culture-categories/12572-saigoneer-podcast-episode-4-u-23-pride,-bubble-tea-madness-and-the-saigon-heat

I used to boast about not even owning a computer for years, although most people thought that was more ridiculous than commendable.

There are arguments for live teaching and the online option, which may explain why I’m trying to blend the two. I really need to invest in a more modern piece of equipment, as the one I have has difficulty with large files, the battery dies quickly, and I’m at the mercy of Vietnamese Internet providers and power cuts. This has resulted in a rocky relationship with my Chinese employers, sit-down chats with techies about how to proceed (get a new computer!) and bailing on a few classes. Taking a month off to go to Canada also disrupted a few, although I tried my best to stay teaching while I was there. There’s no shortage of companies like the one where  I work, the time may have come to look around at my options. https://oetjobs.com/list-online-esl-english-teaching-jobs/

Regardless, New Year’s talk is just that. Let’s touch base in a few months and see where we’re all at. Happy New Year everyone!

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2018: Being a nomad in my own city

desert caravan dune ride

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By Harry Hodge

Tan Binh. Binh Thanh. District 2. District 7. All points in between.

That was this past year for me, working all over noisy, screwy Saigon.

Around February I decided to try my luck as a “free agent,” not tied to any one employer on a full-time basis. Sure, there have been a few stints where I was working full-time hours. But for the most part this year it’s been doing four or five different jobs, often in different parts of town, in the same week.

Has it been a wise choice? It depends on your point of view. Obviously having ample time for self-reflection and “recharging my batteries” after six straight years of full-time office hours, preceded by roughly six years (with a year-and-a-half of uneven scheduling) has been good. But financially have I come out ahead?

money pink coins pig

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Analyzing the numbers, the differential is based on hours worked versus revenue generated. I was recently offered a position with one of the larger educational providers in Saigon, but they presented what all new hires get, per their policy I’m sure. I doubt having eight years experience matters much when you have a surplus of applicants – you simply choose the ones that agree with the standard contract.

But back to them: The original deal was presented as X, but became Y after tax. Then it became Z after tax and without a Vietnamese income tax number. Divide that monthly figure by 160+ hours spent in the office/actual teaching contact hours, and it’s a pretty low hourly rate. The argument made is that “you’re not really teaching, most of the time you’re in the office.” Marking papers, lesson planning etc.

But to me, this is not the right way to look at it. It’s extra time driving across the city, extra pay to the daycare my children attend since the company won’t change its going-home time, and hours spent hanging around when all the lessons are planned and tests are graded. That’s fine for some, but it’s dead time to me. It’s time that could be allocated to chasing up more corporate training jobs, private clients. Having free time to go for a jog. Whatever it is.

If the hourly wage is this amount and I don’t see my family from 7 am to 6:30 pm, it’s not ideal. I essentially turned down the full-time offer because, after eight years of living in Saigon, I gambled I could do better than that hourly rate and still have time left over.

two men holding pen and calendar sitting beside table

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An example would be an acting opportunity I turned down. It worked out to 8 million Vietnam dong ($400 US, thereabouts) to do a deodorant/soap shoot out of town. I was like “OK, how many hours?” They said 40. Huh?

So $400 divided by 40 is 10. Which still would have been, well not fine but acceptable if I was single. But with two kids, I now have to justify the amount of time against the compensation. Having also been involved with Vietnamese TV shoots, there is a lot of time sitting around/drinking coffee/checking your phone. Spending two solid days doing that would have been soul-destroying.

Anyone who has read anything I’ve posted in the last 10 or so months can see that my motivation is about working smart, not long. All of these part-time positions still entail driving all around a huge Asian city, often in rush hour. The effect on my health may or may not be seen in the years to come. Being beholden to the elements and pollution are aspects of the choices I’ve made.

A funny bit of happenstance took place yesterday at one of the schools where I do a few hours a week; the company that made the full-time offer also had teachers working there. I was already working at the same place I would have ended up anyway, but avoiding the trek back to the office to “lesson plan” when I could just go home at 4 pm. I also know now that my threshold for teaching younger learners is much lower than it once was, maybe 8-10 hours a week is all I can stomach.

accurate alarm alarm clock analogue

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One recent revelation has been that my wife and I are eyeing a move to Canada within 20 months. I simply need to buckle down and kill hours and generate revenue until that time. The employment landscape will be totally different in Canada, as well as adapting to my return and her relocation, getting our kids into school, etc. I’ve had little time to devote to the blog the last little while, but I see knuckling down and attacking my work hours being the reality for the next 600+ days.

Updates when they arise, but the future is bright. I’ll master this work-to-life balance ratio yet, and my family will be the ones to benefit.

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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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