I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Vietnam for a month, and though I did many of the usual touristy things I also met many keen IELTS students. Whilst there are many differences between people and cultures in the country, especially from North to South, young people have a very keen interest in learning English everywhere you go.
Though English learning is quite new to the national curricula, many people see English competency as a key to economic and personal success. With that kind of mindset, it’s no wonder that more Vietnamese students are coming to countries like Australia, Canada, the UK and US to study IELTS.
Hanoi, and the north
Hanoi is a city with beautiful French architecture, large wide roads and amazing street food – though the motorcycles on those roads are completely chaotic. One of the highlights of the city was walking around the Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake) in the central district. The lake is surrounded by coffee shops, both local and internationally-oriented, and at night the place is a focal point for families and festivities.
The most unusual thing about Vietnamese students is that you’ll find them near the lake, tracking down foreigners for interviews. Many are high school students, and some are studying at university. Often they will approach you and ask you questions about your time in Vietnam, and occasionally an odd question about dating or what you think of the city’s transport.
It’s a very unique part of the study culture here, and I think a very useful way to learn English. Though my advice to the students I met was to always review the interviews later – either through a Dictaphone or the video recording on the phone. Take note of anything you don’t understand, and ask another native speaker to clarify.
Saigon, and the south
The streets, architecture and food is no less impressive in the south – but it is much warmer in Saigon. With an estimated 8 million bikes in the city, it’s also just as chaotic on the roads.
I stayed at one of the country’s many homestay places in a coastal town called Vũng Tàu. Within no time I was asked to join a group of local students on their weekly IELTS group, conveniently at one of the best coffee shops in town.
Students in the south might be less willing to approach complete strangers in the street to practice their English (that’s not necessarily a bad thing ;)), but they have plenty of practice at these kinds of meet ups. Over a morning coffee we chatted about job prospects, writing application letters, favourite movies and travel to other countries.
My advice to students doing this kind of thing is to prepare a short talk on one of these topics, and again record yourself as if you were chatting casually with a native English speaker. It might sound a bit contrived, but hearing yourself back helps you improve your pronunciation and expression. I’d say that generally Vietnamese students have an excellent study ethic, and their pronunciation is quite good – though there is always room for improvement!
I’m no expert on Vietnamese, though my students taught me lots of words whilst I was there. I love learning new languages, and it was fun practicing what little I learnt whilst travelling. The most challenging thing for me, as a native English speaker, are the tones – all five of them!
I can also see that some elements of English (final sounds in particular) can be a challenge for Vietnamese students. Without tones to separate words in English, we have much more differentiated sounds – and that can be tricky when learning all of the different combinations in each word. I find that Burmese students face the same difficulties when I teach English in Myanmar.
Here’s a great video to help with the trickier parts of English phonemes, specifically aimed at Vietnamese speakers:
A final rainy note, from the centre of Vietnam
In case you’re wondering – I didn’t miss out on the middle part of Vietnam, though whilst I was in Đà Nẵng and Hội An it rained for two weeks non-stop. It was a great time to reflect on my travels, and to sample the unique foods and culture in the region (even if it meant getting very wet!).
To all the students and people I met in Vietnam, thanks for the wonderful time. It’s very rewarding to see such strong competition to learn English. Keep practicing.
If you’re an IELTS student or are studying English in Vietnam, feel free to comment below and tell me about your experiencess learning – what are the hardest things about English, and what are the most rewarding things about your studies?