My new book is about a war photographer in the Vietnam War. So I have come to Vietnam to live for two months to research the novel and teach English. I am staying in Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, a town definitely off the tourist trail where Western people are still a novelty. Walking down the street here is like being famous: you hear ‘hellos’ sounding from every direction and even with their limited English, people want to make friends with you.
I visited Kon Tum on a whirlwind research trip around Vietnam in April, when we took a private tour of the battlefields of the area. Our tour guide took us to his brother’s house for tea. His brother was an English teacher keen for contact with native English speakers, who took the opportunity to speak with any tourists his brother brought to see him. I asked whether they have many native English speakers coming to teach English, and he laughed and said the last one left twenty years ago. I think I knew then that I would come back and teach, and two months later, I have arrived.
It’s hard to describe how welcoming the people have been. We have wanted for nothing, and have been taken out to try every conceivable Vietnamese food. The students are eager, and we are improving our teaching skills on the job. We are useful just by being ourselves: by speaking English so that they can hear the correct pronunciation. When you never hear a language spoken aloud, it is difficult to get right.
When I first stood up in front of the class, I felt my heart beating and my hands shaking: that old feeling of being out of my comfort zone. It was refreshing, and I am excited to learn a new skill. Over the past few months in Australia I have felt a little too comfortable, and it is thrilling to have a sense of newness. Everything here is so different, and I know I have set myself a real challenge in setting part of my book here. I am not sure whether I will be able to achieve it, but I am looking forward to finding out.