Great Leap Interviews

Published on April 13th, 2013


Take a Great Leap [Interview]: Mary, another lass of “a certain age”



From emails sent in by my dear TL followers, it seems that many of you are dreaming of likewise taking the “Great Leap – toying with the notion of becoming an expat and teaching English in some g-forsaken Asian rice paddy (or Ecuadorian jungle, or forgotten hamlet in rural China – you get the picture). And though I can now personally attest that it was the very…


…nonetheless, I well understand that making the Leap is no small step. Indeed, I acutely remember how terrified I was that I would either end up a beggar on the streets of Saigon, else go screaming back to my beloved Seattle… shamed and penniless.

So I thought I’d start a little “Great Leap” interview series here at TravelnLass that picks the brains of my fellow nomads that have likewise taken the Great Leap. And who best to start things off, than my first TL protégée who has now followed in my footsteps here in Vietnam.

Mary is a most accomplished single lass “of a certain age” from the United States. We “met” here on TL when she first commented on my “Narrowing Down the Expat Options” back in 2011 before I’d even made my own great leap to Vietnam. Since, she’s likewise packed up everything, moved to Ho Chi Minh City, survived the CELTA (good for you, girlfriend!), and has recently started her first teach job in Vung Tau (a beach town about an hour’s ferry ride from Saigon) with ILA, the same school where I took the CELTA and taught last year.

Welcome my dear, and thanks for sharing your experience with TravelnLass readers.

Q:  Why on earth did you opt to move lock, stock ‘n barrel to a rice paddy?

A:  It’s “something” that had been percolating in the back of my head for some time. I’d been very fortunate with “career stuff” until 2008. At the time I was working for a major bank and did institutional sales over an 8 state territory. Travel, travel, travel, work, work, work. Then the crunch hit and my entire department was wiped out. So, I got unemployment and that was great because I was so fed up I was going to quit even without another job.

I honestly didn’t realize how serious the financial matters were at the time so I devoted the summer to playing golf. When I decided to look for a job again I was shocked to find that I couldn’t find anything that was even remotely close to my former position. It seemed that companies had decided that it no longer made sense to hire anyone over 40 and I was well past 40.I ultimately accepted a job at a 60% reduction in salary. I could pay my bills but I wasn’t very happy about it. I felt that my “dream” to travel the world was evaporating before my eyes.

I am one that hates “treading water” – I had a nice enough lifestyle, I could pay my bills, but I was spending all of my energy (and time and resources) to stay in one place (hence my phrase “treading water”).So, I started looking for blogs written by single women over 60 who had reinvented themselves. And, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that there are not many out there. I was delighted when I found “TravelnLass”.  I read every single post multiple times and basically internalized the content. I finally had “hard evidence” that someone my age had done what I wanted to do without a huge bankroll. I started putting plans in place, but in reality they were kind of “fuzzy” – kind of like “someday this would be nice to do”. I did the research, asked the questions, kept notes, but hadn’t committed to make it happen.

Then, one of my good friends died of cancer. She had multiple rounds of chemo, radiation, etc. and her efforts plus modern science added about 2 years to her life. At that time I became serious about living my life now instead of putting my dreams on the back burner for “someday when I’ve saved enough money, etc.” When I reached 62, I calculated early withdrawal of my social security pension and I added that to a small pension that I had from my time serving corporate America.Then I went on a fact-finding mission with one goal:  if I can afford to do this, I am going to do this in 2013. I emailed TravelnLass and asked if my monthly amount of $X was enough. She wrote back and supplied enough detail so that I could readily see that I could indeed do this now. And, just because I usually double check almost everything I checked with another couple that has been traveling the world for the past 12 years. And, they also confirmed that I could, and should, do this now.

I prepared a timeline and started researching flights for Jan/Feb 2013 time frame. I discovered a really good one-way flight from Chicago to Ho Chi Minh City for $753. I double checked with TravelnLass who confirmed that this was a good price, but to be careful because prices would start escalating soon. When I checked back on October 8, 2012 there was only 1 seat left (at a reasonable rate and a reasonable connection). I quickly joined Asiana’s frequent flyer program and selected my flight. I sat for 10 minutes with my finger poised above the enter key. I knew it was a moment of truth for me – Was I going to live my dreams or was I going to wait (perhaps forever)? And, I pushed enter. I truly committed on October 8. I hadn’t even applied to the CELTA program, I had no idea if I’d be accepted, my finances weren’t in order, I still had a job, there were a million things to do. But, it didn’t matter, I was going to Vietnam on January 4, 2013.


Q:  How much previous travel/expat experience did you have before your Great Leap?

A:  Fairly extensive travel experience, although I started somewhat older. Tons of business travel – but I really don’t count that. It’s different if some company is paying all your expenses. I had done a 6 month solo trip several years earlier where I visited India, Tibet, Nepal and Thailand. Then, a few years later, I spent 2 months in South America visiting Chile and Peru. I also spent 5 weeks in Belize. Plus, I’ve done the “normal” travel to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Europe. I’m not convinced that you have to have an extensive travel “resume” though. I think what’s important is that you know that the world is good and that you’re OK. That, coupled with reasonable financial backing, and as much planning as you feel necessary is enough.


Q:  What was the most daunting issue for you in making the Leap?

A:  Once I made the decision it was simply a matter of getting everything done. I had less than 3 months to get into the CELTA, sell all of my possessions, get the paperwork done, and continue to work. I had no fear regarding moving abroad. My only fear was “Can I get it all done in time?”


Q:  Why Vietnam?

A:  TravelnLass helped greatly with this. I was “too old” for Korea, and South America and Thailand didn’t pay enough. Vietnam was hiring English teachers and the pay was reasonable. I don’t have to make lots of money, but as a matter of self respect, I do expect that my teaching support a reasonable lifestyle.


Q:  Clearly rubles matter with such a major move. Can you share the financial details about making such a lifestyle leap? Do you have a pension and/or lump savings to rely on?

A:  Yes I have a pension. I get social security and a small corporate pension. I took both early (that translates to a 25% reduction). I would have to work if I lived in the US on the amount I draw, but I don’t have to in Asia. But, I want to. I fully expect my teaching to fund my living expenses.


Q:  How much did it take to make the move and settle in to your new home in Vietnam?

A:  Costs incurred so far include:One-way air-fare – $754; Documentation – $150 (visas, degree authentication, fingerprinting, etc.); CELTA course – $1600 (plus $50 bank fees); laptop & portabledrives, speakers, etc. – $500; books for CELTA – $75; Guesthouse in HCMC – $270/month; School supplies – $50; Transportation in HCMC – $50/first month; food – $200/month; cheap cellphone and SIM card from Saigon $26.00 (about $5/mo for SIM card – without smartphone capabilities).


Q:  What/How much did you pack/bring with you to Vietnam?

A:  Too much. I brought the “full allowance” – 2 bags can be checked with Asiana Airlines at a maximum of 50 pounds each. So, I checked 100 lbs. I carried on one bag with electronics and papers.


Q:  What do you wish you hadn’t dragged over to Asia?

A:  I brought too many clothes and most of them are inappropriate for where I am. It was hard for me to “think tropical” when I was packing during snowstorms in the midwest.


Q:  What do you wish you’d brought?

A:  More lingerie – I am not “Asian”. I am tall, moderately built with an “ample” chest. Department stores do not carry my size. Shoes – I wear a size 9 (40) narrow shoe – They are not made in Asia (stop at size 39). I walk a lot and I demand that my feet are comfortable – I translate that to brands like Born, Naot, Clarks, etc. When you can find them here, they are very expensive. Electronics – I ran out of time and didn’t buy a second hand iPhone 4 (unlocked).They are available in the states for about $200 (per Ebay). In HCMC, they are $400.

Beauty products – If you have special requirements, bring them. Otherwise, you’ll pay “through the nose” for imported items, if you can even find them. For example, I love virgin coconut oil for my skin, hair and even make my own body scrub. A simple product available for $5/pound in the US, I finally found a product in the Body Shop in HCMC that was $80 for a “pound” (although it wasn’t sold in that size). After about 10 attempts I found it in an Organic store in the suburbs for $7 (close enough for me!) I still haven’t found Shea Oil.


Q:  Why did you opt to take the CELTA?

A:  Because it’s world-recognized as the “gold standard”. In my opinion, the only 2 worth consideration are the Trinity program or the CELTA. And, ILA carries a lot of weight in Vietnam. Because I am a mature female, I believe I need the best credentials – CELTA and ILA experience.


Q:  On a scale of 1-10, how difficult did you find the CELTA? Why? Do you think it was worth it?

A:  On a scale of 1 to 10 – I’d rate it a 12.  Because of the work load: full-day classes, nine 40 minute presentations, 4 written assignments. It’s simply a matter of time – not enough time to adequately prepare. Nonetheless, I definitely think it was worth it.


Q:  What should folks know before choosing to teach English in Asia?

A:  First of all, don’t even think about doing the CELTA unless you’re committed to becoming a very good teacher. It’s just too much work for a “whim”. Today was my second day in Vung Tau and my manager has told me that it’s not uncommon for teachers to save $5000-$6000 annually while living a nice lifestyle. Sure, he was selling me on the position. But, today at lunch, one of my cohorts said that he thinks you can save $10,000 per year and still have a nice lifestyle. I don’t know very many places on the planet where you can work part-time, live in a great environment, make a contribution to humanity, and have $ to support a travel habit.


Q:  What surprised you the most about your Great Leap experience so far?

A:  How easy it has been. Things just seem to fall into place.


Q:  What’s the BEST and what is the WORST thing about your experience?

A:  The worst is the intensity of the CELTA – although I believe it’s necessary for my plans to remain in Asia.

The best is simply the “magic” that can occur so long as I remain open to it. For example, I hopped on a bus to escape to Cambodia following the CELTA. I took my time, saw temples, drank margaritas, had regular massages. I came back and sent an email to the HR manager of ILA (school where I did my CELTA) on Wednesday. She invited me for an interview on Friday afternoon. I had my choice of jobs, but she thought I might like Vung Tau. I had never heard of it. So, I hopped on a ferry the next morning (Sat), had an interview, and was offered a position to start 6 days later. I said “yes” and said “I guess I’d better go find a place to live.” My new manager recommended a few places and I hopped on the back of a motorbike and went exploring. Along the way, a couple of expats called their landlady, showed me their apartment, and bought me a couple of beers. In 5 hours total I had an interview, accepted a job, met 5 expats, saw 4 apartments and rented one of them – all in a resort town that I didn’t even know existed 1.5 day earlier. I call that magic. 😉


Q:  How is living as an expat different from traveling?

A:  Living as an expat implies (at least to me) investing myself and my talents into the community. For example, I get a thrill from going to the local market, eating from stalls in the alley. Traveling is more about me, me, me. What sights can I see, how nice of a hotel can I stay in for an inexpensive price, etc.


Q:  What is your long-range plan now that you’ve made the Great Leap to being an expat in Asia? How do you plan to support yourself, travel, save in the future? Do you plan to ever go back to the U.S. permanently?

A:  My long-range plan is simply to enjoy every day of my life. I’m done with extensive planning. And to support myself, travel and save for the future I plan to rely on multiple streams of income – pension, social security, teaching, side gig of organizing tours for seminar leaders. And as to my plans to go back to the U.S. permanently someday – all I can say is that I’ll know it if and when it’s time for me to make a change.


Q:  Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself/TL readers before embarking on this Great Leap?

A:  Know yourself. Choose what you want to do. Pursue it like there’s no possibility of failure. Know that you have the power to live the life of your dreams.


Q:  Anything thing else you’d like to share about your Great Leap experience so far?

A:  Get your financial stuff taken care of before you get here. I have two ATM cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees (Schwab and INGDirect – now CapitalOne360). Get them early. Link them to your bank account if you’re going to keep it. Link them to your brokerage accounts. I’ve been using to manage money and I’ve just begun to learn the capabilities. What I like is that you can go into and look at all transactions in all accounts without signing into individual accounts.


Thanks so much for sharing, Mary. No doubt there’s at least one TL dreamer out there that will be grateful for so many details of your Great Leap experience.

And to All the TL eyeballs out there reading this – we each have different circumstances, different budgets, different goals, and different druthers when it comes to taking that Great Leap. But Mary’s tale is just one more example that it CAN be done. Even we folks “of a certain age” can follow our dreams, and start a whole new life in some exotic corner of the world.

And furthermore, did I uh, neglect to mention?

This surely ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

An interview with expat Mary - who sold everything and moved from the U.S. to Vietnam to teach English - at 60+ years! An interview with expat Patti - who sold everything and moved from Seattle to Vietnam to teach English - at 60+ years!

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About the Author

Off-the-beaten-path travel is my passion,and I’ve always lived life “like-a-kid-in-a-candy-store” – eager to sample as many flavors as I can. Indeed, my life motto has long been: This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

8 Responses to Take a Great Leap [Interview]: Mary, another lass of “a certain age”

  1. Lesley S says:

    I am at the percolating stage; thinking that the third act should be more interesting than the second. I’m not sure about going to Asia though – do any of your readers teach in Europe? I was thinking of combining my experience as a business analyst in IT with teaching English to business people. Do you know anyone with that kind of experience? I’m 54 now and would like to get my ducks in a row before 60! I need adventure more than I need a comfortable retirement so it’s time to stop reading about it and start planning for it.

    Love your blog – thanks.

    • TravelnLass says:

      “percolating” is good, Lesley, and yes – I can tell you from personal experience that “the third act” is tons more interesting than the 1st or 2nd (which actually, weren’t all that shabby for me either,) That is… IF you M.A.K.E. I.T. S.O.

      That said, in order to help answer your/anybody’s) questions about taking the great leap – WHERE.YOU.ARE.FROM (i.e. your passport/native land) is key. IOW, though I don’t presume to know much about teaching in Europe, I can tell you that – while it MAY be possible – the word on the street is that it’s much tougher to get a job there ‘cuz the Europeans (naturally) prefer those with an EU passport.

      That said, if you have further questions, do post them in the comments of the TravelnLass F.A.Q. page. I’ll be happy to help with anything I can and/or perhaps some stray TL reader knows more about teaching EFL in Europe than I.

      And finally, yes, yes, good to do your research – read everything on this site, as well as the plethora of EFL sites (like EFL Cafe, etc.) but… bottom line? It’s not too early to start seriously planning for your won Great Leap.

  2. Man says:

    Ahh yes — that moment of truth with the finger hovering over the “book now” button. I’ve been there and I am soooo glad I made that leap. Love this interview!

  3. James says:

    Interesting read to see someone who made the transition later in life. Now that I’ve been in Asia for so long, going back to the US feels like it’s traveling, not going home! Now if only they would open up a Costco here so that I could get cheap salmon and cheese…

    • TravelnLass says:

      Yes James, we lasses “of a certain age” ain’t content to play bingo at the Senior Center in our comfy native lands. Lots more fun to bounce over here to Asia – to live deprived of both salmon and Jarlsberg. 😉

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great stuff, please keep it coming! Wonderful to read different stories and perspectives.
    Amy VJ

    • says:

      Thanks Amy, glad you’re enjoying the new series. Yes, there’s many different perspectives to the why and how of taking the Great Leap. I hope these tales will inspire those who might be hesitant to give it a go.

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