I was delighted to connect via Instagram during our travels in South East Asia with fellow Aussie Terri, who is currently living in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) with her husband Ash and their young daughter “Bunny”. Global Parenting this month takes an in-depth look at what life can be like as a new wife and mum in this bustling Vietnamese city.
OG: So take us back to where this adventure started, how did you find yourself with a newborn in Ho Chi Minh City?
TF: I was born in Brisbane but grew up on the Gold Coast, Australia. My husband, Ash was born in Sydney but grew up on the Gold Coast as well. We went to the same high school (he was two years my senior) but didn’t start dating until I was in my second year of university. We were married in 2014 and within the week of finding out we were expecting our first child, Ash was offered his first shot at an airline as a First Officer with Jetstar Pacific in Vietnam. Just over a month later (the day after our 10 weeks scan) he moved to Singapore to start his training and I stayed in Australia to finish my post-graduate studies and continue working. In June last year our daughter, affectionately known as Bunny, was born and eight weeks later we packed up our whole life and joined him in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
TF: Ash and I had spent a bit of time in Vietnam during our travels before we were married and whilst I was pregnant, so I thought I knew what to expect when we arrived as a family of three. I didn’t. As soon as we walked out of the airport with our tiny baby, five moving boxes and 4 suitcases the tears started flowing. The air was hot and humid and filled with the sounds of a million horns. I felt so overwhelmed as we entered the chaos that is HCMC towards the apartment we would call home in District 2 (nothing like the Hunger Games). I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were insane for bringing our brand new baby to the unknowns of a developing country away from Australia and all of our loved ones.
OG: How much interaction do you have with the local community?
TF: The Vietnamese love children. Period. Being a fair skinned, blonde haired child they sometimes love ours a little too much. Some even believe they will have good luck for the rest of the day if they touch a white baby and go out of their way to get to her. It has taken some time to become accustomed to Bunny’s fan club and her frequent paparazzi but now we are pretty okay with it (unless she is asleep in the carrier or the pram – then it’s a case of you wake her you keep her). Take note of the “sniff kiss” also, for months I was paranoid checking to see if Bunny had done her nappy but I now know it’s purely a sign of affection.
Although a lot of Vietnamese speak English, particularly the younger generation, there is still a language barrier. We have found that by learning the basics niceties in Vietnamese such as hello and goodbye, how are you, please and thank you, numbers and basic directions you can get a long way. If all else fails a cheeky game of charades and Google translate can usually get you by.
(OG – thanks for the tip on WHY so many Vietnamese are obsessed with touching our fair-headed kids, I thought they were just a novelty to them, but they’re virtuous apparently too!)
OG: What facilities and activities exist for young children?
TF: In our district there are many playgroups that are free or charge a small fee to attend where children (and mums) can play and socialise (some are structured, some are free play) and some even provide light refreshments. Whilst good outdoor parks are few and far between there are a heap of indoor play areas such as Tiny World that are great fun for children of all ages. HCMC also has a zoo, botanical gardens, water parks and some of the major attractions like the War Remnants Museum and a lot of restaurants also have kids rooms that may or may not be supervised). The water puppet theatre is usually always a hit with the kids too.
OG: What are the schooling options for expats in HCMC?
TF: There are many international schools in HCMC with most accepting children from 18 months – 2 years for “pre-school” right through to year 13. The International schools can be expensive ($15,000USD – $30,000USD per year). If you are considering expatriation in Vietnam you may want to consider investigating if this is subsidised by your employer before moving to HCMC if you have school-aged children.
OG: What are health facilities like?
TF: I didn’t give birth Bunny in HCMC but I am still breastfeeding, which is not overly popular here (according to the World Health Organisation Vietnam has the lowest rate of breastfeeding in South East Asia). In comparison to the care I received at home after our birth there appears to be less support available here than in Australia.
Coming from a health background, having adequate health care was one of my biggest concerns about moving to a developing country. Thankfully we haven’t had any need for hospitals but the Internationally owned medical centers have been amazing (we use Family Medical Practice).
From the BCG immunisation for Bunny four days after we arrived (we were on a six-month wait list in Australia) to a panicked late-night dash to District 1 with her first fever that wouldn’t break, we have had exceptional care from her Pediatrician and all medication we’ve required has been readily available. Ash’s health insurance is covered by his employer and for a small investment each month we are also included and it covers most medical expenses. If you are considering expatriation in Vietnam you may want to check your health insurance for what it does and doesn’t cover, as I do know it can be quite costly otherwise.
I should also note that with the exception to the BCG immunisation we have continued with Bunny’s immunisation schedule in Australia as there has been some difficulty with supply in Vietnam.
Other things such as the heat and mosquitoes can also be an issue here. We tend to avoid activities outside in the middle of the day and go for our walks of a morning or late afternoon. Dengue fever is a real concern here especially during the rainy season and in areas where water has the ability to stagnate (which is pretty much all of the areas surrounding Saigon River and wherever drainage is poor – so pretty much everywhere!). We love the inbuilt mosquito net on our pram and I also use a children’s insect repellent on Bunny if I am concerned about her being bitten.
OG: What does a typical day in HCMC look like?
TF: I‘m technically still on maternity leave but I love having the opportunity to be a stay at home mum and travelling spouse. This is something that would not have been feasible had we still been living on the Gold Coast where the cost of living is a lot higher. Being married to a pilot there is no such thing as a typical day and we take each one as it comes and enjoy the time we get to spend with Daddy.
The average wage in Vietnam is ~$200USD per month so naturally, the cost of living can also be quite low. The way you choose to live is up to you. We have chosen to live in a Western-style apartment in Thao Dien (District 2 aka expat central), which basically comes with a Western price tag. You will definitely pay for any items that are imported i.e. Australian meat and to ensure your fruit and vegetables are organic. Water is dirt cheap (you shouldn’t drink it) but electricity is similarly priced to home thanks to 24/7 air conditioning. Internet and phone are significantly cheaper, faster and dare I say more reliable than Telstra.
We enjoy eating out at both Vietnamese and Western restaurants and we typically alternate between cooking at home and eating out every other day. As for clothing, its stinking hot most of the time, so nice light clothing is ideal. It can be difficult to find clothes over here for both Bunny and I so we tend to get those when we are at back in Australia and bring them back with us (men seem to be easier??? And if you are bigger than a C cup don’t even bother looking for bras!).
OG: What are the biggest challenges as a parent in this country?
TF: There are the everyday nuances such as poor air and water quality. Air purifiers can be purchased for use in the apartment and we buy water and boil it for Bunny’s drinking and food preparation just be sure.
As for transportation, unless you are in District 7 (the other largely expat area) pram friendly footpaths are non-existent so we can often be found pushing Bunny around out on the road among the bicycles, scooters and cars. Also, car seat regulations over here don’t seem to exist and the seat belts in most taxis are either non-existent or broken anyway so there was little point in bringing our own. When we first arrived this was something that really bothered me and we tried numerous ways of travelling with Bunny in the taxi. Now it’s a matter of ‘when in Rome’ and she has a great time looking out the window at the world around her sitting on our laps. We still haven’t put her on the scooter (we are waiting till she’s one) but it is not unusual to see locals (and some expats) with newborns and infants in arms or sitting in a high chair strapped to the scooter.
I must admit, the hardest thing about being in HCMC was moving away from my family, especially my mum, at a time when, being a new mum myself, I was leaning on her the most. There were days in Australia during those first eight weeks after Bunny was born where I didn’t manage to put on pyjamas, let alone get dressed, find the shop and translate the word “unscented” into Vietnamese in an attempt to locate some baby wipes. No amount of Skype calls can replace a mum hug and I make sure to stock up on those every time we are back on the Gold Coast.
OG: What’s would you recommend to expat’s looking to move to Vietnam?
If you’re considering moving to HCMC my best piece of advice would be to get on the Saigon International Families facebook page. This page was set up by an expat mum when she came to HCMC and she does an incredible job of keeping the forum free of spam, creating a safe place to ask questions or buy, sell and swap all things baby related. From which district we should live in, to the best type of nappy to use, to who the best Pediatrician is and where to buy food colouring (you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find something so simple!), this forum has been invaluable.
Overall, our time in HCMC has been positive and if you have the opportunity to do so I’d say what are you waiting for!! When we were planning a family I thought our travelling days were numbered but living overseas (and admittedly having access to staff travel) has opened the door to travel within Vietnam and to other parts of South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand with Bunny in tow. We have also been forced out of our comfort zone in order to meet people. I can honestly say in eight months I have made lifelong friends from many backgrounds and all walks of life (expat and local).
We also hope that by raising Bunny in a developing country this will make her more of a worldly child, nurture empathy for those less fortunate, appreciate what we have and foster a want to make a difference in the lives of others.
Thanks to Terri for sharing their story with us – certainly a place we have become intrigued with visiting over the years and often wondered what it would be like to live their full-time with our own family.
One top tip I will leave with our global travellers, using social media can be an invaluable way to learn about cities you will be visiting – or even moving to! Search by hashtags including the city name or attraction you’re looking for to find useful information and make a connection to those already on the ground.
Have you checked out the rest of our GLOBAL PARENTING series?
© Our Globetrotters
Images © Terri Foster