What does it take for foreigners to start a family in Vietnam? Having a baby anywhere is a major life event, but expats doing so in Ho Chi Minh City face challenges and opportunities that don’t exist in their home countries. By Michael Tatarski. Photos by Fred Wissink.
Like many new expat parents, Ann Lennartsson, a Vietnamese-Canadian mother of two, was initially nervous about having her first child in a developing country. She was unsure of the facilities and considered returning to Canada to give birth. But her Swedish husband, Jakob, convinced her to stay in Vietnam.
“Vietnam makes more babies than most countries in the world,” Jakob says. “It’s pretty safe to say it is something they do well. Plus there are many international hospitals available.”
They had their first child at FV Hospital in 2009. Since then, Ho Chi Minh City’s health facilities and parent support networks have improved considerably.
Before October 2009, there were few support networks for new expat parents. Couples were away from their extended families, and there were no formal parent support organisations. That changed when Karen Spencer-Harty, the clinical coordinator at Family Medical Practice, created the Saigon International Mother Baby Association, or SIMBA. Spencer-Harty has 24 years of experience as a midwife in Asia, and after moving here from Bangkok she realised parents needed help.
“I began just giving birth education classes at first, and then SIMBA was created to give parents a chance to meet and share experiences and problems,” she says.
The first classes were open to expecting parents and anyone with a child under 6 months old. Since then, SIMBA has established several play groups, which are largely parent-run, where children up to age five are welcome.
According to Spencer-Harty, the SIMBA groups have become very popular. “At one recent Saturday meeting we had 25 parents and 19 kids,” she says.
Lucy Graham, Family Medical’s marketing and communications manager, adds that SIMBA has been a great benefit for many parents.
“Some expecting couples are worried, and these groups give them a chance to talk to people who have done this before, so it makes them much more comfortable,” she says.
Belinda Smith, another mother of two, attended the SIMBA classes for both of her children, as did her husband, Jonathan. Belinda says they were “essential, though not so much for moms, as we read up on everything and constantly visit forums so we know what is going on.”
Instead, “It’s best for the dads, as it allows them to be fully prepared for everything that is going to happen,” she says.
While SIMBA’s birth education classes do prepare parents for almost every possibility, there are still times when it may be necessary for a couple to seek more advanced medical facilities than are available in Vietnam. Dr Rafi Kot, the director of Family Medical, says having twins in Ho Chi Minh City, for example, is not ideal.
“Twins have a higher rate of premature delivery, so if you are going to have twins you need to be sure that your hospital has a capable NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit,” he says.
Here, the most advanced NICU can care only for babies born at 30 weeks, while the best facilities in the west can handle babies born at 25 weeks.
“This five-week difference may not seem like much, but one week in the womb is equal to five or 10 years of development outside of it, so this is huge,” Kot says.
He adds that mothers with prior health issues or blood problems also should consider having their babies elsewhere, as complications can arise that facilities here may not be equipped to handle.
“If you have no such issues, then you can do it [give birth] anywhere … Remember, delivery is not a disease, it is a natural thing,” Kot says.
For Ann Lennartsson, the decision about where to have her first child was easy, as FV was the only western-grade facility with a full obstetrics department at the time. In her experience, “the hospital was comfortable and modern, but the communication was really lacking.” Her baby was delivered by caesarean section and immediately taken from the room, and her husband wasn’t allowed in.
Ann was then taken to a recovery room, but she was not told how long she had to stay there. “Since it’s a general hospital, there was some guy on the bed next to me who had just had an operation, and he would only wake up to vomit on himself. The nurse told me to try to sleep, but I was nervous,” she says.
Two hours later Ann was taken to a private room where she was able to relax with her child and husband.
The rest of her time at FV was comfortable, but the experience helped Ann and her husband to decide to have their second child at Hanh Phuc, a maternity hospital that advertises itself as the first Singapore-quality clinic in the city. Ann says her experience there was “fantastic”.
“Everything was spelled out to me beforehand, which made me much more comfortable,” she says.
Kot, however, is not in favour of maternity hospitals.
“The good thing about FV is that it is multidisciplinary, so it can handle complications better,” he says. “What happens if the mother has an amniotic embolism? Will a mother-child hospital be able to handle that? No.”
Belinda Smith had both of her children at FV. She and her husband had heard some horror stories about the hospital, but their experience was much better than that of the Lennartssons, who had been there more than a year prior. The Smiths found that communication with the staff during her first delivery was fine. Belinda explained that it is customary here for a newborn to be removed from the room, but she asked if her child could stay with her, and that was allowed.
During Belinda’s second pregnancy, she decided to try something completely different. Spencer-Harty, from Family Medical Practice, had recently undergone training in HypnoBirthing, a technique created by Marie Mongan, a prominent American hypnotherapist. Spencer-Harty had in turn trained the staff at FV, and was looking for a mother to try it on. She was excited to share the method, as it proved that a non-medicated delivery is possible. After the painful, noisy experience that was the delivery of her first child, Belinda was eager to go another route.
“I didn’t think Jonathan would be into it, but he was actually extremely interested,” she says. “[Jonathan] thought the HypnoBirthing sounded great, because it emphasises the positive aspect of giving birth, instead of people yelling ‘push’ the whole time.”
The couple began the necessary five-week training course with Spencer-Harty towards the end of Belinda’s pregnancy. The first session began on a positive note, covering why HypnoBirthing works. Belinda explained that “emphasis is placed on the fact that the female body is designed to give birth, the pain comes when everything tenses up during a standard birth.”
As for the procedure itself, HypnoBirthing involves the application of visualisation and breathing techniques. There is also different terminology. For example, a contraction is called a ‘surge’, which sounds less painful. Belinda recalled that “there are certain phrases you’re supposed to use while training as well. Some sound pretty cheesy, such as ‘go inside your birthing body’.”
Now, Belinda laughs at the phrase, but while pregnant she found it extremely helpful, as it allowed her to picture her with the baby in a peaceful place. The mother’s partner is also vital to HypnoBirthing, as it is his job to ensure that breathing patterns remain regular.
This training and strange lexicon paid off at the hospital.
“The delivery was an amazing experience,” Belinda says. “The labour was quick and there was very little pain.”
It was also a much quieter experience than her previous delivery. For the most part it was just her and her husband in the delivery room. “The doctor came in at the very end, and all she had to do was catch the baby,” she says.
Belinda and Jonathan were, as far as they know, the first couple to undergo the full HypnoBirthing training and delivery in Vietnam. Spencer-Harty says that a number of mothers have used the method since, and it has received rave reviews.
“It gets you thinking that this is going to be an amazing experience, that it will be a privilege, not an ordeal,” Belinda says. “I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Of course, pregnancy is only part of the process of having a baby. One of the first things new parents have to worry about is getting birth certificates for their child, and this is a time-consuming process. Every baby born here has to get a Vietnamese birth certificate through the Justice Department, no matter what nationality the parents plan on claiming.
The Lennartssons began working on this process immediately, but it wasn’t easy.
“It’s very bureaucratic,” Ann says. “We considered getting a lawyer, but that’s expensive so we did it ourselves. It was extremely irritating, and for both babies it took three visits to the Justice Department to finally get things through.”
The Smiths had a similarly frustrating experience. “There’s a lot of red tape,” Belinda says. “You have to get together a whole packet of information proving that you had the baby, that you live in Vietnam, and so on. It’s a tedious process.”
Once a baby is issued a birth certificate, the parents can then apply for a passport from the appropriate consulate or embassy.
Belinda recommends getting started before a baby is born and making at least two copies of everything. “You never know when they are going to ask for duplicates of notarisation or things like that. I would allow at least two or three months between giving birth and making any travel plans, because it will take at least that long to get your baby a passport. “
Fortunately, once the ordeal is completed, life becomes easier for new parents. Ann believes this is a great country in which to have a child because Vietnamese love babies and are eager to help.
Belinda also finds expat life to be useful for raising a newborn.
“Many expats have help around the house, so you can focus on caring for the baby without worrying about washing or ironing and all of that.”
She also disagrees with the common assumption that there isn’t much here to keep children entertained. “There are a ton of places to go and play groups to visit. There’s always stuff on for children,” she says.
In addition to the SIMBA groups for young children, there is the Vietnam Parents Network, a Google Group full of information related to raising kids. Thanks to the presence of networks like these, as well as modern facilities like FV, Hanh Phuc and Family Medical Practice, having a baby in Ho Chi Minh City is easier and more comfortable than ever.