As he prepares to embark on fatherhood, Simon Stanley talks to three families from Saigon’s international community about what life is like for foreigners raising children in Vietnam. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Teachers Anita and Sean O’Neill arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the summer of 2014 with their then four-year-old son Jude. Both had been working in British state schools and had neither lived nor worked abroad before. In fact, they’d never even been to Asia.
“We didn’t do the travelling thing when we were younger,” says Sean, “so there was an unfulfilled desire there. We had very comfortable lives in the UK, living in a very comfortable place in a nice part of Cheltenham, which is a lovely town. It was all very… nice. The next 15 or 20 years could have very easily elapsed in a perfectly fine way, but also in a quite uneventful way. I think we wanted to mix it up a little bit, to get away from the ordinary. We saw that as a positive for Jude.”
Despite leaping into the unknown, the couple were optimistic in the run up to the move and had very few worries about becoming expat parents. “We just felt that Jude was young enough,” says Anita. “When children are younger, they just adapt more quickly. He was at a good age. There was a point about a week before we were due to leave when I was sitting in our garden on a beautiful sunny day, and Jude had all of these lovely friends at his pre-school, and I thought, why are we doing this? We’ve actually got quite a good life. But it was just a tiny pang.”
The family soon slipped into Saigon life, but there was still a period of adjustment for its youngest member, as Sean explains: “It took him longer than us. He was going through this massive change like us, but he didn’t have the awareness or the insight into why we were doing it, and what the long-term benefits would be. All of a sudden he’s in a place where people are speaking a different language, and so there were people he couldn’t communicate with so easily. He was just starting school as well and he was definitely much quieter.”
“He wasn’t sure why we were here,” adds Anita. “I don’t think he realised that we were living here. He kept saying, ‘So when we move next…’ and, ‘When we go to the next country…”
“That was something that was really nice during our summer holiday in the UK this year,” adds Sean. “Towards the end of it he was asking, ‘When are we going home? When are we going back to Vietnam?’ To hear him saying that was really great.”
As full-time teachers, finding a good nanny to look after Jude before and after school was an important part of Sean and Anita’s successful integration into expat life. But even then, employing a nanny came with its own worries.
“Leaving Jude [with the nanny] was the most stressful part that I remember,” says Sean.
“Ultimately, you’re leaving your child with someone you don’t really know,” adds Anita. “They’ve got a reference but you probably have to take some risks that you wouldn’t take in the UK, and that feels a bit strange at first.”
“The one massive help was that because they’re doing a lot of the boring household tasks, it means you’ve got more time to concentrate on being a family and doing fun things. In the UK we’d be spending a Saturday morning going to the supermarket or cleaning. Here you don’t always have to do that, so you can go for breakfast together, you can go and have fun. You get a much better quality of life.”
For Sara and Dane Ruperts, both originally from Slovenia, the decision to move to Vietnam in 2015 with daughter Ula, three, and son Tim, five, was all about finding that idyllic family life. “I think without the kids, we wouldn’t have made the decision to move,” says Sara. “We wanted a different lifestyle for them. We love where we were raised, but it’s not the same country anymore. It has become so social media and so image obsessed that we really didn’t want our kids raised in that environment. We wanted to go somewhere where it would be much simpler, just to give them a longer childhood.”
The foursome moved into a large house in a quiet alleyway on Le Thanh Ton Street, eventually opening the building up as a guesthouse and cafe. They called it The Yellow House. “We’re in the middle of District 1,” says Sara. “We’re so central, but at the same time we can’t really hear the motorbikes. The kids have their little safe haven where they can play.”
Able to work from home, the couple have grabbed the opportunity to spend as much time with their little ones as possible, preferring not to enlist the help of nannies and maids and instead getting the kids involved in the running of the household while homeschooling them at the same time. “We want to prepare them for the world,” adds Sara. “We do a lot of practical things, a lot of experiments and a lot of reading. We play boardgames and they learn numbers through those. We like playing Uno in Vietnamese, for example.”
On being so geographically removed from their families back in Europe, Sara sees both positives and negatives. “If we get sick for example, we can’t just pile our kids on to their grandmother, so there are some downsides. But you do get to live a family life without so many frustrating people butting in all of the time. It’s very nice. It feels very free. People give you a lot more room for parenting here. Back home, every grandparent, every aunt, every supermarket cashier… they all try and give you parenting advice. Here they don’t do that.”
Being away from ‘home’ also has its benefits for Sean and Anita, particularly when Christmas time comes around. “One of the nice things is that because the TV here is different, you don’t get the advertising,” says Anita, “so Jude kind of misses all of what’s cool and what’s ‘in’. It’s nice that he’s not affected by that whole advertising machine that we have in the UK. He doesn’t really know what’s out there.”
For Sara and Dane, initial plans to traverse the city on foot and by bus were soon scrapped. “We brought our double in-line stroller and we were really optimistic about it,” says Sara. “That quickly ended in the first week. If I were having a baby in the city now, I definitely wouldn’t buy a stroller. It does get really hot, but I’d use all different kinds of carriers and slings. It’s just so hard with a stroller here.”
Like so many foreign families, it seems, the Ruperts quickly found that two petrol-powered wheels were the most efficient means of transport.
“We did have an accident,” adds Sara, “and that made me rethink everything. We didn’t let the kids go on the motorbike for a while. We just had some bruised knees and it was really minor, but it did make us rethink everything. We took a lot more taxis during that period.”
Taxis are, of course, the safest way of ferrying children and infants around the city, although the whole issue of car seats and what to do with them upon arrival raises all sorts of headaches. Around the world, many urban parents without cars attest to the baby carrier method: strapping infants to their chests then slipping the seat belt between adult and baby. As a terrifying article on thecarseatlady.com demonstrates, a collision at just 21mph (34kph) multiplies a baby’s weight nine times. Fabric carriers simply aren’t designed to withstand this much force, particularly when exerted in a lateral direction, and indeed the tiny test dummy is ejected horizontally into the back of the seat in front.
Fortunately, help is at hand. The recently re-opened Saigon Centre shopping mall offers car seat storage for parents at its ground-floor information desk, while An Phu Supermarket in District 2 also offers a short-term storage area. Alternatively, if you make a particular journey on a regular basis, there’s always the option of finding a friendly cafe or shop owner and exchanging a few hours of car seat storage for your custom. It has to be worth a try.
The Teenage Years
Keen to find out what a life in Saigon is like for parents of teenagers, I meet Julia Hollande, mother of three, including two teenage daughters – Ann, 17, and Carolina, 19. Originally from Russia, they have been in Vietnam since 2004.
As Julia explains, Saigon’s (in)famous nightlife can be a worry as teenagers start looking to go out and socialise: “With Carolina, she doesn’t like going out too much, but Ann, she likes crowds, she likes going out. One of the issues we had was when I discovered that she had been secretly smoking. She was 16. They can easily get very cheap cigarettes here… it’s on the street and it costs nothing.
“Alcohol was never a big problem because they just didn’t like it, but I know a lot of families who have had a lot of trouble with it. Again, they can buy alcohol anywhere. Lots of bars and restaurants, particularly in Pham Ngu Lao in District 1, they will sell it to teenagers.”
Having witnessed the terrible effects of substance abuse first-hand, drugs weren’t something Julia had to worry about as far as her girls were concerned. “I never had it with my girls,” she says, “but I know some families who had big problems with drugs. In the end, everything depends on the parents. There was a case with a very conservative family whose daughter got into meth, and it was really bad. They had to send her away to rehab. But they were so conservative. They wouldn’t let her go out.”
And there’s the rub: giving teens the freedom to explore and socialise independently while also keeping them safe. For Julia and her girls, the balance came in the form of a strict curfew. “It’s not easy, because you can’t restrict them completely from going out,” she says. “They would find a way and there would be permanent conflict. My compromise was that I would never let them stay out late. I would always say you have to be home no later than ten o’clock. You can do whatever, but at ten you’re home. This is reasonable. They can go out and have fun with their friends, but then they have to be home. They don’t have the time to go crazy in District 1.”
Sticking to the rules and lessons you learned as a child can be tough in a country where no one else is observing them. Vietnamese culture differs in everything from queuing in shops, to table manners and etiquette. One problem Sara found was in teaching her children to care for the environment. “We come from a very green country where littering is highly frowned upon,” she says, “so here it was very difficult for our kids to understand that the same still goes. It’s still not okay to throw stuff on the floor even though everybody else is doing it.
“My youngest is one of those kids that just doesn’t care that much, so we constantly have to remind her, but my son always tells everybody off. If someone litters in front of our house, he will tell them to pick it up. It can be a little bit embarrassing because there’s this five-year-old telling off a 70-year-old dude about littering. If you’re getting told off by a five-year-old, you’re really doing something wrong.”
A Better Life
In the face of some minor downsides, raising kids in Ho Chi Minh City seems to be a thoroughly positive experience. The ease and simplicity of life here, plus the warmth and friendliness of the Vietnamese community, is clearly a major plus, although Julia does raise one potential risk when it comes to hiring nannies and maids:
“One day the girls were sitting watching TV, and our nanny, she was about 60 year-old, was doing something in the kitchen. I heard Carolina call out, ‘Tam, I want a drink!’ And there was this little old lady running in from the kitchen bringing her a glass of water. I said, ‘Carolina, did you break your legs or something?’ I started noticing that they were turning into these little slave drivers. A lot of people let their nannies and maids do that, and a lot of children, particularly the early teenagers, have a tendency to turn into monsters.”
“Of course,” adds Sara, “the way we parent is normally the way we were parented. You pass down these beliefs and values but we are in such a different world to that which we were raised in.”
Sean jokingly admits that he sometimes has his doubts: “We were having lunch at the Caravelle, and it was one of those moments where you realise how much your life has changed, and Jude’s saying, ‘Daddy, can I have the white sauce with my langoustine?’ It was like, oh my god, what are we creating?”
While Saigon boasts all manner of options for keeping the family entertained, there are still some areas where it falls short.
Julia’s 17-year-old daughter Ann now lives in London as she studies for her A-Levels. Returning to visit Saigon this past summer, she began to see what she had missed out on by living here. “In London she can just go to a gallery or to a concert or museum,” says mum. “There’s much more culture there than we have here.”
Brits Sean and Anita and Sara, from Slovenia, also report a need for more cultural activities, more museums and more educational experiences. Access to parks and open green spaces is an other issue. “We would like to have a piece of jungle close by,” says Sara. “Just some pristine nature.”
“There are parks here of course,” says Anita, “but they’re not the same. They’re not quite big enough that you feel like you’re out of the city. It’s finding space for things like bike rides, it’s not easy. It takes a while to adjust to taking your children for an afternoon activity inside a shopping centre. I still find that quite weird because we’re so used to being outdoors in the UK.”
It’s a common sight: Vietnamese mothers and grandmothers cooing over the oh-so-cute yellow-haired foreign baby in the stroller. But for the O’Neills and the Ruperts, the attention became too much.
Sara: “Many Vietnamese people don’t really understand kids’ personal space, so after a few months of living here and exploring, we noticed that there was quite a lot of touching. One of our children is blonde and the other is really handsome, and there was a lot of touching. They hated it. You don’t want to be rude, but there comes a point where you just don’t care that much any more. At one stage, my son didn’t want to leave the house. It was literally happening with every person that was close enough. So we started almost beating them away with a bat.”
Anita: “As Jude has gotten older it’s not so bad, but when he was quite small it freaked him out a little bit.”
Sean: “It distorted his view of strangers. He’s in this new country and all of a sudden everyone’s touching his face and coming into his personal space. It was just a cultural thing.”
Road and traffic safety
How, as parents, can we even begin to teach a child how to cross the roads here in Saigon? How do you then explain not to even think about applying the same methodology in the UK or Japan, for example?
Sean: “There is a worry that he’ll grow up thinking that he can just weave in and out of traffic when he goes back to England. It’s about teaching him to be versatile.”
Anita: “I think he’s aware of the different contexts. He’ll talk to his friends and tell us how, ‘in Korea they do this…’ or ‘in America they do that’. He’s aware that things are different in each country just from his friendship groups.”