Simon Stanley visits Saigon’s first survival swim school for babies. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Recent statistics from the Department of Child Care and Protection show that an average of nine children die from drowning every day in Vietnam. Despite being a nation with 3,260 kilometres of coastline, plus countless rivers and waterways, it’s surprising to learn how many Vietnamese citizens have never learnt this one essential (and lifesaving) skill. A survey from the same department found that only 35 percent of children in the Mekong Delta knew how to swim, with the figure dropping to 10 percent in the Red River Delta.

Survival Swimming
Infant AquaticsSM is a US-based programme that teaches survival swimming techniques to children as young as six-months. Founded in Colorado by Judy Heumann, a child aquatic safety expert, it arrived in Vietnam in 2013.

It was in watching a video on YouTube about a baby falling into a pool and saving himself, that Tuyen Ho, an RMIT graduate and former forex trader at HSBC Vietnam, first witnessed the benefits of the survival swimming movement. In doing so, she also found her future career. “I always wanted to do something different,” she says, “something more meaningful. I knew this was exactly what I should do for my career, so I quit my job [at the bank] and went to Colorado to train with Judy.”

Tuyen returned to Ho Chi Minh City as the first and only certified Infant Aquatic Survival SpecialistSM in Vietnam. She established the Baby Fish Swim Academy in Thao Dien and began delivering the programme to locals and expats.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring down the alarming drowning rate in Vietnam,” she explains, “and to help kids discover the joy of swimming at the same time.”

Early Beginnings
Lessons can start at six months of age, where the private, four-week ‘Infant Survival’ course teaches them how to roll onto their backs and float from a submerged or face-down position. Helping babies to relax in the water is also vital. “Breath control is significant in swimming,” says Tuyen. “It is the first lesson every baby needs to learn. It is established by submerging a baby underwater for one second, right after he breathes in, and after a set of cues. The submerging time will increase gradually from one second to five seconds. The cues let the baby know when he is about to enter the water so that he can prepare himself by taking a deep breath.

“Babies all have the diving reflex, which allows them to hold their breath and move through the water for a short period of time. This makes them look like they naturally know how to swim, but actually they do not. This reflex will disappear at around the age of six months, just like other newborn reflexes. That is when we are able to establish behaviours to teach them to swim.”

Swim-Float-Swim
For toddlers aged 12 months to four years, Baby Fish offers a six-week course in ‘Infant Aquatics’. A step up from Infant Survival, here the ‘swim-float-swim’ technique is taught, whereby they learn to swim a short distance with their face submerged, then roll onto their back to take air and relax, before flipping over to swim again, all the way to safety. From there, the ‘Swim Wizards’ course (for ages four and up) develops the swim-float-swim technique to cover longer distances, in deeper water, and in heavier clothing. Youngsters then move on to the traditional swim techniques to take them into adulthood.

Despite the proven benefits, convincing Vietnamese parents to get their kids into swimming lessons can be a challenge, according to Tuyen. “They only think of swimming when summer comes,” she says, “which leads to the problem of overcrowded swimming pools and the seasonal shortage of instructors.”

For Tuyen, the reluctance to teach kids to swim is also part of a much wider isue in Vietnam. “It is very normal for us to see kids without helmets on motorbikes, and without seat belts or appropriate car seats in cars. People tend to think accidents will not happen to them so they don’t really focus on how to prevent them. Teaching kids to swim is important, but educating parents about safety around the water is even more essential. Parents need to know that drowning is silent. There is no such thing as screaming for help. If kids cannot breathe, they cannot scream.”

Spreading the Word
Tran Nhu Hoa lives in District 7. She first brought her two-year-old son, Steven, to Baby Fish back in April. With a pool at home, Hoa was understandably nervous about Steven’s safety. “Before this school,” she says, “I could only find swimming lessons for children of around four or five years-old, but thanks to YouTube we saw a lot of videos of babies swimming, so I began searching for a class like that in Saigon.”

Several months on and today Steven splashes around in the private pool, confidently demonstrating the techniques to his instructor as mum looks on. “I think swimming is one of the most important skills,” she says. “We have to learn as young as possible.”

“It is always better to get children used to water early,” adds Tuyen. “The simplest way is pouring water onto their heads during bath time when they are very young. That way they are used to having their face wet, which makes it easier when coming to learn the breath control skill.”

Jorge Martin, a Saigon resident originally from Spain, is sitting nearby. His three-year-old son Daniel comes skipping over from the poolside as dad holds out a towel. Daniel has been coming to Baby Fish for just over a year. “In the beginning, you bring them every day for ten minutes, so it’s very intense,” says Martin. “Daniel had a period where he was a bit scared, so we had to push him a little bit, but now he loves it. It really gives him a sense of self-confidence. It goes beyond enjoyment.”

Suitably impressed with Daniel’s progress, Martin and his wife are now preparing to bring their six-month-old to begin the survival programme. “Even in Europe, there aren’t many places like this,” he says. “It’s very special.”

For more information visit babyfish.vn.