Rearing a child in Vietnam

As his Vietnamese wife gives birth to their first son, Walter Pearson quickly realises just how different  rearing a child in Vietnam will be.

The driver saved the day. He had a newspaper. My wife was about to give birth to our first baby and people were saying she needed a newspaper. Of course, Vietnamese peasant women have a high pain threshold during childbirth. They can even read a newspaper while they wait. This illusion was to be dashed.

We had planned a safe clean birth at an international hospital in Saigon and estimated a delivery date of the 15th. The doctors predicted a delivery date of about the 25th. We believed them and planned to go down a week before and wait. The doctors were wrong. It was the 14th and I had just rushed my wife to the local hospital, the one she had wanted to avoid for hygiene reasons.

The car propped to a halt outside Emergency; we bundled out and a nurse ran towards us.

“No baby deliveries here,” she said waving and pointing around the corner.

We bundled back into the car and sped around to Maternity. I helped my wife to the cramped delivery room, where three other women lay on gurneys, their bare legs up in the air.

“She goes in but you can’t,” the nurse directed — my first indication that the whole baby thing is very different in Vietnam. This likely was to be our only child and I could not be at the delivery. So I set about organising the gear we had brought along.

“Four kilos,” Sister Eight announced soon after. What? “The baby, it’s four kilos.”

Only 25 minutes and we had a new baby boy. My wife was wheeled out to a recovery ward wearing a pale pink hospital outfit made of a loose-fitting cotton shirt and calf-length skirt. Sister Eight carefully placed the newspaper under the new mother to soak up excess fluids and protect the bed. Then my wife stuffed cotton-wool into her ears to keep out wind-blown disease.

The baby was covered in hair — head, ears, arms, back. I wanted to file an “Ultra-hairy Baby Born In Binh Long” story.

Sister Eight stayed with my wife 24 hours a day while in hospital. Hospitals provide treatment; they do not provide care. Sister Eight had to get food and drink, help feed and bathe the baby and guard him when his mother went to the toilet or bathroom. Baby-napping, especially of halfie kids like ours, is common.

There were three aromatic oils on the steel cabinet next to the bed. The green oil would be rubbed on the baby’s chest, head, arms and inner thighs. There was also an orange oil in a small, triangular bottle and a clear oil in a tall, thin bottle. My wife would use these for headaches, to cool her body, or for a list of other things I could not fathom.

The maternity ward had five beds, one fan, one florescent light, grubby walls and dirty floors. A range of strangers and family members came and went at will. After four days we were allowed to pay the bill of VND 650,000 and take the baby home. That’s when things got strange.

My wife had to stay in our bedroom for a month. By rights she had to keep the cotton-wool in her ears, and wear socks, pants, long sleeves and a hat. She could take a sponge bath in the room, but not shower.

The baby would sleep in the bed with us — and still does 14 months later. He would be bathed in green tea followed by the green oil. He would wear a hat, socks and gloves all the time, as well as a light elastic bandage around his stomach over his belly button. At night my wife would cool him with a banana leaf fan if he stirred.

Relatives and friends visited anytime they pleased. I could be naked in bed at 6.30 in the morning and some old great aunt would drop in on the way to the market. I would come home from playing tennis and have to find some other room in which to change. Most amazing to me was the number of young men who wanted to visit the baby. Feeding time was a show for all.

I would not have missed all this for the world.

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