Friday, April 28, 2017

Is the booming tropical Saigon a perfect place to move with family?

Someone asked me a while ago to share my experience as an expat parent in Asia - and I was more than happy to, for sure! Moving with kid turned out to be a huge challenge. The fact that it was my first overseas move ever, didn't make it any easier. Now I'm extremely grateful for the incredible opportunity, that let me grow so much over old me. So, below are few of my tips and insights about parent's challenges in Saigon - one of the most popular expat destinations nowadays. I'm not naming any places or schools since it wasn't the point. But if you need specific info, I'll be really happy to share the details - just ask in comments!

A balance bike, few favorite toys, and books in check-in luggage. A handful of matchbox cars in cabin bag. In just nineteen hours, three flights and two transfers, we were to collide with a heap of unpredictable reality, called “Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”. Now I can recall the huge shock and enormous challenges we faced during our first months. Our family of three had to cope with them and adjust to living in this 12-million vibrant city, also known by its old name – Saigon. While much stuff here turned out to be shocking, much other stuff resembled home a lot. As a Vietnamese saying goes, “same-same, but different.“

Lovely Thao Dien area is an expat enclave of comfortable villas and apartment buildings

Hi, kid, where are you from?

Saigon is so full of children. Vietnamese babies are everywhere since the country is on the economy rise. Besides, there are kids of all nationalities everywhere around Vietnam, as it’s one of the most popular expat destinations nowadays. In Saigon itself, there is a bursting community of over 150 thousand foreigner families, and you can definitely tell it’s true after visiting a playground or two. During just one playdate Emir got to make friends with a little Japanese girl, and boys from India and Australia. Children around here are mostly bilingual and multilingual – they combine mother tongue with common English, and often pick up Vietnamese from their nannies, too.

Emir really missed his toys at first - we had to buy new ones, and quickly

Virtues of Vietnamese nannies

An English-speaking nanny working 11 hours a day will only cost you $350-$400 a month in Saigon. Not quite a Mary Poppins, your Miss Phuong won’t read your toddler nursery rhymes or master watercolor drawing. Though, the kid will always be neat, clean, sleeping well and stuffed with food.

The reason behind Vietnamese’s over-feeding is the famine of 1970-80’s. Most people still remember it well. A grandma with a bowl of rice chasing a plump toddler can be seen every here and there, from sidewalks to playgrounds. No wonder that nannies genuinely want to get your little one eat as much as possible. They will get really sad when you tell them not to.

Fruits are omnipresent and crazy cheap 

That's what you can get for under $6

Where to hang out with kids in Saigon

Parks of Saigon are quite different from what we’re used to in the Old World. While they’re nicely planned and maintained, there are, unfortunately, very few of them. As a result, they get overcrowded on weekends and holidays. Karaoke, loud music, all kinds of festivals with deep-fry food stalls and huge crowds of performers fill them nearly every weekend. Not quite a serene getaway you’ll crave for after a week in the frenetic city. As there are no other green areas around, your only option is renting an apartment or villa with a private yard. Or, loading your stroller into a taxi trunk to drive to the zoo or the park and have your nice 60-minute stroller walk there. Oh yeah, - no convenient public transport, too.

Due to heatwaves, indoor playground is a top popular option. For a fee of $5-6, your kid gets unlimited access to a spacious area filled with all kinds of toys and activities. Think building blocks, science area, role play facilities, dolls, sandbox, cars, dress-up, gardening, arcade, bicycles, crafts, etc. Free wi-fi for the parents included.

Water playgrounds are a great option during the midday heat. Too bad there are too few of them

Cost of schools in Ho Chi Minh City

A state-run Vietnamese kindergarten will cost you about $100 per month. However, the daycare system inherited from the USSR-friendship era might not be what you’re craving for your kid. International schools, on the other hand, seem terrific: huge villas with shady territories, playgrounds, modern facilities, up-to-date programs, inspired teachers and abundant well-trained staff. However, the price range is $500-1000 per month for a 3-year-old. It adds up quickly as the kid grows. $1200 for an 8-year-old, $2000 for pre-graduate years. Education price is one of the main reasons why foreign families leave Vietnam, as kids grow older. However, most expats can get educational remuneration from their companies as part of the relocation package. If that’s your situation, you’d better discuss it with your employer beforehand.

Because however expensive education is, it is mass. While it’s appropriate for babies to stay at home with nannies, by age of two, nearly 100% kids in Saigon are enrolled in either School, College, or Academy. Some families choose homeschooling, which might be a considerable option, too.

Our most vibrant kindergarten

Jungle study projects

These murals won my heart as soon as I saw them

School trip

Activities and Classes

Whatever your kids are into, you’ll find a tutor or a class for that in Saigon. There are lots of English teachers, as well as native French, German, Chinese and Korean speakers in the expat community, also dance studios and music academies are not uncommon. Horse riding, pottery classes, sports, and ballet are all available.

You can actually fill in your week schedule with Chinese, Dance, Art, Swimming, Guitar, Climbing – you name it, they have it. Classes are usually in English and cost in a range from $5 to $20 per one. Of course, you rarely pay per just one. In most schools, classes come in 3-months to 1-year bundles, that can cost you in a range from $300 to $10000 (no kidding).

And the younger your kid is, the more activities you’ll find available. Numerous baby centers provide socializing opportunities and developmental stimulation for the Saigoneers as young as 3 months of age.

Rooftop pools are very common

Pregnancy and delivery in Saigon

Vietnam is convenient to have a baby. A healthy diet, warm climate, laid-back lifestyle all create a great environment for the comfortable pregnancy. As you decide to go for it, you’ll need to choose a hospital and a doctor to deliver with. There are a handful of eligible international hospitals, some French doctors and some Vietnamese doctors educated abroad. If you’re lucky enough with your insurance package, full price for pregnancy follow-up and delivery can be as little as $1000. Still, some inconveniences might occur. Medical staff other than your doctors will rarely speak any English. Which can be frustrating, especially if it’s your first delivery. Be sure to have someone with you who can support you in labor, and someone who can handle important matters with doctor and hospital on-the-go.

Motorbike is the primary way to commute in Vietnam. There are over 8,000,000 in Saigon only

Medicine issues

Medicine experience abroad can vary hugely depending on your choices and doctor’s availability. Unlike in smaller cities, in Saigon, there is a dozen or so of international clinics with foreign or internationally trained specialists. A simple consultancy with a doctor in any of them comes with a $80-100 price tag. From there it can skyrocket, as you get tests appointed, meds prescribed and follow-up consultancies scheduled. Simply said, keep calm and get your insurance beforehand.

Luxurious properties are evenly mixed with trashy sidewalks

The bad and the ugly

There are few region-specific pitfalls. Education, as mentioned before, is extremely expensive. The cost of the usual school in Saigon is comparable to the price of best boarding schools in the UK.

Due to widespread tradition of hired help, kids rarely get involved in chores and therefore start taking things for granted. A sweet toddler babbling to his nanny quickly turns into an arrogant teen, commanding the maids to do this and that.

The expat community, while diverse, is not the best ground for nourishing long-term friendships. As friends need to leave, your kids may go heartbroken again and again.

Morning coffee on this balcony? Priceless

We adults know, that life is not all about pools and the sunshine. Even in the palm trees shade, you’ll need to pay bills, get doctor check-ups, meet developmental milestones, build social skills, and ensure children share your life values.
But for kids? For kids, every day in Saigon is sunny and hot. Filled with mangoes, bananas, pools, parrots, palms, and ice cream, life here is not uncomfortable nor exhausting. Besides, the dress code is just the best - flip-flops and shorts is all you need, all year round.

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