The Cost of Motherhood for an Expat in Vietnam

Meghan Nesmith
Apr 5, 2016 · 7 min read

Diana Metzger is a writer and mother who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam, with her husband Manoli and 18-month-old daughter Isabel. When Isabel was 7 months, Diana encouraged Manoli to apply for a position in the Vietnam office of his Dutch-based NGO. They’ll be returning to America in September.

On childcare:

“For expats, nannies are the primary form of childcare in Vietnam. In Hanoi, the standard rate is 100,000 VND/hour (about $5 an hour). There is also an expectation of a “Tet bonus” (for the Vietnamese New Year) of one month’s salary, and paid holidays for Tet and any weeks we are out of town. Most nannies work full time — 9–5 M-F — but ours works three days a week, five hours a day with occasional extra hours on weekends or here or there if I’m on a deadline.

Izzy and Mai

We really adore our nanny Mai, and she adores Izzy and it’s wonderful that she’s so affordable: that’s been a benefit of the move. I posted on a Hanoi families Google group that we were looking for a nanny a few weeks after we moved here…We got an email from a Swedish ambassador who was leaving Hanoi and he encouraged us to hire Mai. Her English is very good — she lived in the UK with a family for two years. She looks after Isabel but also does the occasionally housework like laundry or dishes if Isabel is taking a nap. Some expat families, along with having a nanny, also have their children in school, starting at pre-school age (around two). Most locals seem to have family care because it’s customary for families to live multigenerationally in the home.”

On working mothers:

Izzy and Diana

“There is an expectation here that the men will work and wives take care of the children, though more and more women are working — as long as they have a grandmother or nanny at home to care for the child or the child is in school. Again, I can only speak for expats, but parental leave differs here. Several of my female friends who are teachers chose to take a year off work — unpaid — to take care of the baby. My husband works for an international Dutch NGO, so he received two weeks paternal leave (following the Dutch leave policy).”

On family dynamics:

“In a Vietnamese household there is much more of a shared care outlook, with grandmothers taking care of the children. Also, my husband’s Vietnamese co-workers seem very surprised at how often my husband changes diapers.”

On the costs of parenthood:

“Most Vietnamese make their own baby food. Pre-packaged baby food is pricey, as it’s all imported from Europe or Japan. The range is around $1.50–$5, from small jars to organic purees in pouches. Formula is also imported and ranges from $10–65 for a large canister, depending on the brand. Diapers are comparable to the U.S. unless they’re imported, in which case they’re about double the price. Unfortunately, the quality of diapers here is really poor — they’re very thin and plastic-y, and not very absorbent so you use more. Many people like the imported brands from Japan.

Clothing is interesting — you can find very inexpensive clothes for babies and children. Anything directly imported (from The Gap or H&M, etc) is about double what you would pay in the U.S., but many of those items are actually made in Vietnam, so there are these stores called “Made in Vietnam” that get factory castoffs. You never know what will be there, but I’m found a ton of great stuff for 1/3rd the U.S. price.”

On healthcare:

“Medical care for Izzy is completely covered by my husband’s health insurance, though medication costs are much lower than in the U.S. We go to Hanoi Family Medical, an all-encompassing doctor center that caters to locals and expats. A lot of vaccines are harder to come by here, and they run out quickly. I’ve scheduled trips home when Izzy needs vaccinations or her checkups because we really love her pediatrician back in Maryland.

Another concern living here is Isabel’s health. The air quality here isn’t great and Izzy’s developed a bit of a cough. Also the weather here is tough — it’s either brutally hot or very very damp, which limits outdoor time a lot.”

On consumerism:

“There is definitely a desire for stuff like in the U.S. Kids still want and have smartphones, iPads, toys toys toys. The biggest shame in Hanoi is that there aren’t a lot of parks or green space for kids to play because there’s so much new construction and poor urban planning. The schools have blacktops and small playgrounds, but that’s it. I see some kids ride bikes and play soccer outside — they find spaces to play, but there aren’t enough. Vietnamese culture doesn’t encourage being outside on hot or sunny days, because getting a tan is not a good thing, but on shadier days the parks that do exist are jammed — so there’s definitely an interest. There are also many indoor play areas but they’re very video game oriented and overstimulating — not really encouraging of creative play.”

On raising an adventurer:

“Izzy was 7 months when we moved and now she’s 18 months. A big thing that she potentially wouldn’t get to do in the U.S. is play with so many children from very different cultures. Even though she’s too young to realize that exposure to diversity, as a parent it’s made me realize how much I’ll want to seek that out for her when we’re back.

Izzy’s favorites

They adore babies in Vietnam, and so babies are embraced everywhere we go. We take her to a lot of restaurants with us and she’s at the stage now where she eats what we eat, so she’s tried all these local dishes. She really likes banh xeo and pho and she loves mushrooms. Dragon fruit is one of her favorites and she loves fresh mango. She also really loves the river fish and is a big meat eater so she loves the pork and chicken dishes. She really likes strong flavors and even gets excited by some spicy foods — I really think so much of that has to do with our ability to expose her to a different cuisine here in Hanoi.

Izzy gets to interact with Vietnamese kids a lot because we live in a neighborhood that is a real mix of ex-pats and locals. She loves watching the little boys play soccer (or football) in the blacktop area down the street from our apartment. We recently took her to the zoo and Vietnamese parents will push their kids to come talk to her, it’s pretty wild. All kids in school in Vietnam are required to learn English so a lot of Vietnamese kids will come up to us and want to practice their English, but also they like to affectionately cluck at Izzy or rub her cheek which is a common sign of affection with babies here in Vietnam. Some even want to take selfies with her.”

On the challenges of expat parenting:

“I’m very close to my mom and she retired when Izzy was born, so before we moved to Vietnam, my mom was very involved and my parents lived only 25 minutes away from us in D.C. Izzy was very attached to my parents and it was hard to leave that support system. I felt like I had a motherhood coach because my mom is a therapist and taught pre-school for 8 years. We still Skype every day, but it’s hard to not have that help. My parents were available for babysitting on a date night or would watch Isabel if I needed to work. It felt very old school. But I think having the distance now has also been really good for me and Manoli as parents. We’ve had to make decisions on our own, like when to take Izzy to the doctor or what she should be eating or getting her on a schedule, etc. I still ask the occasional question of my mom, but first and foremost it’s me and Manoli.

We will be moving back to the U.S. this summer, partially because it’s been difficult being away from both our families (Isabel is the first grand baby on both sides), but mostly for my career. As a television writer I need to be in L.A. I’ve been doing some freelance writing while I’ve been away and got commissioned to write a play, but I’ve felt very contained by the distance, work-wise. I’ve loved having the time with Isabel, but I’m also itching to get back to work full time. I feel more myself when I’m working.”

Meghan Nesmith

Written by

meghan@thebillfold.com

The Billfold

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