Five things expats need to know about healthy family living in Vietnam

If you are moving to Vietnam for a new work opportunity or simply a change of lifestyle, you are in for an incredible cultural experience. From lively - always - cities to off-the-beaten-track mountain retreats, there is an amazing mix of urban culture, traditional splendour, and rural charm. Expat Insider named Vietnam the 11th-best expat destination in 2016 - partly due to the friendliness of local residents towards expats and their families. However, due to the difference in culture, some expats might be concerned about practical considerations for their family, such as education and healthcare.

In terms of medical support, there is good private healthcare in the main cities, while public healthcare is harder to access - particularly in rural areas. This is why many expats opt for health for their families.

If you are bringing kids with you then helping them to feel settled can take a while, although there are some considerations for helping them to adjust, such as enrolling them in an international school.

Whatever your circumstances, here are five tips to help your family settle into a happy, healthy lifestyle in Vietnam.

1. Get to grips with Vietnamese food

Kids can be fussy eaters at the best of times, so you might find that Vietnamese food takes some getting used to with its unfamiliar flavours, textures, and appearance - and, of course, the fact that it is eaten with chopsticks! Traditional Vietnamese food should offer the protein, vitamins, and nutrients your family needs to stay healthy, with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, rice, nuts, and meat as part of the diet.

The Western influence has led to an increase in processed foods, artificial additives and dairy into Vietnam's diet, resulting in an increase in weight problems and obesity in children under five years of age, according to the National Institute of Nutrition. Just like in any culture, finding healthy food is usually easy with a bit of planning.

A good starting point for kids is to introduce them to favourite local dishes like pho (a meaty noodle soup), banh mi (a sandwich with pork or eggs, pickles, mayonnaise, and herbs) or banh xeo (a Vietnamese crepe filled with pork, shrimp, beansprouts and spring onion). They might also enjoy familiar dishes like spring rolls, which are often found in Western cuisine. If you're teaching them to use chopsticks, you might want to turn it into a fun game where you and the kids have to try to pick up sweets like jelly worms - this way, they may not see it as such a daunting skill to learn!

Vietnamese desserts are often healthy with lots of different exotic fruits available, including lychee, gac, star fruit and pomelo. A quick word of warning: durian fruit is another local delicacy, but its pungent smell and taste mean that it may not become a family favourite!

2. Learn the language together

If you're tackling language lessons, it can help to support each other with this and practice around the house. Where your child goes to school in Vietnam determines how important it is for them to learn the language. If they attend public school, they may need to grasp basic Vietnamese fairly quickly; for international schools, this may not be as important, as the lessons will be taught in English. Vietnamese is a difficult language to learn, so expats could motivate their kids by learning it together - this way, they may feel more supported and less daunted by the task.

3. Have fun!

There is so much to see and do in Vietnam for those who want to live a healthy lifestyle. Older children can try their hand at water sports or rock climbing, while younger kids may enjoy places like Hanoi Water Park. Families can have fun days out or trips away together exploring Vietnam's picturesque rural scenes. If your kids are having trouble settling into their surroundings, then you may find that exploring the country helps them to feel more comfortable in their new home. The Củ Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City offer an educational day out where families can learn about the Vietnam War (the kids may enjoy crawling through the tight tunnels). Another must-see is a Water Puppet Show in Hanoi - the tradition dates back to the 11th century and is a real splash of culture that all the family can enjoy.

4. Consider living outside the city

Vietnam's cities can be quite overwhelming, with all the heavy traffic, lights, noise, and smells. Everything from the food to the entertainment can overload the senses if you're new in town. Some expats find it easier to adapt as a family by living outside the cities, as this offers a slower pace of life and may reduce the culture shock. This could also be a healthier option for families, as air pollution in Vietnam's cities is increasing, and constant exposure to the city air can result in respiratory problems. With more space to run around, your kids may also prefer the freedom of living outside the city. There are still benefits to living in the centre, like being close to international schools and amenities - it all depends on what is right for your family.

5. Determine the most suitable type of school

In Vietnam, there are three main options for schools:

  • international schools, where lessons follow the curriculum of the expat's home country and are taught in English,
  • semi-private schools, which are part-funded by the government and typically for children with special needs or those taking vocational courses; and
  • public schools, which Vietnamese children attend from the age of three until they are 18.
Many expats prefer international schools, as they can help with a smoother transition and ensure consistency with previous education. These are usually more expensive and require parents to pay for uniforms and school trips. Public schools in Vietnam are easier to get into and cost less for expats, but the style of teaching is different to that of Western schools, with high levels of pressure on academic achievement. These are all things for expats to consider when picking a school for their kids.

Whether you choose to live in the city of rural Vietnam, there are plenty of opportunities for your family to take up new hobbies, learn the language and live a safe and healthy lifestyle alongside the locals. With some planning before you make the move, there's no reason why this can't be a smooth and enjoyable transition into a new way of life.

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