Saturday, July 2, 2011

{Expat life} Moving on

A year ago today we moved into our villa in An Phu, District 2, in Ho Chi Minh City. A very secure compound by the riverside with resort-like facilities (which of course comes with a price!).

This time next month we'll be living in a new rental house in Thao Dien (also District 2, but closer to the school) - that is, if we don't get screwed over by the potential landlord at the last minute.

We're fast learning that in Vietnam it doesn't matter if you're drawing up a contract. At the last second the landlord can say "sorry, didn't I tell you that I was negotiating with someone else?...and they've just signed". Very frustrating!

The difficulty is down to the fact that houses are listed with numerous property agents (more by default than design) which means that more than one person can be in the process of signing a contract at any one time. It's all about whether your ink dries faster!

Watch this space. If all goes well we'll be moving to downtown Thao Dien on 1st August. Away from the secure compound life we've grown used to over the past 2.5 years in Vietnam, which means that in addition to our current staff (housekeeper and driver) we now have to hire a night security guard!

NB: some expats would argue the need for a personal security guard to watch your house overnight, but they are the lucky ones who have not been yet! But more on that topic another day!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Travelling with kids - how to avoid inflight tantrums

This week the writers at The Punch ( shared with readers a lively, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, office discussion about the horror of being seated near a screaming baby on a long haul flight.

Titled "I've had it with these #!* babies on this #!* plane", as it was designed to, the article sparked a heated debate on The Punch's comments board.

The topic followed this week's confirmation from Malaysia Airlines CEO, Tengku Azmil that the airline doesn't allow babies under 2-years-old to fly first class (and apparently that has been their policy for years).

You can read Malaysian Airlines' defence of the baby ban policy here. Interestingly the statement is all about the reconfiguring of their planes rather than the true reason for the ban.

As pointed out by Azmil on Twitter earlier in the week, the ban comes down to the fact that first class passengers who pay a lot of money to fly just don't like screaming babies. Who does?

As a parent of two noisy pre-schoolers, who fly long and short haul on a regular basis, I also don't like being seated near screaming babies or other people's bratty 4-year-olds who kick the back of the seat and have sugar-fuelled tantrums.

The (unfortunate) fact is that as parents it's generally not an option for us to leave our kids behind when we travel in order to make it a more comfortable flight for the rest of the passengers.

So what's the solution? Should families who travel be segregated on "family-only" flights or, alternatively, should airlines introduce "no-kids" flights to give intolerant adults an option? Should people with kids be given a different section of the plane? (But that's just as stupid as the old smoking sections on planes because, just like smoke, kiddie noise travels a long way!).

Basically it comes down to parents taking a sensible and considered approach to travelling with their kids, particularly on long haul flights.  

Team Somerville has certainly had its fair share horrendous flight experiences due to the bad behaviour (and otherwise) of our children.

A standout example was when my then 3-year-old projectile vomited all over me as the pilot was announcing the plane's descent. As I found out when I tried to get out of my seat to go to the bathroom, air stewards have no sympathy for a parent covered in vomit. They just want you to sit the @#! down!

We're certainly not experts, but having notched up loads of air miles with young children in tow since we left Australia in early 2009 here's our tips for travelling with kids.

With babies (0-2 years):

There's generally a reason for a baby to scream - they're hurting, hungry, overtired and/or over-stimulated. Make sure you prepare for all possibilities.

Some ideas to make their flight more comfortable:

  • Keep their routine: try to work in with their sleeping and feeding routines so they don't get overtired. For really young children, we've found that overnight flights work best.
  • Drugs are good!: if it's the first time your baby has been on a plane, pre-empt any issues with their ears by giving them some cough medicine (such as dimetapp or benadryl) which will help "balance" their ears (this is advice I was given by a nurse when my girls were little and it hasn't failed us yet!). Always carry baby Panadol or Nurofen in case they have any kind of pain during the flight.
  • Something old, something new: for babies they will appreciate some comfort from home so make sure you bring their favourite teddy or blanket. Like any kid, no matter how old, they'll also appreciate something new such as a toy or book to play with. And if it's wrapped so they can play with the wrapping paper, even better!
  • Seated for comfort: most carriers will let you sit with a child 2 years and under on your lap which means they fly for free. If you can afford to buy them their own seat, it is more comfortable for them and you. You will need to take their car safety seat which can be strapped into the plane seat. Also good if you're hiring a car at your destination. 

With toddlers and pre-schoolers (2-5 years):

It's pretty obvious but so many parents travelling with kids just don't seem to get it. Children need to be entertained on a long flight. Don't board the plane expecting the flight attendants to find ways to keep your kids busy, the inflight children's pack will be opened and discarded long before the plane takes off. Always take your own toys (new if possible), books and snacks. 

Like you they'll be excited about going on a holiday, but they're not going to understand just how long the flight will take. Talk to your kids about what is going to happen, particularly if it is their first plane flight. To make it more exciting, let them help pack their own carry-on travel bag (we highly recommend the Trunki).

Here's some ideas to make your trip fun for everyone:
  • Timing is everything: try to work in with their sleeping and eating patterns. When our kids were babies we found overnight flights were best. Now they are 4-years-old, and less likely to fall asleep easily, we find the daytime flight is better - they can watch movies or do drawing and if they miss their afternoon nap it's not such a big deal.
  • Divide and conquer: if you are travelling with more than one child (and two adults), we recommend splitting them up. Try to get two rows near each other and give the kids the window seat (which has the added advantage of keeping them contained). If you're lucky you'll get a spare aisle seat so you can let your kids spread out.
  • The bribery bag: make travelling on a big plane fun. For all long flights we give our girls a present bag that they only receive once the plane takes off (if your kids aren't used to travelling you might want to give it earlier). In our present bag we have small gifts that will keep them occupied during the flight. Examples: a small toy (for us a Strawberry Shortcake or My Litttle Pony), a small lego set that they can build on their tray table, reading books, colouring crayons/pencils and colouring books, a new dvd. Also include some of their favourite snacks, but go easy on the sugar! And if you wrap each present it makes it just a little more special.
  • Let their eyes go square (just this once!): once your kids realise there's nothing interesting down the end of the aisle, they'll be happy to sit and watch a movie or kids tv show. If you don't think the inflight programs will be suitable, take a portable dvd player or laptop with their favourite tv show or movie. Take some kid-sized earphones as some carriers don't have them. If you have an IPad they have some great kids apps that will keep them amused for a long while.
And if you're a childless adult flying on a plane where someone's kid is misbehaving, try to have some sympathy. Instead of scowling at the parent who's trying their hardest to keep their brat under control, put yourself in their shoes.

If you can't do that put your earphones on and keep your opinions and snarky looks to yourself. And if you're that intolerant, learn from our mistakes - go get yourself sterilised. (sorry, just kidding!)

Do you travel regularly with small kids in tow? Share your travel tips (or horror stories!) by posting a comment below.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Give blood, save a life

Sweetened condensed milk in a tin. Yum! In Australia, at around $3 a can, it's considered more a luxury than an everyday item. Its primary purpose is as an ingredient in desserts (and also for fat spoilt kids whose moron parents let them suck it out of a tube like they're drinking skim milk!).

In Vietnam, at less than $1 per can, it's used to sweeten Vietnamese coffee (Ca Phe Sua) at street stalls and coffee shops throughout the country. Given many Vietnamese households are without refrigeration, particularly in rural areas, sweetened canned milk is also used as an alternative to fresh milk as it's cheaper and has a longer shelf life.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when I was given a bag of sweetened condensed milk cans as a thank you present at a blood donation centre in Ho Chi Minh City this morning. Afterall, in many Australian Red Cross Blood Donation Centres donors are given a free meal.

But what I found disturbing when I got back to my office, feeling no worse for having shed 250mls of my blood, was that I also found an envelope containing 50,000VND amongst the cans (along with two blisters of B12 vitamin tablets which I was encouraged to take by the nurse to make me feel better!).

I immediately felt sick, like I had done something immoral. This can't be right. I went there to do good and I left with a bag of cans and an envelope of money that I don't deserve (let alone need). I felt ashamed.

Even though (for me) it was a small amount of money, I'm not quite sure why I had such a strong reaction to being paid for my blood.

In many countries paying blood donors is viewed as an acceptable way of encouraging people to donate. In Vietnam where horrific motorcycle accidents are an everyday occurence it is essential that healthy people are encouraged to donate blood, so this can only be a good thing...right?

But a scene from this morning's donation drive has played over and over in my mind, adding to my sense of discomfort. 

At the centre there was a young, skinny guy, barely 18 years old, who had the unkempt appearance of someone who struggles to get by from one day to the next. He went into the blood donation van after me with a big smile on his face. What I didn't realise at the time was that, for him, this was pay day.

In Australia, we donate blood because it's the right thing to do and, lets face it, for the feel good factor. Here, where poverty is a sad reality, blood donation centres offer a harsh insight into the facts of life in Vietnam.

No matter where you live in the world, donating blood is essential. I'll continue to donate while I live in Vietnam, but next time I'm going to make sure my goodie bag goes to someone who really needs it.