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The more kids the merrier? Not for parents in Saigon

By Kim Anh   September 6, 2017 | 07:00 pm GMT+7
The more kids the merrier? Not for parents in Saigon
A family with three children have dinner on the sidewalk in Saigon as they cannot afford to rent a bigger house. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The cost of raising one child is pushing the limit for many families in the city with the country's lowest birth rate.

Thu Hang’s son is eight years old, and according to her, slightly on the demanding and selfish side.

“I want him to have a younger sibling so he can learn how to care for other people,” she said.

But like most low and middle-income earners in Saigon, Vietnam's largest city, Hang’s income dictates her decision to have more children or not.

The 37-year-old and her husband earn around VND25 million ($1,100) a month and the only money they can save comes from their Lunar New Year bonuses. The city's average income last year was $5,500 a person, according to local authorities.

“I won’t have another child unless our income improves,” she said. “Life would be too difficult if we had another baby.” 

She said basic demands like school fees, milk, clothes, hospital visits and weekend outings take up a third of their income, and work on a house they are buying will cost another third this year.

Saigon is currently the country’s most crowded city with 13 million people, including more than eight million registered residents, but its birth rate of 1.46 babies per woman is the country’s lowest.

Last July, Nguyen Thien Nhan, the chief of the Ho Chi Minh City’s Communist Party unit, expressed concerns that the reproduction rate could lead to a labor crisis like in Japan and South Korea, and urged the city's women to have more babies to sustain the future workforce.

The city’s top leader did not address the reasons behind the low birth rate at the time, but some experts think income could be the main factor. (Vietnam's average annual income was $2,200 last year.)

Elementary public schools in Vietnam are free, but meals, English lessons and health insurance are not. Many parents only use public health insurance in severe cases, otherwise they go to private hospitals and clinics as often as they can afford to avoid crowds, red tape and unfriendly staff. 

Xuan Tung, a graphic designer for a communications company in the city and the father of a 12-year-old girl, also believes that raising one child is expensive enough.

His wife works at a bank and together they make nearly VND30 million ($1,300) a month. They spend nearly a quarter of that on their daughter’s education, including extra English and art classes.

“If we had another child, we’d have to tighten our belts,” Tung said.

“I don’t want my daughter to have a hard life, and I don’t want my wife and I to spend all our lives working without having the time to enjoy it,” said the 45-year-old, repeating the argument he used when his mother pointed to factory workers who earn a third of his income and still have two children.

Ho Thi Tuyet Mai, a family affairs therapist, said many couples have told her that money is the reason they are hesitant to have another child.

One client, who said that she and her husband spend a fifth of their salaries on rent, was worried they'd be unable to put food on the table if they had another child.

Nguyen Thuy Ha, a market research specialist, said that although Saigon is generally an easy place to live in thanks to the availability of cheap goods, an income of $1,300 a month is only enough to pay for an average lifestyle for a one-child family.

The city was the second most expensive place to live in Vietnam after Hanoi between 2012 and 2014. But a year later, both of them ranked below the northern highlands where many essential goods and services have to be shipped in from elsewhere, according to figures from the General Statistics Office.

A study last year found that around six percent of children under five years old in the city were undernourished, and the matter was especially serious in rural districts where people generally earn less.

Vu Gia Hien, a culture expert, said that the low birth rate is also a matter of attitude. There has been a rise in materialism and individualism, he said.

More people in the city, the most modern in Vietnam, are focusing on finding a good job and and enjoying life, rather than dedicating themselves to a big family.

He said the city is adopting an increasingly materialistic view from more developed Asian countries.

Beliefs about a child’s filial duty have also changed, he said. Fewer people now expect to depend on their children when they get old, and more are relying on insurance and savings.