Things to Work on Before Your Vietnam Adoption Referral

By Margaret Weeks

The following advice is based on my own experiences in adopting my daughter from Vietnam. Most adoptive parents don't have the same amount of time that I did to prepare, so perhaps some of my ideas will come in handy to those of you who are more pressed for time than I was. Some of the ideas that I discuss are my own, many come from others who went before me to either Vietnam or China. I appreciate everyone who went before me, and from whom I learned valuable lessons. I hope that those who come after us will benefit from our experiences!.

My approach to this time before referral was that I was going to get as much work done on various projects as I possibly could. I used this time to do a number of valuable things that I knew, 1) I wouldn't be able to once I was a parent and 2) I would be too excited to do after I got the news about my child.

1. As soon as you make the decision to adopt, start a journal for your child, documenting every aspect of the process. This was one of the best things I did, and I think it will be invaluable for my daughter, as in many ways, it is one of the only family histories she will have. I have several bound documents including copies of all my papers, emails I wrote and received regarding the adoption, basically everything that related to the adoption process went into these documents. I also kept a journal of how I felt at different times, hopeful, disappointed, frustrated, mad, etc. I am hoping that by putting this all down on paper, one day she will realize how much I wanted her and how hard I worked to get to her.

There are some good out there, as well as adoption baby books, etc. that you will want to research, some of them you will want to take with you to help document the trip. I had to work very hard to document our trip, as so much is going on, and it is a very emotional time as well. I took a blank scrapbook with me and put things in it each day, knowing that I probably wouldn't have the time or energy to do so once I got home. I'm really glad now that I did that then. Once you return home, your routine changes so much that it is easy to quickly lose your memories of your trip.

There are several baby books written specifically for international adoption, but I found that none of them suited my situation as a single parent, so I have ended up writing my own on the computer. That is a good project to begin before you leave home. Look at a variety of what's available, and then you can write your own that is tailor-made for your family.

2.Make a list of all the things you like to do now that you won't be able to do once you have a baby. Everything from going to the movies on the spur of the moment to cleaning out the garage, getting away for a long weekend, etc. Then do as many of these things as you can, because it will probably be some time before you can do them again!

3. I did a lot of work around my house before I left, cleaning out closets, the garage, etc. Some people refer to this as nesting, I referred to it as necessary! I did not have the time or energy to do any of this when I came home, so I was really glad I did it before hand. It also helps to keep you busy in a time that can be stressful

4. I started getting the shots I needed 8 months before I traveled. It was helpful for me to space them out, and I could get almost all of that out of the way so I had one less thing to have to do as the time grew closer. I would strongly recommend doing this.

5. I spent a lot of time reading everything I could get my hands on regarding adoption and Vietnam. I also did a lot of research on the Internet, and found some really helpful stuff.

6. Some people thought I was crazy, but I also started my packing list for my trip 5 months in advance, before I even had my referral! If you are going to Vietnam, the weather doesn't change that dramatically, so the clothes part was relatively easy. It's all the other stuff that takes time to think about and pull together. My reasoning was that once I got the referral, I was going to be so excited that I wasn't going to be able to fully concentrate on this important aspect of the trip. So if you can, at least start thinking about what you think you will need, and start looking at what other people have taken. It was easier for me to shop and get things over time than it would have been had I done it all in a short period of time.

7. I know that people have different opinions on shopping for the child early, and planning their room, etc. I did only the shopping I knew I would need for the trip and enough things left at home (diapers, formula, wipes, etc.) to get me through the first 2 weeks. Friends and family will lend/give you things, people will have baby showers for you. I was glad I picked up a couple of packets of thank you notes (the smaller ones were best for me, as I didn't have time to write much once we were home!) and some note cards big enough to include a picture of the baby, as people who don't live near you will be clamoring for pictures.

8. I made up a list of names and addresses early on, and actually sent home a lot of postcards. I would suggest that you make up your postcard list before you go, that way you are less likely to leave anyone out. I would also recommend making up your gift list before you go for the same reason. More on shopping later!

One of the best things I did was to create an email list of people who wanted to hear from me when I was away. I would designate one person to receive it and have them distribute it to others, saves you time and money. Set up that list early, because if any of the email addresses are incorrect, it won't work for anyone. Definitely do a test run before you leave to get out any bugs!

9. My mother and I also spent a weekend cooking food to freeze, so we would have at least a week's worth of food when we returned. I was concerned that with jet lag etc. that the last thing we wanted to be doing was cook. It was a smart move. I also made out a grocery list before I left and put it on the fridge for the perishables that we would need immediately from the store on our return. I was glad to have that as well. A family member ended up seeing the list and taking it upon herself to do that shopping!

10. I tried very hard to learn some Vietnamese before we left, but I'm afraid I didn't do so well with that. I used language tapes, but if I had to do it again, I would find someone in the community who speaks Vietnamese, I think a tonal language like Vietnamese is easier learned from someone who speaks it, not from tapes. Being able to speak even a few basic words of Vietnamese goes a long way to establishing good rapport with everyone in Vietnam!

11. One of the things that I didn't think of that I wish I had was to have a short letter or an abbreviation of my homestudy translated into Vietnamese to give to my daughter's nanny. This wonderful women had taken such good care of my daughter, and we were very fortunate to have 2 weeks with her, but she didn't speak a word of English and I didn't speak any Vietnamese, so it was hard for us to communicate beyond a basic level. I did write her a letter of thanks and had it translated there, but too late I realized that this woman didn't know anything about me or my life. (after going through the homestudy and dossier process, I guess I just came to assume that everyone knew my entire life's story!) She and my mother ended up communicating basic info, like how old was I, where did I live, was I married, etc. I also took with me a small photo album specifically for her, with pictures of my home, family, etc., so she could at least see where the baby would be going, and what it looked like. I think that made her feel better. I showed her all the pictures with a translator explaining each picture. Before I left HCMC, I bought 25 airmail letters, stamps (which are prohibitively expensive for most Vietnamese) and self-addressed many of the letters to the baby, and gave them to the nanny as part of her gift. She has already written twice, and those letters are precious to me, and will be to my daughter one day as well.

12. Another thing that I did before I left was look up on the Internet a site for currency conversion for Vietnam. I then printed out several, and had them laminated. It made money issues much easier for my mother and myself.

13. The Internet can be a wonderful source of information about Vietnam, if you find the right sites. The time before you travel is the best time to do research on things about Vietnam. (you won't have time to surf the net when you get home with a baby!!) Learn everything you can about Vietnam, your guides and others will really appreciate it that you took the time to learn about their country. And you can look up everything from historical data to the latest restaurant reviews for Ho Chi Minh City!

14. One of the things that was the hardest for me was to assemble gifts for various people in Vietnam. Everyone in our group was to take small gifts for the agency workers in Vietnam, my child's nanny, the orphanage director, gifts for the orphanage children and various officials with whom we dealt. It is customary in Vietnam to give gifts as a part of doing "business" and to show your respect and appreciation. My agency suggested a few things, and I got other good ideas from people on the Internet. I suppose I had a difficult time with the concept that these wonderful people would make all my dreams come true and give me a baby, and I in turn, would give them a baseball cap!! It didn't really seem like a fair trade at all, but then it never could be. So I was left with the task of coming up with ideas for what kinds of gifts would be suitable, easy to transport and appropriate. I will include at the end of this a list of the things I took, and some additional suggestions from the staff in Vietnam that are great.

I ended up taking several gifts for my child's nanny (and I also bought another gift for her there as well) but one of the things she appreciated the most was a small photo album with pictures of my house, my family and friends, things that would give her a sense of what our life would be like. I left a few pages blank, and ended up getting a roll of film that I took of her developed there, and put that picture in the book. I am also sending her pictures on a regular basis that she can also add to the album.

15. When I went to Vietnam, I was not aware that I would have an opportunity to speak to the orphanage director about the circumstances of my daughters birth, and about her birth parents. When this opportunity presented itself, I was less than prepared, and not really focused, as I was with my daughter, and couldn't really concentrate on anything other than her! So if it is even a remote possibility, I would recommend that you think about what questions you would like answered, write those down before you go, and take them with you.

16. I made out travel arrangements through our local travel agent who did a good job. I made sure that she put in requests for bulkhead seats (especially coming back) and that she worked hard to find the best connections coming home. As it was, it turned out to be a 36 hour trip home with 2 significant layovers that couldn't be avoided. But if that happens, there are arrangements that can be made to stay at airport hotels or special day rooms that many international airports now have.

We flew United Air and were very happy with their service. Make sure to sign up for frequent flyer miles, as you will rack up tons on this trip! Part of the reason we chose United was so that we could use our miles domestically to visit friends and family. We also used Thai Air and All Nippon Air both of which are United partners, so our miles with them counted towards frequent flyer miles.

17. You might want to subscribe to an adoption magazine before you go and start reading them as another good resource. I subscribe to Adoptive Families and Adoption Today (previously named Chosen Child). Both are available in our local Barnes and Noble, you may want to check them out (if there's one near you) before you decide to subscribe. Vietnam adoption was profiled in the March 2000 issue of Chosen Child, which can be backordered.

18. I recommend replacing all the batteries in your camera, alarm clock, flashlight, etc that you plan to take with you. It isn't hard to get batteries in Vietnam, but I don't know how expensive they are. It is always a good idea to take all the batteries out of their appliances before you fly, as the pressure might cause them to explode. Better safe than sorry.

19. Have some "social" or business cards made up to hand around in Vietnam. Officials especially like to give theirs and get one from you in return. When you are in Vietnam, remember to get as many cards from as many people as possible, and write on the back who they were and how they were significant. You are not going to remember as much as you think you will, and will later wish you did. Another good thing to do is to get a business card at each restaurant you eat in, and on the back write the date, get the waiter or owner to sign their name, it makes for a nice keepsake. They are also useful for giving to taxi drivers who don't know a lot of English, if you hand them your hotel card, or a restaurant card, they can usually get you there with little trouble

20. Look for an Adoption Support Group in you area, and join. They are great for support and usually have any number of activities for families. They will be a valuable resource when you return with your child.

21. If this is your first child, and you don't have much experience with children, then perhaps it would be a good idea to see if there is a parenting class offered by your local hospital. If not, then ask a friend if you can spend some time with their baby. It is a good idea to practice before it really counts, with your baby. That way, when it is your child, you won't be as nervous, which will make it less stressful for the baby, at a fairly stressful time in general for you both!

22. Copy all your documents and leave them with a trusted friend. That way, if anything goes wrong, you can have the file sent to you immediately. (Make sure to research ahead of time which companies ship quickly to Vietnam, and which are less expensive. Give your friend that info, which will save time)

23. If you don't want to lug an entire baby book with you to Vietnam, you may want to copy a section of it that deals with children's illnesses and how best to treat them. It will probably make you more comfortable to have it.

24. Spend some time before you go looking for a pediatrician. You will want to meet with her before you go, to get acquainted and to get some prescriptions that you may need for the baby in Vietnam. Make an appointment to see her about a week after you return, unless there is a problem. That way, both you and the baby are less jet-lagged and the doctor is seeing more of what the baby is usually like. I have included a list of questions that you may want to consider when interviewing pediatricians. I would suggest that you interview several (if you have that option) to find someone with whom you can work well. The first person I interviewed was not someone that I would feel comfortable taking my daughter to, so I had to look a bit further, but it was well worth it, as we now have a wonderful person who is great to work with! (See the Comeunity website section for adoption health and special needs information).

25. If you are leaving behind other children or pets, you can start writing up their care instructions in advance, that way you won't forget something at the last minute.

26. I found it helpful to label all my film canisters with file labels cut smaller. That way, each time I used a roll, I numbered it and wrote a brief description of the roll. That came in handy when I got a few rolls developed in HCMC, to give some of the pictures as gifts to my daughter's Nanny.

27. One of the last things I did before I left was to install the car seat in my car, so it would be there for the ride back from the airport. It was winter when we got home, so I also left a coat for her in the car.

28. If your child will be going to day care, or you will be having someone care for your child when you return to work, the time to look for that person, or to visit day care centers is before you leave. It may seem like you will have plenty of time for that when you return, but I suspect you will not have time, nor can you count on having the presence of mind to do something so important! (sleep deprevation does strange things to your thought processes, trust me!) You will be better off making those arrangements before you go, that way you won't have to worry about them when you return, and it gives you less to do on your return, and therefore more time with your child before you have to go back to work.

Don't forget your passport, documents, visa and money!

Margaret Weeks can be reached at