While children generally finish school between 4.30 and 5pm, their parents often do not leave their offices until half an hour or so later. This has led to the flourishing of after-school care for kids in HCM City, a service common in the West.

While most of the services offered are professional and the children are looked after with knowledge and care, a few others are run by amateurs, where standards can be much lower. A few of these are run by people of goodwill who do not even charge parents.

But the mainstream providers, by and large, are providing an invaluable service. Parents can either collect their children as soon as they finish work, or they can leave them until much later.

If they decide to leave them later, the children are helped complete their homework and are given a nutritious snack. Meanwhile, the parents can go home, take their time to prepare a family dinner, and either collect their child or have it brought home by taxi at say 8pm.

This leaves the rest of the evening for playtime!

"Our daughter leaves school at 5pm every day, but both my husband and I have to leave the office late, so we cannot pick her up," says Phan Thi Thong Nhat who lives in Tan Binh District.

Several months ago, after hearing there was a centre which took care of children after school, she decided to use the service.

Workers from the Happy Back Home centre are present at the school at exactly 5pm every day to pick up children by taxi. They take them to the centre, where they can relax, have a bath, drink milk and eat a light meal until they have the main one at home.

At 6pm, children begin studying with teachers who show them how to do homework exercises and other work. The teaching sessions at Happy Back Home finish at 8pm.

"I have only one thing to do: to collect my child at 8pm. She doesn't have to study at home any more, because she finishes her work at the centre. Therefore, we have more time to talk with her during dinner, something we could not do in the past," Nhat says.

The total amount Nhat pays for the service is VND1,6 million (US$80) a month, which, according to her, is well worth it. In the past, tutoring lessons after school alone cost her VND1,5 million ($75) a month.

But, not all after-school child-care services are so professional. Phan Minh Anh, who lives in Go Vap District, spends VND600,000 ($30) a month for a similar service.

"The service provider is a retired state employee and loves children," Anh says.

But Anh is a little bit worried about the service, because the child-care centre is a small room crammed with students. The light meals are basic and the service providers are not trained teachers. However, Anh says she does not have any other choice.

Dong Thi Minh, a parent from Phu Nhuan District, says she relies on the service provided by a kindergarten teacher. However, one day she left the office early and went to the kindergarten to pick up her child. When she got there, she saw a motorbike carrying five children aged from three to five.

"I saw my child sitting behind the motorbike driver, with no seat belt. It was terrible," she said.

Another worry about amateur services is that power sockets are usually within the reach of children. And teachers often do not spend much time taking care of children, because they are doing their own housework.

The most ideal solution for keeping children after school hours is that schools provide extra services.

Dang Thi Nguyet Anh, a teacher at the Ben Thanh Kindergarten, says with the service she can have a little more income, nearly VND1 million ($50) a month, but she has to stay at the school until 6.30pm and asks her parents to pick up her own children.

Meanwhile, Huynh Thanh Hang, a teacher at the Mam Xanh Kindergarten which does not provide the service, says most of teachers at her school do not want to work overtime. "We do not have enough health for the work, and we need time for resting to recover," she says./.