Impoverished Elementary Schools in Vietnam, Helping Student Learn & Grow

Students getting school supplies

I work with a charity called Project Sprouts that helps out the villages and impoverished schools in North Vietnam. Through our work in these schools, we have discovered a lot about the Vietnamese school system and its amazing principals and teachers who really care about their students.

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Vietnam has five different levels of education as pre-school, primary school, middle school, high school, and higher education. In North Vietnam, many of these schools are out in the countryside and due to the location and the economies of the area, it can be difficult for the children to get an education due to the life challenges they have. Project Sprouts is a Hanoi based initiative that helps support education in these remote areas.

Students on the playground
Students out in the countryside on a playground for one of the schools in Son La, Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Public School System

Vietnam has a state-run public school system that is run by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET). The Ministry of Education and Training oversees all the education in Vietnam.

Education in Vietnam is divided up into five different levels as preschool, primary school, middle school, high school, and higher education. Formal education consists of twelve years of basic education.

The Vietnamese school system by each education level:

  • Pre-school Children – Pre-school children are from ages 18 months to 5 years old. This school is not compulsory but many parents send their children to pre-school starting at 18 months old. Parents must pay for this education but those parents who are very poor their children are usually allowed to attend free or with some government subsidies. For many parents where both the mother and the father must work and they have no other babysitter, the pre-school also acts as a kind of daycare.
  • Primary School Children – From the age of six, it is compulsory for children in Vietnam to attend primary school. The actual years of compulsory education are only five years of actual schooling. In Vietnam at least 95% of all children are enrolled in at least some kind of primary school at some time during their life. Primary school is not 100% free, as there are school fees that must be paid and also students need to have uniforms and even special shoes. For parents who cannot afford the fees, the government or school will usually help to subsidies in some way.
  • Secondary Schools – Middle and High School – The secondary school is split into two programs as Middle school or lower secondary school and High school which is higher secondary. The lower secondary school is from ages 11 to 15 years old. The higher secondary school is until age 18 years old. Secondary school is not compulsory in Vietnam and students must take an exam to see what school they can get into. Of course for better schools, the competition can be extremely fierce. This is why many parents may insist that their children take extra classes to ensure they get into a good secondary school system.
  • Higher Education – Vietnam has a lot of Universities, especially in the major cities as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. More and more Universities are being built, especially western-based or western named universities. For parents who have money, it is usually very important to them that their children go on to University and many of these same parents will tell their children what they must study.

Most Vietnamese students study very hard. Their curriculum is considered to be rigorous in many of the schools. Vietnamese families that have money will usually always have their children take extra classes in the evening and weekends to supplement their education.

Village School Vietnam
A teacher in a small village school up in Son La, Vietnam with a student with special needs.

The Vietnamese Village Schools

Vietnam has many villages out in the countryside. Some of these villages can be quite far away from any other city so they can be in a very remote area. Many of Vietnam’s minorities live out in these remote mountain villages and so their children attend these village schools. Vietnam has over 53 ethnic minority groups which total over about 8 million people. Many of these minority groups are living in the north of Vietnam on the borders between Vietnam and China and Vietnam and Laos.

With our work with Project Sprouts, we have been up to many of the smaller village schools on the border of Vietnam. Normally an area will have one larger school that is down in the main town area and then there can be a host of smaller village schools that are all attached under the care of the main school but these smaller schools are up in the villages.

Some of the villages can be 10 or 15 kilometers or more straight up a dirt mountain road. This is because the people are farming on the mountainsides. Many of these farmers are Hmong. You can read about the Hmong by reading the blog Hmong History, People and Culture. by clicking here.

These village school schools usually have a pre-school and then a primary school that has classes for grades one to three for the children in the village to attend. Once a child in the village is ready for the fourth grade they then need to go to the main school in another town.

This may sound very easy but the truth is for most of these families or students this can be extremely difficult. These students will usually need to stay at the school during the week in a dorm and then go home only on the weekends.

Many of these young children will walk 25 kilometers down a mountain to school early Monday morning with not only their books on their backs but also all their food for the week. The school does not provide the food for them, so they need to bring food with them.

These students will stay at the school from Monday to Thursday night in a very basic dorm room. These dorm rooms are usually overcrowded and extremely basic with a lot of other children who are in the same situation. On Friday afternoon the children make the walk back home again.

You may ask why don’t their parents just drive them to school? Their parents would not own a car and some may only have one motorbike, I am sure some parents do drive their children to school, but many do not have the means or the time to help their children get to school.

Getting teacher kits
Teachers in Son La, Vietnam getting some teacher kits from Project Sprouts.

Extremely Dedicated Principals and Teachers

As we have traveled out to many of these small village schools the one thing we have been impressed with is that the principals and teachers are extremely dedicated. For many of them teaching at these schools is at a great personal sacrifice.

We have been with the principals of these country schools and they could tell us about every student in their school and why the student is and is not in school. These principals know each of these families individually and all their stories and circumstances.

Teaching out in these village schools is extremely challenging. Many of these schools, may have a building, but the windows may be broken and the roof leaks. Many of the schools do not even have a toilet or any sanitation facilities. The students and the teachers must go out to the fields to relieve themselves.

Many of these teachers and principals may live so far away that during the week they need to stay at the school, usually sleeping on a cot in their office. I have met teachers in some of the village schools that travel over 25 kilometers each way to teach each day in a mountain school. For 10 of those kilometers, they need to travel straight-up mountain roads that were so difficult to travel that they have to put chains on their motorbikes to even get up the roads during the rainy season.

Pre-school children
Pre-school children in Son La, Vietnam.

Those Children Not in School

There are many children out in the mountain and remote areas who are not in school or who can only attend school Primary school and not Secondary or get a Higher Education. I have found for almost all these children who are not in school, they really want to be able to still attend school. Due to their circumstances, attending school is not an option.

Here are some of the reasons why some of these children are not able to attend school:

  • Economic necessity – For some of the families, they just cannot afford for their children to attend school. Even if the school is basically free, once the children hit the 4th grade and need to go to the main school and stay in the dorn they need to also provide the food and living for that child separated from their family This can cause economic hardship for the families. This can also affect a lot of these impoverished children for their secondary and higher education prospects, as their families just do not have the means to help them with their continuing education.
  • Need to babysit younger siblings – Like the economic necessity, for some of these families, they need to have the older children help tend some of the younger children. Many times this can affect the daughters more than the sons. Children as young as 8 or 9 years old can be a fulltime caregiver to a younger sibling.
  • Distance is too far – The distance may be too far for some of the children to attend school. It may be that they are not able to even walk the distance to school and they have no means of transportation to the school.
  • Special Needs and there are no programs – Some of the students may be ill or have other special needs and there are no programs for them. We once met a boy named Loi in one of these village schools and his father carried him to the village school each day to sit on a mat and go to class as he could not sit in a chair and could not walk. Once Loi got into the 4th grade he was no longer able to attend school as there were no special programs for him and his family had no means to send him to the school in the next town.
Young Hmong girls
Young Hmong girls who are not able to attend school as their families do not have the means to support them. Son La, Vietnam

What Does Project Sprouts Do?

Project Sprouts is a Hanoi based initiative whose main focus is to help impoverished schools in North Vietnam They realizes that we cannot solve all the problems for the village schools but feel we can try to somehow make a difference in the lives of these children and these teachers and the people in the villages.

Here is how Project Sprouts helps these village schools and communities in Vietnam:

  • Student school supplies – At the beginning of each school year we give out school supply kits to the students. Many of these students not only live far away from any schools but they also live in villages where it is extremely difficult to purchase any school supplies.
  • Teacher supplies – Just like the students need school supplies so the teachers can also use some supplies. So we give the teachers some school supplies to help supplement their teaching.
  • Winter coats and boots – As many of these children live up in the mountains they may walk for miles in plastic flip flops even in the very cold winter weather. We help these children by helping to provide them winter coats and plastic boots to keep them warm.
  • Re-distribute clothing and other slightly used items – We collect from the Hanoi community and other places some slightly used clothing, toys, books, and other items to re-distribute them into these mountain areas. We will give this clothing to the community.

You can find out more about Project Sprouts and the work they do in these villages and village schools in Vietnam by clicking here.

Winter Coat Delivery
Project Sprouts delivering winter coats to school children in Son La, Vietnam.

Despite many of these educational challenges in the villages, Vietnam’s education and literacy rates are quite high. This is no doubt due to the dedication of many of the teachers and school principals who know their students and try to do all they can to help them achieve their educational goals.

Do I need to speak Vietnamese in Vietnam?

Learning to speak a few words in Vietnamese will help you have a better trip to Vietnam. As with any place you travel, if you can pick up a few local words usually it shows the local people that you want to try to get to know a bit more about their country and culture.

In Hanoi, Danang or Ho Chi Minh or the major tourist areas, many people will speak English. As you get out more in the countryside it is usually harder to find people who can speak English. If you are planning to travel out into the countryside, you may need to have a translator.

Do I need a Visa to travel to Vietnam?

Most countries will need to have a visa to travel to Vietnam. Any visitor coming to Vietnam will need to organize and look at your Vietnam travel visa before you enter Vietnam. There are several types of ways to obtain a Vietnamese visa as at the Vietnamese Embassy, online through an agent or visa at the border. In some circumstances and for some nationalities Vietnam also offers some visa-free exemptions.

You can find out more about getting a Vietnamese Visa by reading our blog Vietnam Travel Visa, What You Need to Know Before You clicking here.

Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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