Mind the gap: Young Vietnamese take time off to gain life experience

By Phan Duong   September 24, 2021 | 12:26 am PT
More young Vietnamese are taking gap years to obtain life experience and confidence before kicking off or resuming university.

Tran Minh Bach decided to enter an international university in Ho Chi Minh City a year later than his friends to "not waste his parents’ money."

"The tuition fee is about VND320 million ($14,050) per year, 10-20 times higher than public universities, so I was hesitant, worried I would give up my education," Bach, now a freshman, said.

While pondering, he asked his parents to let him start his university life a year later to have more time improving his English and other skills, so he could be confident when pursuing his university program.

"I also wanted to use the time to think about what I really like," Bach said.

In Hanoi, Hoang Dung is another student that delayed his studies at Foreign Trade University in 2018.

"I ‘dropped out’ because I wanted to take the time to find out what I'm good at, what I like to do, experience new jobs and places," Dung said, adding he was confused after studying at university for two years.

Bach and Dung are among many Vietnamese to pursue a gap year, popular among some young Westerners. A gap year usually occurs when students move from high school to college or while at universities.

Bach before knowing about gay years. Photo courtesy of Tran Minh Bach

Bach before knowing about gap years. Photo courtesy of Tran Minh Bach

Recent research shows that 230,000 18-25-year-olds take a gap year annually in the U.K., and the trend is only growing as 72 percent of young people prefer to spend money on experiences than material things.

In the U.S., 20 percent of Harvard first-year students opted to defer their admission in 2020, as students took a gap year rather than start their elite education online amid the Covid-19 pandemic. At MIT, 8 percent of first-year students deferred, up from normally around 1 percent, according to the university.

Professor Truong Nguyen Thanh, former vice president of Saigon-based Hoa Sen University, lecturer at the University of Utah and some universities in Vietnam, commented that gap years are not really popular in Vietnam but would increase in the coming time.

"The pandemic has made many families unable to afford sending their children to college. Many young people will postpone going to universities or reserve their education and go to work for a while before returning to school," Thanh said.

One reason gap year would grow in popularity is the growing awareness of independence among young people. The British Council in August 2020 conducted research on 1,200 young Vietnamese aged between 16 and 30, and found that about 40 percent felt pressured by their families to study or work in particular areas in which they show little interest.

At first, Bach's parents did not agree with their son's choice, saying no one took gap years.

Dung also knew his parents would not support him, so when he announced he would drop out of school, he asked them to not give him a monthly stipend.

With only VND70,000 left in his wallet, the man from Hai Phong City had to ask for food from his friends, and learn that he must live well before pursuing his passions.

According to a 2015 survey by Gap Year Association and Temple University in the U.S., people spending one year out of universities said gap years helped them broaden their knowledge and acquire the skills to succeed in life.

Deferring admission for a while can also lead to higher grades later, according to research from Middlebury University, the U.S.

But gap years are a "double-edged sword", as young people may use it as an excuse to leave school, wasting their time and losing motivation for their education, Thanh warned.

"90 percent of students who took a gap year before going to graduate school did not return. Those who took a gap year before taking undergraduate courses face a higher risk because their purpose in life is unclear and they may lose their study habit," he said.

Dung is now CEO of a company focusing on recruitment and career orientation for students. Photo courtesy of Hoang Dung

Dung is now CEO of a company focusing on recruitment and career orientation for students. Photo courtesy of Hoang Dung

During his gap year, Bach aimed to improve his English to obtain a 6.5 IELTS score. He worked part-time at a cafe and sold shoes and clothes, so he did not have to ask his parents for money.

"Thanks to a clear goal, I never felt lost. I learned about patience when going to work. And I am proud that I could learn a lot from talented people I know."

However, he did feel worried when starting his student life at the international university.

"The gap year helped me prepare better for challenges and new relationships, I would have been overwhelmed and found it difficult to adapt if I had not taken the gap year," said the student in Binh Chanh District, HCMC.

Dung worked as a translator during his gap year. Since 2019, he worked in sales for education, automobiles, and insurance.

From an initial income of VND2 million per month, at the end of 2020, he attracted online attention when revealing his monthly income of $5,200.

Having done many jobs, Dung found that practical experience helped him learn better. The more he worked, the more motivated he was to learn.

Last year, he went back to school to complete his courses before graduation. Currently, he spends up to four hours per day learning new knowledge and sometimes pays for courses from famous business persons in Vietnam.

At the age of 23, Dung is CEO of a company focusing on recruitment and career orientation for students.

"After all, gap years are not a waste, but a preparation for acceleration in life," Dung said, adding gap years do not push the stop button when it comes to university life.

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