Nguyen Ngoc Anh's day starts early at 5:30 a.m., when she grabs breakfast and dashes off to make it in time for her first class at 7 a.m.
The 18-year-old spends the whole day at school, then continues her studies with extra classes until 9 p.m. Her 12-hour schedule ends with a late dinner at home, after which she prepares for another long day.
This is Anh's schedule for five days a week as she studies for the national high school graduation exam next month, the grades from which will decide if she will get into a good university, or any university.
As there are only a limited number of places, Anh pushes herself hard despite the tiredness. “My family wants me to get a university degree at all costs,” she said.
Tight academic schedules are common among students in Vietnam, where academic achievements are prioritized. Vietnamese students are under serious pressure to get good grades.
For the majority of Vietnamese parents, their children’s academic results are something to be proud of, and a university degree is the holy grail for a successful life.
Vietnamese students grow up being taught that they need to go to a good high school and a prestigious university in order to get a good job, said Nguyen Thi Hao, an editor of a well-known newspaper in Hanoi. “My father used to say that the only good thing a child can do is study,” she said.
This view is pushing many students to study day and night to meet their parents' expectations. For students, particularly in big cities, life revolves around studying, as their parents are willing to pay for extra classes and tutors on top of tuition fees to improve their children’s academic performance to give them more chance of being selected for a good university.
However, an intensive curriculum and high expectations are robbing teenagers of their youth, and sometimes their lives.
“As a mother, I’m not comfortable when my son has to study so hard, but that’s the only way for him to achieve his dream,” Hao said. Just like Anh, her son is competing with other 688,000 students this year for university places. In the most competitive majors, only one in seven students will be selected.
A student should only study eight hours a day, but as many Vietnamese high schoolers take extra classes, their study time has increased to 12 or even 15 hours, and extra-curricular activities and sports are mostly neglected, she said.
Quyen believes Vietnamese students are spending too much time with their books because they are under pressure from the “degree mindset” of their parents. Vietnamese society values university degrees, so parents are under pressure to push their children to get one, she said.
A survey published at the High School Science and Technology Contest hosted in Ho Chi Minh City in January said that 80 percent of high school students sleep for less than seven hours a day.
Among the 7,300 participants, 90 percent said they lacked sleep because they were preparing for exams late into the evening, and then woke up at 5 or 6 a.m. the next day to go to school.
In April, Vietnam was left in a state of shock after a high school student committed suicide by jumping off the fourth floor of a school building in Ho Chi Minh City.
The 10th grader from Nguyen Khuyen High School left a note saying that he could no longer stand the pressure of getting good grades from his school and family. His last grade point average was 8.9 over 10, according to the principal.
His case was extreme. However, his tragic suicide should be a warning bell for Vietnamese parents and society, as the academic pressure on students is now at a tipping point, said Quyen.
One major source of pressure placed on students are the schools themselves, she said. "Many schools nowadays treat education like a service. They will provide parents with whatever they want, even if that proves to be counterintuitive."
Other experts believe that a new education strategy is needed in Vietnam which focuses more on creativity and practical skills instead of pursuing high grades in theoretical subjects.
“Every student is good at something, so if adults can encourage and direct them, they will be more successful,” said Nguyen Van Ngai, former deputy director of Ho Chi Minh City's Department of Education and Training.
Parents should spend more time with their children to understand what they are really good at and guide them, he said.
But while educators continue to debate the philosophy of Vietnamese education, Anh and thousands of other Vietnamese students continue with their long, tiring classes.
Deep down inside, the 18-year-old fears that she will fail the exam and is unsure if going to a university is the best path for her.
“An exam should not be this much of a burden,” she said.
Look back at the pressure from last year's national high school exam.