News - September 3, 2018 | 04:40 pm PT

In Vietnam, kids shackled by isolation, poverty dare to dream

Poverty is forcing kids in a northern highlands commune to quit school and get married or work in China. 

"If my father does not let me go to school, I’m going to kill myself," Nga, in eighth grade now, is serious, her mouth pressed into a hard line.

She wants to become a doctor so that she can save people’s lives "just like Dr. Sam." Sam is a physician in her village who uses herbs collected from the forest to treat various illnesses.

Nga does not have a thumb. She lost it when she and her brother were cutting grass for her family’s buffaloes. The clump of elephant grass was twice her height, and as she was holding it for her brother to cut, the accident happened.

Since that day, she does not talk much. Since that day, her desire to become a "Dr. Sam" has intensified. 

Eighth-grade student Nga and terraced rice fields in her hometown – Hoang Su Phi District, Ha Giang Province. 

Ha Giang, among the most beautiful places in the country, lies 240 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Hanoi.

The extraordinarily picturesque province also has the distinction of being the second poorest locality in the country. And in this poor province, the poorest district is Hoang Su Phi, and in this poorest district, one of the poorest communes is Chien Pho, where little Nga lives.

The commune nestles in obscurity, hidden by forests and mountains. It takes many twisting passes to get to Chien Pho, home to the Nung ethnic minority community that Nga belongs to.

In the heart of Chien Pho Commune are several brick houses in a dilapidated condition. Together, they make up the Chien Pho Secondary Boarding School and the commune’s People’s Committee. Standing nearby is a row of wooden, fibro-roofed houses, a temporary market where locals sell goods on mats placed on the ground, and everything that can be considered a trace of an economy stretches for a little more than a hundred meters in total.

This place seems to swim in a sea of floating white clouds, and everytime the sun rises high and disperses the clouds away, China comes very clearly into view.

And if this is not rural enough or remote enough, you will have to travel another 10 kilometers on a muddy road, through slopes, streams and paths carved into a cliff, in order to reach Nga’s house.

"If I have enough money to send her to school then I will, but if I don’t, she will have to stay at home and work on the farm," said Van, Nga’s father.

Van has been working as a banana porter in China for several years, earning around VND300,000 ($13) each day. Healthy people in his neighborhood leave home for such jobs whenever they can, especially after Tet, the biggest holiday of Vietnamese people, and after the paddy harvesting season in October.

Everytime he goes to China, Van stays for 10-15 days.

"The border guards do not allow us to stay there longer than that."

And everytime he goes, Van has to get a travel permit from the district authorities and return before it expires.  

Two Nung boys play in their house in Chien Pho Commune.

The village is just 30 kilometers (18 miles) away from Ha Giang, but there is no job in town. Every year, the family depends on the VND8 million ($343) or so that Van earns in China and around VND2 million from selling plums they grow. But in years when it is too cold or there are hail storms, they will get nothing from the plum farm.

The small paddy and corn fields can only meet the basic daily needs of a family of six, and sometimes they need to get help to stave off starving.

The truth is that the stunning terraced paddy fields that bewitch every visitor to Ha Giang cannot deliver much to the families who live off them, because some families here own just one line, with space that is not even enough for a buffalo to walk around comfortably. 

"We are no longer allowed to cut down trees, so there is no more space for farming corn," Van explained.

Having no stable livelihood, many people living along the nation’s border seek employing in the neighboring country.

But not every Vietnamese citizen in Ha Giang goes to work in China legally, like Van.

At the Chien Pho Secondary School, teachers keep notes on their students.

"Sui does not go to school because he is still in China, working."

A secondary school student cannot get official permission to work in China, so this young boy has got there illegally.

Another note says: "Nha has got married, moved to her husband’s home and is not allowed to go to school."

This is all too often the fate of children here; that they drop out of school to work and support the family. Women, young girls even, cannot get a proper education because their families cannot afford it, or do not prioritize it, and get them married early.

About ten miles away from Chien Pho, the residents of Ho Thau Commune have a signature product, the Shan Tuyet tea, made with leaves plucked from old trees that have grown without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Around two decades ago, it was common to see local farmers, mostly belonging to the Dao ethnic group, flock to the center of the commune every afternoon with heavy packages of tea leaves on their backs.

They picked the tea leaves in the morning and sold the product to the commune’s cooperative at VND2,000 (8.5 cents) per kilo.

There were days when those farmers could harvest up to 30 tons of fresh Shan Tuyet tea leaves, but the factory of the cooperative could only process 20 tons at most and refused to take more.

"The farmers would return home at midnight with tea on their backs and tears on their faces," remembered Nu, deputy chairman of Ho Thau Commune.

Young leaves of Shan Tuyet tea in the palms of Pan, a Dao woman who has spent her entire life growing and picking the tea leaves.

Locals then decided to roast the remaining tea leaves. The process took a lot of time and work, but profit was modest at just VND1,000 for every kilo, and the Dao began quitting the tea business one after another.

In 2003, the tea cooperative was disbanded after years of making losses.

But some people refused to sit still and watch the rich source of ancient tea trees in their hometown go to waste. They decided to open their own workshop to process tea at home.

One of these people is Trieu Sanh Quay. Quay and his family roast tea leaves, pack them in big bags and wait for traders to buy them. When it rains heavily, Quay is stressed out, worried that no one will turn up because of landslides and muddy roads.

Two Dao boys stand in front of their school in Ho Thau Commune.

Along the Ho Thau mountainsides, young tea trees are growing up next to the old ones. Every spring, the Dao people plant new trees in the forest, and their tea gardens are growing. They use no chemicals or fertilizers, needing just the mist and sunlight to nourish them. These leaves are collected by traders and taken to other parts of the country. They are also transported on horses to China.

The people of Ho Thau know how valuable their Shan Tuyet tea is, but up to 64 percent of families here are poor, nine times higher than the national average and 1.5 times higher than the average poverty ratio of Ha Giang.

Ho Thau families get just VND12,000 for every kilo of roasted tea. Quay’s family earns about VND60 million ($2,578) each year.

Elsewhere, in Hanoi and Saigon, the two biggest cities of Vietnam, boxes of tea that are branded "Shan Tuyet" with no geographical indication are sold at VND250,000 ($10.74) for 80 grams.

There is only one road leading to this tea haven in Hoang Su Phi District and it has twisting, smoggy sections. The provincial transport department has counted more than 1,000 zigzag sections along the 60 kilometer road that connects the national highway with Hoang Su Phi.

In Hoang Su Phi, people are connected with singular paths that run through forests and mountains. These are blocked in the event of landslides and floods triggered by heavy rains.

"It was an unwritten rule among the children that if it rained, they would not go to school," said Vinh, a teacher in Ho Thau for 16 years. Then, the Ho Thau secondary school was not a boarding school.

To this day, to get to school, children here have to negotiate with five big streams and nine rivulets. Anytime it rains heavily, it is difficult to tell what kind of troubles those kids can face.

Vinh still cannot forget the time he was playing football with other teachers in the school yard and spotted a crack. They planted a stick in the crack to mark it, only to see it widen 20 minutes later, and a part of the school yard along with the chicken coop collapsed in an instant. 

Hoang Su Phi seen from above 

Before turning three, Vinh’s first born was a healthy, handsome boy. One night, the boy developed high fever, but Vinh was away from Ho Thau for a training course in downtown Ha Giang. By the time his family reached the hospital, it was already morning, although the distance between his home and the hospital was just 30 kilometers.

After enduring the fever almost for a night, the boy is not able to walk normally anymore. A highschool freshman now, he still needs physical therapy for his legs.

After that incident, Vinh decided to say goodbye to Ho Thau and move his family to town where they can stay close to the hospital.

"Unstable. Very unstable indeed," said Vu Manh Ha, Hoang Su Phi’s Party secretary, referring to the future of Shan Tuyet tea.

The natural terrain and underdeveloped traffic infrastructure has been isolating the tea from the market, he said. Roads in this area get blocked by landslides everytime it rains.

"There are probably not many places across the country that still do not have concrete roads, like the communes in Ha Giang," Ha said.

In the strategic plan for economic development for Hoang Su Phi, the tea is the main factor, ahead of fruits and other agricultural produce. The district is calling for investment, but so far, traders have only come for raw materials.

If there was a large-scale factory to process tea in the district to make branded Shan Tuyet tea with attractive packaging, things would be completely different for locals, Ha said.

The district’s chairman, Then Ngoc Minh, said the thing he wants most for the district is a proper concrete road connecting the national highway with Hoang Su Phi.

Many delegations visiting the district have told him a lot of good things about Hoang Su Phi, including beautiful scenery, nice people and well-preserved unique culture, but the difficulty in getting to the pristine land keeps visitors away.

"If there was a nice road, Hoang Su Phi would not be isolated," said Quay, a tea farmer who still finds it difficult to get good deals for his roast tea.

There was a time when the old tea trees in Ha Giang were chopped down and sold as logs. Big trees several hundred years old, as high as a two-storied house, were sold for a pittance, at around VND1 million ($43) each.

Back at Chien Pho Commune, the two most common reasons for dropping out of school are "married" for girls and "working in China" for boys.

If students are absent for two days in a row, the teachers will travel all the way to their village to find out the reason, and if they cannot persuade the students to return to their classes, they seek help from local authorities.

To help students stay, the teachers have used three classrooms as boarding rooms.

Nga is determined to turn her dream of becoming a doctor into reality. The dream has motivated her and her brother, also in the eighth grade, to work hard and become the brightest students in their village.

The two kids brave the dark, rains, landslides and floods to get to their classes on time. Some of her friends have already quit studying because they can no longer endure the harsh conditions.

But Nga and her brother do not stay at the ‘boarding’ school.

"If they stay at school then who’s going to cut the grass and feed the two buffalos at home? And then there are chickens and ducks that need someone to take care of. My wife and I already spend almost all day at the farm," her father said.

Teachers at her school remind Nga repeatedly that she should not drop out of school no matter what. They also tell the father to let his two bright children stay at the boarding school.

The father is non-commital: "Let me see...."

By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam
Photos by Chu Viet Bac, Hoang Phuong

While you are here, we would request you to donate to an initiative undertaken by VnExpress’s Hope Foundation. We are running a campaign called "Anh sang hoc duong" (The light to school) to build two boarding houses for students in Chien Pho and Ho Thau communes in Hoang Su Phi District.

For more information on this, please click here; and please consider donating to the "Anh sang hoc duong" campaign.