From idyllic to horrific
Phong Khe Commune, Bac Ninh Province
Tien, Hieu and Dung are secondary school students in Phong Khe Commune, Bac Ninh Province, which lies 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of Hanoi.
Every day, the three boys ride their bicycles for three kilometers along an embankment, then cross a river.
The path they take is a peaceful, beautiful painting of the countryside, with cows munching grass, clear blue skies and a quietly flowing river. Well, it should be.
What the boys actually see is cows burying their heads in piles of plastic bags and paper, a stinky river with thick half-black, half-red water, and the sky hidden by hundreds of chimneys spewing out smoke as plastic burns.
“It’s Phong Khe, so it’s natural that you see smog and dust,” Dung said.
Phong Khe has been famous since the 1950s as one of the biggest paper processors in northern Vietnam. Almost 70 years later, the sad fact is that locals have switched to burning plastic trash to operate their boilers. Every year, Phong Khe produces 200,000 tons of paper and dumps around two million cubic meters of wastewater, most of it not treated, into the local river.
Bac Ninh has recently invested VND400 billion ($17,204) to build a wastewater treatment plant, but the pipes from this plant run straight to the river.
Official government data say Vietnam is currently home to more than 5,400 craft villages, including those that are recognized by the state and those that are not, and almost half of them are polluting the environment.
No lasting solution has so far been identified to deal with this problem.
Meanwhile at school, Tien, Hieu, Dung and their friends and teachers have to shut their classrooms' doors and windows all year round to prevent breathing in the smoke coming from nearby plants.
Playing with life on the way to school
Xuan Lung Village, Lang Son Province
Every day, 30 children belonging to the Nung ethnic minority community in Xuan Lung Village, Lang Son Province, cross a river on a 100 meter long bridge made by tying 17 rafts put together.
This rudimentary bridge is the only connection that more than 300 villagers have with the outside world.
This bridge is the only way for kids in Xuan Lung to get to school, and whether or not they do get there depends on the weather.
It is a common story that during the rainy and flooding season, the village is isolated. Over the past ten years, 13 people have fallen into the river when trying to cross the bridge of rafts during the flooding season, and only six of them were saved.
For decades, people here have been dreaming of a concrete bridge.
The bamboo bridge is symbolic of a serious lack of infrastructure that impedes development in the northern highlands. Among hundreds of communes across the country that lack major roads to district centers, 80 percent are in the northern highlands.
“It’s very hard for Vietnam to complete its national programs if the government does not give priority to developing the rural highlands, Do Van Chien, chairman of the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs," said last August.
A spice route to bankruptcy
Chu Puh District, Gia Lai Province
Early in the morning, 12th grader Bich walks to school in a white ao dai that she has had since her 10th grade.
This school year is special for Bich not only because it is her senior year but because she is entering it with a family burden that bears heavily on her and her younger brother.
Her family’s pepper farm has died, like that of other families in Chu Puh, the red-soil land in Vietnam’s Central Highlands that was once the capital of black pepper.
Her house and the farm now belong to the bank, and her parents still owe loan sharks more than VND500 million ($21,400).
Bich and her brother now live with their grandparents as their parents are now in Laos, working on rubber farms. The two teenagers have just returned from the neighboring country after spending their summer vacation helping their parents harvest latex.
It is still rainy season in the Central Highlands and on the way to school, Bich sees red mud, wild grass and stakes standing empty in a funeral line.
“Where those stakes stand, we used to see pepper vines and a lot of pepper, just pepper,” Bich said.
Pepper cultivation once made many families in Chu Puh rich. Just a few crops were enough for them to afford big houses, cars and more land. Without any long-term plan, they rushed to chop down coffee trees, borrow money from banks and even the black market to expand pepper cultivation as much as possible.
By the end of last year, the area of black pepper farms in Gia Lai had expanded exponentially, but since the 2016-2017 crop, all pepper vines in the area got sick and died one after another, leaving farmers jobless and in debt.
Apart from the vagaries of diseases and other problems that monoculture generates, pepper prices fell from more than VND200,000 ($9) to less than VND50,000 per kilo after 2015, and the more the farmers stuck with the crop, the greater the losses they suffered.
This teenager’s road to school tells her about some fundamental problems with “modern” agriculture that puts farmers at the mercy of the weather and the market. It tells her about the danger of farmers choosing short-term profits and ignoring long-term benefits; and about the failure of the government to support farmers with proper information and policies.
Hold your breath, repeat
Nam Tu Liem District, Hanoi
Whether they are going to or returning from school, students who have to use National Highway 32 in Hanoi’s Nam Tu Liem District have to contend with copious amounts of dust and smog.
Air pollution has become a serious problem in major Vietnamese cities.
In only the first three months of last year, ambient air pollution in the capital city exceeded the World Health Organization's standards on as many as 78 days, according a study by the Hanoi-based Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID).
The air quality in urban areas is influenced by the weather, density of trees, and economic and social activities, including transportation, experts say. Cars and motorbikes are a major cause of air pollution.
Authorities have estimated that the density of trees in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City meet only half the standard.
"The air pollution in the capital is already at an alarming level," Chairman Nguyen Duc Chung said at a government meeting early last year.
An obstacle course to school
Can Huu Commune, Quoc Oai District, Hanoi’s suburb
At the time this photo was taken, these students and 22,000 local residents in Vietnam’s capital city had been living with floods for two weeks. The flood waters had almost reached the roofs of some houses in Can Huu Commune.
During these days, children in the Quoc Oai District, where the commune is located, got to school by boat, climbing from roof to roof and clinging to walls in certain places.
Without a proper, long term solution, this story will be repeated every rainy season.
Well ‘trained’ children
Le Duan Street, Hanoi
“Pay attention to the train” is a notice that is repeated many times along Hanoi’s Le Duan Street.
Duy passes these notices every day as he goes to school, or leaves his home to hang out with friends. For him, the railway track is a constant connection with the rest of the world.
“It’s no big deal. I’ve been doing this [crossing the railway tracks] since I was a kid,” said the 7th grader.
It is a big deal, though.
Official data from the Vietnam Railway Corporation shows that there is road crossing for every 1.8 km of railway tracks in the country, of which only 1,500 are legal, with guards, signboards and barriers. Around 4,000 crossings are illegal.
Between last September and this April, 199 railway accidents had been recorded with 91 deaths and 122 people injured.
In the early 20th century, Vietnam was one of the countries with the most complete train system in Asia.
“But things have changed in 100 years and that system is actually outdated,” Minister of Transport Nguyen Van The told a meeting with the country's legislators in May last year.
A wasteful path
Nguyen Khanh Toan Street, Cau Giay District, Hanoi
About 100 meters away from an elementary school and secondary school on Nguyen Khanh Toan Street in Hanoi is an outdoor dump site.
Around 5 p.m. every day, when the kids return home from school, is also the time when trash carts gather to dump all the garbage they’ve collected during the day, and wait for trucks to come by to pick it up.
The students walk or cycle by the dumpsite, step on the wastewater that leaks from the garbage and flows on the sidewalk. They talk, they read and they laugh normally, because the dumpsite is something they have gotten used to.
But students of these two schools are not the only ones that have to pass by such dumps in Hanoi every day. There are more than 3,000 such sites across the capital city and most of them are on the sidewalk or even in the middle of the street with no proper management.
Hanoi discharges nearly 6,500 tons of solid waste per day, excluding hazardous and medical waste. The city plans to have 17 waste treatment plants that go with proper landfills by 2020 but so far, just eight are in operation.
The daily wade to school
Thu Thiem Peninsula, HCMC
In the neighborhood where Nguyen Trung Quan lives, there are four roads worth millions of dollars per kilometer.
But the secondary school student still wades through water to get to school.
Quan lives on the Thu Thiem Peninsula, where Ho Chi Minh City plans to develop its new financial center.
The municipal People’s Committee has already decided to reclaim 930 hectares (2,300 acres) of the peninsula for this mega project, including 770 hectares for the new urban area and 160 hectares for resettlement.
But local authorities have committed many violations in the site clearance, compensation and resettlement process.
For now, it is not clear if Quan’s house will be taken for the project or not, and his parents have no option but to wait and hope.
Life goes on around them and construction sites have mushroomed next to the houses, causing water drains to clog. Quan and others living in the area are stuck with waterlogged roads, for now.
By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam, Bao Uyen
Photos by Ngoc Thanh, Thanh Nguyen, Huu Khoa