It’s 11:20 a.m. Lunch time starts at the Chien Pho Secondary Boarding School in Hoang Su Phi District in Vietnam’s northern province of Ha Giang, a land of mountains, passes and rocks on the China border.
The children do not waste any time. They quickly sit down, seek permission from their teachers, part of Vietnamese etiquette to show respect to elders, and begin to eat as fast as their little hands and mouths allow.
Their food trays contain peanut roasted with salt, dried fish, fried eggs, and pumpkin soup besides as much rice as they want.
In 15 minutes all are done with the meal.
Most of the trays are clean with just a few having some remnants of fish or peanuts.
Only for the last two days has Vang Thi Nga, an eighth grader, had the chance to sit with her boarder classmates and eat.
Her close friend Ket, a boarder, had to take a few days off due to some family issue and Nga has taken her place.
Nga’s father does not allow her to join as a boarder since the 14-year-old is needed at home to do farm work.
So, on regular days, when most of her friends sit down for a hot lunch, Nga slinks away to a corner with her plastic bag with by-now cold rice and roasted peanuts, trying to hide her embarrassment and desire.
Her home is 10 km (6 miles) from school, and she and her brother Vang Van Hiep, also an eighth grader, walk to school every day.
But for the last few weeks Hiep has also had it good. He made it to the school team to take part in the district’s good students exam in late January, and his teachers said he needs to be at school for more for training. He also does not have to get up early to walk to school and back home.
Driven by poverty, people in Ha Giang Province, mostly ethnic minorities, do not consider it important to send their kids to school. In the community where the two children live, it is common for high school students to drop out to get married, illegally go to China to work, or just work on the farm.
In recent years, with tourists flocking to admire Ha Giang’s stunning landscapes, some kids have begun to beg tourists for money or food.
Thus, meals with fish, meat and unlimited hot rice are something that kids there dream of.
While many take lunch to school in plastic bags, boarding students at Chien Pho school eat from shiny steel trays.
A three-day test
"Nice menu. Vegetables, fish and meat. What if I can eat this for the whole week?" Duy Anh, 23, a freelance photographer, said.
He was one of six volunteers VnExpress chose to test how urban people feel about the food served at Chien Pho school. They had to eat the food for three days.
The other five were two women aged 20-25, a middle-aged woman and two secondary school students.
They were to be served lunch and dinner cooked exactly the way it is at the school. During the three days they were not allowed to have any snacks or drinks, just like the school boarders.
The government provides the school with a sum equivalent to 40 percent of the country’s minimum wage of VND1.3 million ($56) plus 15 kilograms of rice every month per student for teachers at Chien Pho to cook. This translates into around VND18,000 per day.
A typical meal eaten by kids in Ha Giang is not something unknown to outsiders, thanks to the Internet. Most of the time it consists of just rice, salt, sesame, peanuts, and boiled vegetables.
That explained why most of the volunteers in the challenge believed the food at Chien Pho school was "delicious" at first sight.
"Looks tasty just like bento," Phuong, 25, an office worker, commented about the Chien Pho food tray, comparing it with the Japanese single-portion takeout or home-packed meal.
The first day:
Duy Anh went to bed quite hungry.
Bento or not, Phuong did not go through her day in comfort. By evening, before dinner time, her hands were shaking from hunger.
For Hai Anh, a reporter, concentrating had become a hard task: "All I can think about is my hungry tummy." At 7 p.m. when she finished her yoga class, she felt lightheaded and had to eat her dinner immediately.
The second day:
Phuong sent a message to the VnExpress team at 11:15 a.m. asking when she could eat her lunch. "I’m so hungry," it read and had a crying emoji.
Duy Anh started to daydream about five-course meals cooked by his mother, drinks and cakes.
Hai Anh had to try hard to finish her lunch so that she could have energy to work. She even thought about cheating by having some snacks. "All I can think of is food."
Phuong said if the test had been for a week she would have thrown in the towel. But even when she was famished and could not type as fast as usual on the computer, she could not finish her dinner and left some boiled cabbage and dried fish on her plate.
That night Duy Anh decided to go to bed early to forget about good food and hunger.
"How do the kids in the uplands grow up?" Duy Anh asked himself.
Vang Thi Nga said about the cold rice with sesame and salt in the plastic bag: "It’s hard to eat, but I have to finish it all or else I will be hungry and cannot study."
That is how children in the mountains grow up.
Thus, the food they are able to get at school is a dream come true for them.
"The meals at school can’t be as good as the food in Hanoi, but much better than what I usually have at home," Trieu Mui Khe, a student at Ho Thau Secondary Boarding School in Hoang Su Phi, said.
Lu Thi Sen, her schoolmate, said: "The rice is hot, not like the cold rice I used to bring in plastic bags."
Their principal, Duong Van Thuong, said the school would like to give students better food but it is difficult with just VND9,500 available per meal.
The two meals provide 1,500 - 1,700 kcal, or two thirds the number of calories recommended by the Nutrition Institute for middle school students at around the age of puberty. Their breakfast is usually instant noodles and occasionally leftovers from the previous day.
A meal costing less than VND10,000 ($0.43) has become a reason for many children to stay at school.
After the talented students contest ends this month Hiep will no longer stay at school and have to get back to eating cold rice.
Ket will not be busy at home forever and will soon return to school, and Nga too will return to eating lunch out of her plastic bag.
By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam
Photos by Dinh Tung
While you are here, we would like to 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 about the campaign, please click here.