Travel & Life - December 25, 2018 | 12:26 am PT

9 ubiquitous items students have in Vietnam's northern mountains 

They may be very basic but actually go a long way in ensuring poor ethnic children get education.

UNDP statistics show ethnic minority high school students in Vietnam have to travel an average of 17.6 km (10.9 miles) to reach school. Only 41.8 percent of ethnic people make it to high school, according to a report of the National Assembly's Ethnic Council.

Going to school in the mountains requires great effort on the part of students as well as their families.

VnExpress chose nine typical objects and images connected with the life of a high school student and recorded them at schools in Hoang Su Phi District, Ha Giang Province in the far northeast of Vietnam.

1. Plastic flip-flops

At high schools in the northern mountains, shabby and torn plastic flip-flops are a common sight on the feet of children. Eighty percent of mountain communes here do not have proper roads, meaning the path to school, especially during the rainy season, is mainly mud. Normal sandals and shoes do not offer the purchase or endurance these flip-flops do.

Winter temperatures in the high mountains often fall below 10 degrees Celsius. In Hanoi, students are excused from school in such cold weather. But here they are not. And in their sandals, the children’s feet are cracked and frozen and red.

Not everyone understands the value of these flip-flops. A few years ago a teacher in Ha Giang confiscated them from students and destroyed them, and told them to wear sports shoes instead.

The children were all from poor families, and the sandals cost "two days’ wages." But, fearful of the teacher, many families actually borrowed money to buy their children shoes.

Plastic flip-flops were the first valuable items in the lives of Thao Seo Binh and Thao Thi Doa. Their mother left for China when Binh had just learned how to walk and Doa was a few months old. Their father abandoned them for a new wife. Their teachers at Chien Pho School in Hoang Su Phi adopted them and allowed them to stay in the school.

2. Plastic boots

Plastic boots are a luxury item here, but the molded boots protect the kids from the biting cold much better than sandals, and are becoming another feature of mountain life.

But in classrooms, it was still easy to see bare, purple and muddied feet. A pair of boots costs VND30,000 - 50,000 ($1.3-2.2) depending on the material and size. The feet of many children have however never seen the inside one of these. Charity groups are donating these boots to many of them these days when they visit the area.

3. School bed

At 6:00 a.m. boarding students have to get up and complete their morning routine, eat breakfast and get ready for class. Blankets are neatly folded and placed by the bedside.

Those who do not go to boarding school have to get up at 4 a.m. to prepare food for their family’s pigs, make breakfast for the whole family and pack their own lunch box in a plastic bag before walking to school.

One-meter iron beds made for one person are often put together to fit more people. The children often place wooden boxes under the beds to prevent them from sagging. At night two or three children squeeze into one bed and snuggle under a blanket to keep warm.

The ubiquitous straw mats with roses on them and Chinese blankets help keep out the cold. Most mats are worn out after many years of use. But only when they have gaping holes that make them unusable do teachers consider replacing them with new ones.

4. Plastic bags

Plastic bags are used as carry vegetables and noodles to school. An item that city people often use once and throw away is washed for using again and again until they tear. Rice carried in this for lunch is often cold and slightly clammy.

A high school student’s day usually starts at 4 a.m. Their breakfast comprises of a bowl of noodles or white rice. They then scoop the leftovers into their trusted plastic bag to take to school. 

In the afternoon the children sit in class or a hidden corner to eat their lunch. It is a common sight here to see them without spoons or chopsticks and sometimes even food. After the meal they wash the plastic bag, turn it inside out and put it to dry on a fence for use the next day.

The nylon bag filled with rice has become a symbol of students in the northern mountains.

5. Rice trays

Instead of nylon bags, meals of semi-boarding students at Chien Pho Secondary School are contained in a shiny, stainless steel tray. Their lunch comprises rice, peanuts, fried eggs, and some dried fish. It is provided by the government to students living in border areas and islands and from underprivileged backgrounds. At many other schools, meals are stored in large plastic bowls.

In especially impoverished areas, the meals are made by teachers using subsidies provided by the government. Each student receives a living cost of 40 percent of basic salary, equivalent to VND556,000 ($23.83).

Each food tray provides 1,500 - 1,700 kcal, or two thirds of the number of calories recommended by the Nutrition Institute for middle school students at around the age of puberty. But this is a dream come true for kids who would otherwise eat rice out of plastic bags. A food tray worth less than VND10,000 ($0.43) has become a reason for many to stay at school.

6. Toothbrush

In one of the schools hung a blue plastic cup on a wall behind a broken glass door with toothbrushes, a tube of toothpaste, chopsticks and spoons. 

The VND7,000($0.3) toothbrushes are bought in bulk at the commune grocery store. The names of the students are written on them in white at the handle. They are used for six months to a year, until the bristles wear off or the school year ends. 

Ten children share a large tube of toothpaste, which is used for a month. Toothpaste, washing soap and basins for bathing are shared. Only towels and brushes are separate.

7. Chayotes

In the last two years, the chayote vine in front of Ho Thau Secondary School has fed many children. They bring the roots all the way from home and grow them at school. Mountainous terrain is heavily segregated and inclined so flora that grows in vines are a more viable option. They also rear chicken for meat.

Many communes do not have market, so teachers mainly buy vegetables and cereals from the villagers. Foods like pork and eggs must be ordered for delivery from the town.

8. Fences

Men's clothes and shoes are hung on top of fences made of bamboo and tree branches used to separate boys’ and girls’ sleeping sections. On sunny days in winter, children hang their laundry and blankets out to dry.

Though teachers' help, boarding students have to learn to be independent as soon as they enroll. Senior students teach juniors, older ones help younger ones. Personal hygiene, laundry, cooking, financial management (their families give them a few thousand dong to buy pens or sanitary pads) are what they learn together.

9. Broken doors 

Though beds are brought together and children huddle together at night, the winter cold enters their sleeping place through broken glass doors. The door to the sixth grade boys' room at Ho Thau Secondary School has a huge crack. No two doors are identical because they are all improvised using old construction materials.

An old calendar was used to replace the missing glass frame on the doors (top left). At the start of every school year door frames are patched by teachers with canvas or paper. But the rain and winds are relentless. 

Story by Hoang Phuong

Photos by Dinh Tung

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.