Mountainous teachers struggle with limited Internet access

By Thanh Nga   November 18, 2023 | 08:27 pm PT
Mountainous teachers struggle with limited Internet access
Preschool instructor Lo Thi Tam on a hilltop 300m away from her classroom trying to catch a Wi-Fi signal so she can download her teaching materials, October 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nga
At 3 p.m., over 30 kids from Hoa Hue Preschool flocked to the yard, waiting for their teacher Lo Thi Tam to return from “finding a telephone signal.”

Whenever the Internet is down in the school, the homeroom teacher of a class containing 3 to 5-year-olds usually goes to a hilltop 300m away from the school to find a telephone signal so she can use her mobile hotspot to download her teaching materials.

Even so, there is no signal on the hilltop whenever it rains, as such in those moments Tam has no choice but to drive 40 km to town to connect to a Wi-Fi.

Nevertheless, it is all worth it, for the simple images and videos she downloads from the Internet help to open up a new world for children from the remote highland province of Yen Bai.

Twelve years ago, Lo Thi Tam accepted the decision to be transferred to Ho Bon Commune, Mu Cang Chai District, Yen Bai Province, 100 km away from her home. From the Quynh Nhai District in Son La Province, the then-21-year-old teacher packed up her bags to go to the mountainous area.

Tam recalled that on her first day, it took her three hours to walk from Ho Bon’s People Committee to the school because of the muddy road. With one side of her being the mountain and the other side the cliff, she tried to be careful with her steps but still ended up falling, scratching her hands and staining her clothes with mud.

The classroom was constructed with wooden planks, and the dirt floor was littered with buckets to catch rain leaking from the roof. There were no bathrooms, nor a kitchen, on the property.

"I expected this place to be on hard times, but I didn’t think it would be that bad," Tam said.

Tam’s class has 35 students, all of them from the Hmong community.

If Tam wants new teaching materials, she had to travel 40 km to the town of Mu Cang Chai to read in the library and take notes in her notebook.

Finally, the school was upgraded into a one-story building with fibrocement roofs in 2022. For the first time, the classroom was lit with electric lights.

On the day electricity came to the small commune, Tam decided to buy an old laptop for VND3 million (US$123) to use in her classes. From then on, whenever she returned from town, her laptop would be filled with pictures and videos of children’s songs, and fairy tale audio books.

It was also thanks to the Internet that Tam’s students know what a car sounds like.

"It’s a battle whenever I want to get a signal. Some days the rain pours so hard it causes a landslide, and my motorbike and I get nearly swept away," Tam said.

"After watching a kid’s movie together, many of my students said wanted to become teachers and doctors in the future," the now 33-year-old teacher said. "I was so happy that they’ve started dreaming."

Lo Thi Nhung (in red) crossing a stream to travel to her school 4-5km away, Oct. 21, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nga

Lo Thi Nhung (in red) crossing a stream to travel to her school 4-5km away, Oct. 21, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nga

There are over 40 rural preschools all over the mountainous Mu Cang Chai district that have no telephone signal or Internet connection. Some places do not even have electricity in their remote location.

Trinh The Binh, Head of Culture and Information in the district, stated that Mu Cang Chai authorities had planned on establishing Wi-Fi in places that are not reachable by cable Internet.

"However, the speed and quality of the Wi-Fi connection is weak. It doesn’t meet the requirements of the citizens, and it’s also costly," Binh said.

Beginning at 4 a.m. every morning, Lo Thi Nhung, 31, crosses rivers and mountains for three hours to get to her class at Xeo Di Ho Preschool in Lao Chai Commune, Mu Cang Chai District.

Although the school is only 5 km away from the commune center, it is a place disconnected from the world.

In order to familiarize her children with technology, every month Nhung pays a few hundred thousand VND for mobile data so she can connect her laptop with her mobile hotspot. However, the connection is often spotty, making watching videos difficult.

"Sometimes while teaching, I had to run to a hill a few kilometers away from school to find a signal. If we’re lucky to have a clear day then my students and I will do that in the yard," Nhung said.

A flash flood that occurred in August of this year swept away Lo Thi Tam’s motorcycle, books, and documents. Fortunately, she was able to save her laptop containing her teaching materials.

"My biggest asset is now my laptop. With it, my students and I will continue to strive through the hardships," Tam said.

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