Call it love, ambition or obsession, but the only thing most Vietnamese care about is a well-educated child.

Anxiety and tension loomed large on millions of Vietnamese faces as another batch of high school seniors took the national graduation exam last week. The parents were waiting outside the exam venues, some looking even more nervous than their children.

Since 2015, Vietnam’s education ministry has overseen this single standardized exam, which decides whether or not a student can graduate from high school and which college they can go to. In previous years, Vietnamese students had to take a six-subject exam for graduation, and then around a month later, an SAT-like placement exam for college. For decades, these back-to-back exams were criticized for being costly and exerting too much pressure on the students and their parents.

Merging the two exams was supposed to help ease the burden significantly. But as evident on the worried faces both in and outside the test venues, the pressure has continued to wear down every parent and student in a country where academic achievement is a source of national pride and obsession.

Determined to stay put until the students were done, no matter the weather, their parents naturally found a tremendous sense of camaraderie among themselves. They made acquaintances, chatted up, or just sat still waiting. Some were not that patient, climbing on the gates apparently in a desperate bid to catch a better glimpse of their children inside.

Parents waiting outside an exam venue in Ho Chi Minh City, no matter the weather, some looking even more nervous than their children.

Nguyen Thi Cuc, a businesswoman in Ho Chi Minh City, was not among them. She was unperturbed by all the fuss. Her daughter will soon be leaving Vietnam to study at a community college in Florida, U.S. Cuc, 50, also said she was preparing to send her 15-year-old son to the U.S. as well. "It will cost my family dearly, but I think it is worth it," the mother said. “My kids just cannot study here in Vietnam.”

Cuc is among a rising number of Vietnam’s nouveau riches, as well as some middle and upper income middle class families in Vietnam, where the average annual income was around $2,200 last year, that are opting to send their children abroad. Experts say they are "escaping" an education system that is rigid, of suspect quality and riddled with scandals in recent years. In the past, many parents wanted straight-A kids. Now they want kids with foreign degrees.

Almost all Vietnamese parents prize education, considered a ticket to a successful career, for their children above all else. They will not let the high cost get in the way, an Asian tradition that can also been seen in China, South Korea, or Japan, but much less common in Western countries.

“Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education,” Vietnam’s education minister Phung Xuan Nha said at a conference last December. 

He was offering the cultural lesson to foreign experts who said they were baffled by the very strong performance by Vietnamese teens, including those from low-income families, in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assessed 540,000 students around the world. Vietnam ranked eighth out of 72 economies in science performance, elbowing out the U.S. and many European nations.

A study by Paul Glewwe, a professor from the University of Minnesota, found that the parents of the Vietnamese students taking part in the PISA also have much lower educational background and less wealth than their peers in other countries. 

Glewwe said PISA rankings usually correspond with the country’s growth and prosperity but Vietnam shows that one does not need a well-developed economy to have quality education. “We really don’t know what is going on,” he said at the December conference.

Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education.

Vietnam’s education minister Phung Xuan Nha

In an explicit sign of Vietnamese parents yearning for alternatives to the country’s education woes, in 2012 both foreign and local news outlets carried photographs of hundreds of parents shoving and jostling each other and pushing over an iron gate at a primary school in Hanoi just to get an application form. 

The Thuc Nghiem Primary School had 200-odd places but there were at least 600 hopefuls. Admission in the school is coveted by parents because it adopts "American-style learning" instead of the traditional cramming and rote learning Vietnamese schools typically offer.

Such entrenched bandwagon has barely changed since.

In 2013, a study by the Berlin-based anti-corruption group Transparency International confirmed that in Vietnam the increasing demand for high-quality education, along with a perceived shortcoming in the standard of public schools, has resulted in an explosion of competition for admission to “desired schools”.

“As a result, corruption in enrollment for desired schools – particularly primary and junior secondary schools – has become rampant in Vietnam, threatening the affordability and accessibility of public education,” the study said.

According to the study, corruption in school admissions is widespread in early childhood education, with costs for bribes documented to be as high as $3,000 to reserve a seat at a prestigious primary school and between $300 and $800 for a medium-standard school. It quoted one parent as saying that the fee of $1,000 for entrance into a top primary school was both “reasonable” and “acceptable” as “wanting a quality education for your children is normal and all parents want their children to study at a prestigious school.”

Also in 2013, in an online poll of almost 20,000 respondents conducted by Dan Tri online newspaper, 62 per cent of parents admitted using personal relationships or money to send their children to “desired schools.” Last March, Transparency International identified India and Vietnam as suffering the highest bribery rates (69 percent and 67 percent respectively) in the region. The respondents said they had to pay bribes to access basic services like public education and healthcare.

In 2013, in the most explicit gesture to shore up the education system, Vietnam's top leadership passed a resolution on an across-the-board overhaul of the sector. Experts have since warned that the country risks losing public trust forever if it fails to show real changes after years of rhetoric.

"It is crunch time for a shakeup," Hoang Tuy, a prominent Vietnamese educator, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper at the time. "The leaders must decide if they want to fix the system or keep the status quo and hold back the country's development with a backward education system.”

But apparently, little headway has been made. 

Last November, Nha, the education minister, conceded at a parliamentary hearing that an ambitious and costly program aiming to churn out an English-savvy workforce is way behind its 2020 deadline and falling short of projected targets. Critics have used the failure of the project to paint a large picture of the country’s education woes: the lack of a clear, realistic vision.

Foreign and local companies have continued to lament that Vietnam's poorly trained graduates have left them struggling to find enough recruits. Meanwhile, Vietnamese parents do not have much time to wait.

As of March 2017, Vietnam had sent nearly 31,000 students to the U.S., ranking fifth among countries with the most students at American educational institutions, according to the latest U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program report.

To put things in perspective, Vietnam has beat Canada and Japan in total enrollment; the current number of Vietnamese students in the U.S. has almost doubled that in 2009, when the country first made it to the top ten with some 16,000 students. Vietnam continued to distance itself from other Southeast Asian peers to be the top source of students in the region for the U.S.

The U.S., followed by Australia and the U.K., is by far the favorite English-speaking destination for Vietnamese students. In addition to those studying in the U.S., mostly in higher education, there are well over 100,000 young Vietnamese studying in 50 or so other countries, some in the same price league as the U.S., others much less expensive.

“Yes, Vietnam is quite unique,” said Mark Ashwill, an American educator who runs Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.  “If you look at the top 10 sending countries for international students in the U.S., Vietnam really jumps off the page,” he said.

“It is clearly an outlier with by far the lowest GDP among its peer countries. In concrete terms, families from a country with a 2015 annual income of $2,100 are spending nearly $1 billion a year on tuition, fees, and living expenses for their children to study in the U.S.”

For some parents, planning does not simply start and end with a good education. 

This summer, a wealthy Vietnamese couple were scrambling to catch up with friends during their short trip back to Vietnam. They moved to California in 2015 under the EB5 visa scheme, a federal program that offers green cards to eligible foreigners who invest $500,000 in certain projects that can create 10 new jobs. 

“It’s just so great to be back to Vietnam,” the wife said, requesting not to be named. “We’ve lived here for too long and felt so accustomed to this country it’s very hard to fit into another one,” she said.

But the couple still decided to invest $500,000, one that could warrant a comfortable life in Vietnam, in the EB5 program, and accept all the risks it could entail. 

For a very obvious reason. “We want our children to have a better education and better life in the U.S.,” the wife said.

“Yes, life is so boring in California. Yes, we miss Vietnam like crazy. But so what?” she said.

“To us, our lives don’t really matter anymore. Our children’s do.”


Story by Dien Luong

Photos by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

By Dien Luong