The first time May At heard her mother’s voice was 10 years after she was born.
When kids in the neighborhood told At that her mother was calling home, she ran back, forgetting to bring the family buffalo along.
It was 2014, and her mother was calling from China.
However, At’s expectations of this event, albeit on the phone, were belied. There was no tearful reunion, no long conversations to retrace the years they’d been apart for so long. In fact, there simply was nothing to talk about. Her mother had left before At was given a name.
"I have a new husband now, so I won't come back," At's mother told her.
The day she was born, April 12, 2005, At’s father pawned the last of the family’s belongings to get drugs. He chased At and her mother out, forcing them to take refuge in At’s maternal grandparents’ house. One day, the mother packed her bags, slipped away and never returned.
At became an orphan just two months after she was born. She’s been living with her grandparents since.
May At sits on her bed in the semi-boarding Luong Minh Secondary School in the north central Nghe An Province.
Her mother’s departure left a gaping hole in At’s childhood. But it was her father who made it a nightmare.
At the age of six, At already had memories about her junkie father beating her up badly. Even after she went to live with her grandparents, her father only visited her for two reasons: to forbid her from going to school, or to pawn everything he could from the house for more drugs. She would try to run away from him, each time.
There was one time her father put her in a sack and threw her in the river; fortunately, a passerby saw it happen and rescued her. Another time, her father bound At with a rope and hung her on the ceiling beam to prevent her from going to school. Her teachers, noticing her absence, knew immediately that something was wrong and saved her in time.
I told my dad to stop using drugs but he hit me with a bamboo stick. When my grandparents tried to stop him, he hit them too.May At
Earlier this year, VnExpress conducted interviews in two separate schools in two border areas, one next to Cambodia and another next to Laos, where teachers and students wage an incredible daily struggle to better their lives.
It became evident that in these rural, remote areas plagued by poverty and many other socioeconomic ills, schools were the last line of defense for many children – their only escape from horror and their only hope for a decent future.
Xeo Nguyen was only told about menstruation from a classmate at seventh grade.
One summer day in her 7th grade, Xeo Nguyen suddenly felt a tingle in her stomach. Retreating to the toilet, she burst into tears upon seeing her own menstrual blood for the first time. May At, Nguyen’s classmate, gave her a piece of menstrual pad from a small, wooden box she has. At told Nguyen this would happen every month.
"We are not taught about menstruation until we get to eighth grade," Nguyen said.
No one had ever told Nguyen about menstruation or other related things, including her mother or her teacher. Her father went to rehab a year before, while her mother went to China for work when the school year just began.
Nguyen now lives with her grandmother and two younger siblings in the local primary school.
At and Nguyen are among the many children in Luong Minh Commune, Tuong Duong District in the north central province of Nghe An, the country’s so-called "citadel of narcotics."
The area is so notorious for its drug trafficking routes along the Lao border that locals don’t dare to venture near these paths, fearing for their lives.
According to official statistics, 58 people from the commune are serving sentences related to drugs, 29 just got out of prison, 125 are confirmed addicts and 21 are currently in rehab facilities.
In recent years, the government has been cracking down on drug trafficking in the area, and the situation has improved a bit. Now, people have begun calling it the "commune of orphans and widows."
Over 40 percent of Tuong Duong District's population still live in poverty.
Schools in Luong Minh Commune have class records in which notes are kept on each student’s family situation. Many of them are listed "fatherless" or "motherless," or that both are in prison on drug-related charges.
In fact, one out of seven school children in the commune have similar family descriptions.
Children like May At or Xeo Nguyen don’t particularly enjoy summer vacations.
Here at the school, they get to escape from the harsh realities of their lives, which more often than not involve empty bellies and abusive parents.
The Luong Minh Middle School, where Xeo Nguyen and May At study, has 284 day-boarders. But most of them stay there full-time, including weekends.
"A day’s worth of food for a student is even cheaper than a bowl of pho, but the school still struggles to provide students with meat, fish, vegetables and bamboo shoots...," said the school’s Vice Principal Tran Duc Duong.
The Luong Minh Secondary School's staffs cook lunch in the school's kitchen.
But, despite the school’s best efforts, many students fail to continue with their education, mostly because they need to work. When your parents are in jail, on rehab, or simply just poor, there’s not much choice.
"My grandma’s back is all crooked now, so I have to work to support her and my two younger siblings. But I really do miss school," said Nguyen.
She showed us her right hand, full of calluses and scars after working hard in the field. The school was second home to her, but it could not last.
As for At, her father died of overdose a few years ago, but she doesn’t remember the day it happened. She clearly remembers though that just a day earlier, he’d made his way to her school, a rope in his hand.
"If he hadn’t been addicted to drugs, maybe he wouldn’t have beaten me," At said, with no shred of resentment in her voice.
Tri Ton District in the southern province of An Giang is one of the poorest in the province. It has approximately 8,300 families in poverty, with over 2,300 children in ‘especially poor conditions’ and 6,300 unemployed workers, according to official statistics.
Most notably, the percentage of students who’ve dropped out in the province in recent years reached 14 percent, 10 times the national average.
The job description for teachers in the province goes far beyond teaching. They are also counselors, diplomats, campaigners and lobbyists, all for getting their students to stay in school.
In the province’s A Ba Chuc Primary School, these campaigns against dropping out manifest in sports events, singing contests, and national festivals. The teachers have to make schools the most fun places; so fun its students would never want to leave.
Right before the school year, Ho Van Nguyen, A Ba Chuc’s principal, visited the house of two of his students to remind their grandmother to come to his office for a set of new textbooks, free. He even gifted her tables and chairs and occasionally, some pho broth, which his wife sells. That’s his way of lobbying.
But most of the time, their grandma would say:
"You are too kind. But this house isn’t even ours. Poor as we are, how can my granddaughters go to school?"
Hai, 38, has worked in A Ba Chuc as a teacher for more than a decade. But he has neither a house nor a wife.
"I’m too poor for that," he said.
Hai, a teacher at A Ba Chuc Primary School in An Giang Province, sits by his make-shift home.
The 'pillars' of his ‘house’ are two trees. The ‘roof’ and ‘walls’ are made with bamboo sections and raincoats, coconut leaves and iron sheets. Raindrops dropping on his face as he sleeps is not a rare occurrence.
Hai spoke of "trade secrets" that the teachers use to make kids stay in school. He said the school allowed students from the Cham and the Khmer ethnic communities to take days off on their holidays. The majority, the Kinh kids, would go to school as usual and later help their classmates catch up on their studies.
Hai has another trick up his sleeve.
Among the Khmer people in the area, the head monk of the local pagoda is the supreme spiritual authority. He tells them when to marry, when to build a house, whether they should go see a doctor or not...
Knowing that the Khmer people believe strongly in the monk, Hai maintains close, diplomatic ties with him. When a parent does not allow their kids to go to school, or they want them to work instead, the monk steps in. He would say something like, "if your kid goes to school, he/she could escape poverty," and the parents would listen.
For the sake of their students, the teachers of Luong Minh, A Ba Chuc, and many other schools, are willing to go to great lengths, be it letting a few more students stay in boarding houses, giving them some more meat, or even renovating dilapidated structures in the schools on their own.
As long as the children can continue their education, the teachers don’t mind all the hardship and sacrifice. They cannot afford to wait for the government to swoop down and deliver salvation. Before that day comes, the children would have long left school and returned to lives of drudgery and suffering.
In the fall of 1995, Vietnam first designated September 5 as the annual "First Day of School," the start of a new academic year when families would send their children off to schools and colleges across the country.
The previous year, the U.S. had lifted a 20-year long trade embargo on Vietnam, signaling a new dawn for the country’s fledgling economy, which then had a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) only just $20 billion.
Twenty plus years on, Vietnam’s economy has undergone a fantastic transformation, with its GDP increasing tenfold.
However, the education sector hasn’t fared so well. Until 2018, the number of Vietnamese students across all grades increased by only 30 percent from 1995, from 15 million to 22 million.
The disparity becomes even more apparent in some of the country’s most rural, under-developed areas. A 2017 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report showed that among a survey pool of 16 ethnic minority groups, less than 75 percent of children receive an "appropriate education." Another report on 39 ethnic minority groups showed that less than 75 percent of surveyed adults were literate.
Policy makers, legislators, ministries et al are seized of the matter, but the time they take to bring this assistance to these areas and people in need is time that the children don’t have.
Meanwhile, the teachers, parents and children in such dire circumstances need all the support they can get immediately to ensure a proper education. They need more textbooks, more chairs, more table and other facilities. They should no longer be denied these basic necessities.
And as members of a "civilized" society, everyone has a responsibility to ensure that all children, including the severely disadvantaged, have three meals a day, a roof above their heads, a loving family and a secure future.
VnExpress is running an education campaign called "Anh sang hoc duong" (The light to school) under its Hope Foundation to provide the most vulnerable children in under-developed provinces with the resources they need to get a proper education.
We humbly request you to donate any amount you can to help create a brighter future for the children and the provinces.
For more information, click here.
Story by Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam, Hong Phuc
Photos by Ngoc Thanh, Thanh Nguyen, Chu Viet Bac
Graphics by Tien Thanh