by Cong Thanh
|A refreshing approach: Students and teachers at Ma Ly Pho Junior school in Lai Chau Province stand beside a donated water filter.
|Learning time: Every toddler in Hung Pheng village in Ma Ly Pho Commune now goes to kindergarten. — VNS Photos Hoai Nam
Students at Ma Ly Pho School can drink clean water in the new year after the school received a purified water filter, which resulted from proceeds of a yard sale raised by staffs of Viet Nam News, and a part given by soldiers of Ma Lu Thang border guard post.
Two beneficiaries of the donation were Dong Thi Thinh, a widow in Pa Nam Cum village, and Ly Dau Nung, who is one of the poorest in Hung Pheng village.
Young teacher Do Thi Nuong, 25, has spent the last six months working as a volunteer in Ma Ly Pho Junior Secondary School in Lai Chau Province.
She teaches an eighth grade literature class of 20 students, 90 per cent of whom are members of the Dao ethnic group.
The school, which is 500km from Ha Noi, is home to 170 students divided into six classes, 60 of whom are considered underprivileged boarders.
Each student receives VND332,000 (US$15) in monthly allowance from the State, but they still need nurturing from the school's 23 teachers in their daily lives.
Since the students live far from home, teachers are responsible for both their academic and moral education.
"It's actually a harder job than I expected. We had to teach them at a very slow pace because many kids had trouble with language," said Nuong.
"But even the local kids who speak their own language can listen and study well, so we all take time to help them practise more after school," she added.
As the school is situated 15km away from the main bus route that leads to central Phong Tho, teachers often have trouble accessing food, textbooks and other classroom materials.
Motorbikes are the main vehicles teachers use to carry necessities along the 60km of mountainous, zigzagging roads that challenge their driving skills.
Headteacher Dang The Anh, 33, has settled into his life at the school in the decade since he was assigned to the post as a young teacher.
All teachers are volunteers from northern provinces and some of them decided to stay in the mountainous village following their educational courses.
"I overcame sadness and poverty in the village when my colleagues and I arrived and moved into the thatched roof houses," Anh recalled.
"At first the number of students going to school was as few as a dozen, but we slowly persuaded parents to send their kids to study instead of allowing them to remain illiterate at home," he said.
Students and teachers now live and study in comfortable accommodations that help children keep their homesickness at bay.
Teachers continue to help their students overcome the language barrier by giving extra lessons for three hours in the afternoon, before they do gardening.
"Both teachers and students grow vegetables and breed poultry in the school garden, providing a nutritious food for their daily meals," said a teacher at school, Pham Thi Hang Nga.
"Gardening is also a good way for kids to practise being self-reliant and resourceful after the school day."
Phan Chao Sai, 13, a Dao student from Hoang Then hamlet, said he enjoys living with his classmates.
"I love studying mathematics at the school and reading books, even though I am still not fluent in Vietnamese. But I've improved my knowledge and speaking skills by mimicking the singers I see in music programmes on television," Sai said, smiling.
"All of us can also cook and do our washing ourselves – the housework that my mother used to do. Since my home is 20km away, my father usually takes me home on Saturdays to spend just one or two nights a week with family," he said, adding that he doesn't mind being away from home too much.
Ly Thi Ngoc, a 15-year-old in ninth grade, said literature and English are her favourite subjects, adding that books on maths, physics and chemistry are hard to find.
"I've received a full-time education and recreation at school because my family are poor rice farmers. I still help my parents on Saturdays when I am home," Ngoc said.
Summer is always the longest holiday for students when they take a three-month break from school, but many also take vacation during harvest time in October and after Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays.
"The number of students in school is halved during harvest time. Families need the manpower to reap rice so students often stay away from school for a few days or even a week," explained history teacher Nguyen Thi Dong.
"Some students get back to school after just three or four days, but kids living farther away take longer to return," she said.
The 26-year-old added that local students often stay home for a few weeks during the festival season.
"Usually, teachers persuade parents to take their kids back to school in time to prepare for mid-term examinations. Local people organise many annual festivals, but the new year celebration lasts a whole month," Dong said.
Ma Ly Pho Village is home to over 2,200 people and is one of the poorest communes in north-western Lai Chau Province.
The town sits on the slope of a mountain, isolated from main roads. Villagers have an annual income per capita of around VND5 million ($220), from producing around 600kg of cereals including rice and maize.
"Fifty per cent of the population is poor with a monthly income of under $18. The school's managing board, in co-operation with local administration, also house a majority of students at school," said vice chairman of the Ma Ly Pho Commune People's Council, Tan Chin Lin.
"Most children in the commune now receive full-time education with the State's monthly allowance," Lin added.
Hoang Xa Nghiep, a 15-year-old, said she wishes to be teacher at the school in future so she can help children in the commune receive a better education. — VNS