Vietnam gets an F for failing its poor children

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Two boys shine shoes on a sidewalk in HCMC's District 1. Many poor children who want to attend school have no choice in the matter and are stuck in poverty.

I learned something very disturbing yesterday that relates to your recent article on education, which upset me greatly ("Inept education system impels brain drain").

Some friends of mine want to help two children who are half siblings of their adopted daughter. They are dirt poor and four of them share one room in a house near Nha Trang. The girls are 14 and 8 and have never been allowed to go to school because they do not have the right papers. They cannot read or write.

My wife says the local officials will only let them attend school if a sufficient bribe is paid.

This is disgraceful. How can a country advance into a developed phase if they refuse to allow poor children access to education, thus dooming them to another generation of poverty? These girls presently work as housekeepers. The 14-year-old told my wife she would like to be a school teacher! How would this ever be possible? Yet she dreams!!! How can poor people like this be asked for bribes to allow them to go to school? How can these officials be stopped from this behavior?

Vietnam should be ashamed that this situation continues after all the years of promises that the government has made!

However, I spoke with some friends of mine about the situation and I was assured that as corrupt and inept as the local education and birth registration officials may be in some cases, this situation was, in all likelihood, the fault of the mother, not the government. Because she is so poor and has been unable to maintain a consistent address for any period of time, she has never gotten the two children registered. There should obviously be a solution to this that doesn't involve children missing years of school or bribes being paid to get them admitted way too late, but that seems to be the current situation.

I can believe this because I have seen the high mobility of the very poor as they wander about the country looking for a place to shelter and a way to eat. Worrying about registering their children for school, or even registering their birth, is not a high priority on their scale of survival.

Many expatriates have written to Vietweek concurring that despite the problems they face in Vietnam, it is simply not acceptable that people direct their anger and slurs at all Vietnamese. This forum, "Your two cents", opens the floor for you, the expats, to hold forth on the changes you see in Vietnam: what disappoints, what pleases and what you would like to see happen. Email your thoughts to

I have not kept up on the government's policies regarding official residence. When I first came here (Nha Trang) in 2004 and taught "street children" in a locally run program, the children came from areas around Hanoi to try to make a living as vendors on the beach. They were not legally living in the province and they got together in small groups to rent a room to share and to watch out for one another. They were always on the lookout for the police who harassed them and stole their merchandise.

I have heard that there is more flexibility on the part of the government regarding the residential mobility of citizens because of the great need for workers in the industrial zones that require cheap labor.

I have no facts on this so you would have to check this and be sure what you say is accurate. Things are bad enough without semi-knowledgeable expats like me going off half-cocked on the government unless it's deserved.

There is no question that the education system is far behind the West for a lot or reasons, not the least of which is that young people are mistreated by senior faculty when they join the staff of universities. This happens because of the pervasive nature of the seniority system. One of my former students suffered under this system until she was able to get a fellowship and escape this seniority system to attend graduate school in the US. It is for things like this that the Vietnamese education system will continue to function in the dark ages.

By Bob Roberton
The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Nha Trang. The opinions expressed are his own.

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