Chau pulled her younger brother out of their father’s ragged cyclo and rushed over the classroom door.
“It’s late, too late!” the 7-year-old grumbled when she found a classroom full of her fellow lottery ticket vendors and scrap collectors.
The class at 46/22 Nguyen Ngoc Nhut Street opens twice a week at 5 p.m. in Tan Phu District -- allowing the poor students to finish work on the streets.
Nu Cuoi (Smile) shares the same name as the charity restaurant chain that serves meals for VND2,000 a head and is funded and operated by the same group of people.
The class not only teaches the children a curriculum derived from official textbooks, but also offers them martial arts lessons and a free dinner.
Coach Nguyen Tan Thanh of the Tan Phu District Karate Team serves lunch to his students before teaching at another dojo in the afternoon and rushing back to teach his charity class at night.
“These children endure so many problems in the street. I just want to teach them to be strong and defend themselves,” Thanh said.
The children study in their textbooks until 7:15 p.m. before switching to punches and kicks.
Their karate lessons end at 8:30 p.m.
During a recent visit from a Thanh Nien reporter the kids were engaged in a story-telling session.
Each was holding a comic book and reading historical legends aloud before meal time.
Hien, 12, who began living with her maternal grandparents after her parents died, was reviewing the legend of Hai Ba Trung, the two sisters who raised a rebellion against Chinese occupation.
Legends has it that they committed suicide after the Chinese returned three years after they established rule.
The eldest sister Trung Trac continues to be worshiped as an emperor among Vietnamese.
Minh, a 13-year-old lottery ticket vendor, doesn't read so well so he asked a friend to read the legend of Mai An Tiem, the young man whose cultivation of the watermelon brought his family out of exile during the rule of Vietnam's first kings.
Minh listened attentively, hoping to memorize every aspect of the story.
After finishing dinner at 5:30 p.m., each child raised his or her hand for the chance to recite one of the legends.
Bui Thi Thanh Tam, a teacher, said the story-telling sessions let the children have fun while studying history.
Those who volunteer to recite legends in front of the class ten times win a Karate uniform and ten tickets to a local theme park, Tam said.
“Then teachers summarize the stories and try to link them to something real and concrete. For example, after they review the legend of Thanh Giong, the teacher may ask where his statue is. Those who answer correctly are rewarded with gifts.
“All the children, even those who cannot read yet, can memorize history easily,” she said.
Legend has it that Giong, a 3-year-old boy from Phu Dong village in present-day Bac Ninh Province, transformed into a giant and helped defeat Chinese invaders in the third century before riding an iron horse to heaven.
He has been hailed as a saint and is considered one of four immortal heroes in the Vietnamese pantheon. In 2010 UNESCO recognized the Giong Festival, one of the oldest festivals in Vietnam held every 4th lunar month, as a world cultural heritage.
The class employs nine teachers each of whom have at least a college degree.
The teachers read lessons from official textbooks written for students from the first to the eighth grades. Each teacher is in charge of three to four children.
They currently work every Tuesday and Thursday and plan to add classes on Saturdays.
Parents present government certificates as proof of their poverty and volunteers visit their students at home.
Tran Kim Phuong, a manager of the project, said they try to teach the children ethics and treat the children with love and affection as the difficulty of life has left most of them hard-headed.
On her first day at school, Chau refused to say “yes” in response to teachers, and refused to hold a book. She made a sour face when the teachers asked her to stay in line.
She had tried to burn down her family home and tried to jump off her roof after suffering a beating by her father.
A breakthrough in her behavior began after her teachers got her to agree to one condition: that she and her brother would only be allowed to study martial arts if they agreed to attend other lessons.
Chau quickly learned to say "yes," "sorry" and write in chalk, although she continues to let loose the odd swear word.
Once after she exhibited some particularly impressive progress, a teacher hugged her in praise causing her to burst into tears
“My father only beats and scolds me,” she said.
Her father Ly Quoc Phung, 63, said his two children have become a lot nicer after two weeks in class.
“We’re too poor to afford any schooling for them. They follow their mother who sells lottery tickets all over the street and have picked up a lot of bad habits,” Phung said while waiting outside the class on his cyclo to take them home.