For more than a decade, Nguyen Thi Quyen's ethnic minority students in Lao Chai village primary school would stare at her blankly, unable to respond to her questions. As the school year wore on, they dropped out to tend farm animals or hawk knick-knacks to the tourists.
Quyen was teaching in Vietnamese, the language of the majority Kinh, but ethnic minorities in the country's northern hills speak Mong.
"Before, when I was teaching all subjects in Vietnamese, the children could understand only about 60 percent of what I was saying," Quyen told IRIN. "The children did not enjoy school. They did not like to come."
With Vietnamese the official language for education, school remains inaccessible for many ethnic minorities, who comprise 13 percent of the population and are among the country's most impoverished.
The Mong are one of Vietnam's 53 ethnic minority groups that have fallen behind although the country boasts one of the world's fastest growing economies, with GDP up by 7.3 percent annually from 1995 to 2005, and per capita income increasing from US$260 in 1995 to $835 in 2007.
Yet more than half the ethnic minorities live in poverty, versus only 10 percent of Kinh. Ethnic minorities account for 11 million of Vietnam's 87 million people, but constitute 44.4 percent of the poor.
"Looking at all the development and positive change that has taken place in Vietnam, minority children are one or several steps behind all the time," Lotta Sylwander, country representative for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN.
"Many of them live in hard-to-reach areas. Some of them speak languages that no one else speaks... Ethnic minority children are more likely to live in a poor household than the Kinh majority because their parents are uneducated."
According to UNICEF, three out of five ethnic minority children complete primary school, against more than four out of five Kinh.
Mother tongue-based education
In 2008, Quyen's primary school began teaching its youngest students in Mong, as part of a UNICEF-supported government initiative to boost academic performance.
Mang, 8, sits below a sign at the Lao Chai school, which reads, "Dear friends, let's come to school." Many ethnic children like Mang are unable to speak Vietnamese when they enter school. © Alisa Tang/IRIN
The program has been implemented for Jrai ethnic minorities in central Gia Lai province, Khmer in southern Tra Vinh, and Mong in northern Lao Cai, where Lao Chai village is located.
Children begin school in their native language and in grade three, start learning in Vietnamese as well. By grade five, they are bilingual, according to research by UNICEF and the government.
"Now that I teach in the local language, the students can understand 100 percent. Now they'll stand up and answer any question," said Quyen, who has spent 16 years teaching in Lao Chai, located in a valley below the popular tourist town of Sapa.
"Since I started teaching in the Mong language, the children are much happier, and they really enjoy school. A lot of children come to school now, and some children from different communities even come here to learn," Quyen said.
One challenge, however, is finding qualified teachers.
"It was difficult to start the bilingual education program because of the need to have good bilingual teachers," said Truong Kim Minh, director of the Lao Cai Department of Education and Training.
"At that time, we had only a limited number of teachers coming from those ethnic minority groups. In the beginning, we chose good people in the community to become teachers' assistants."
Teachers who do not come from ethnic communities are increasingly required to learn the local language of the region where they will teach.
The province now trains 100 ethnic minority teachers each year for pre-school and primary school, which will help expand the bilingual education program, Minh said.
Meanwhile, as children played on the Lao Chai school grounds one Saturday afternoon, Quyen interrupted a student, eight-year-old Mang, during a game of marbles to ask him to read a sign written in Mong on a pillar at the school entrance.
Looking up at the colorful sign, Mang slowly pronounced one word at a time: "Dear friends, let's come to school."