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Students battle swift currents to get to school as authorities remain mum on assistance


A boy swims across the Rao Stream in Trong Hoa Commune in the north-central province of Quang Binh. There are other poor and remote areas across Vietnam where children have to go to school on basic rafts or swing on a cable to get across dangerous waters.

Every morning, a group of primary students in a mountainous commune of Quang Binh Province get to school not by bicycle, motorbike or any other forms of transport.

They swim. They swim through a swift-flowing stream to get to their school and back. The school is seven kilometers away from the village.

Fifteen students aged between six and eleven from the Ong Tu Village of Trong Hoa Commune gather early every morning at the Rao Stream that they need to cross to reach the Hung Primary School located in another village.

After school, at around 11 a.m., the 15 students of the Van Kieu ethnic community gather again. They run down a slope toward the stream, taking plastic bags out of their schoolbags. They take off their clothes and wrap the clothes and schoolbags in the plastic bags.

Every three or four students share one plastic bag, and the packing is done in a quick, practiced manner.

When everyone is ready, the group wades and swims across the stream.

The jade-colored stream looks beautiful on a clear sunny day, but it is quite deep and has a swift, strong current. When it rains, the water level goes up and makes the stream wider, colder and much more dangerous to swim across.

The students let the current push them downstream rather than go against it.

Sudden and fierce downpours are always a source of fear and danger even for adults. A local man was recently swept away while swimming across the Rao Stream but was lucky enough to be saved by others.

In the Ong Tu Village, there are also six middle-school students who swim to the Trong Hoa Secondary School every day.

Dinh Thiem, principal of the Hung Primary School, said he felt insecure and sorry for the students, who usually enter their classes drenched.

"Each year, the group has to take at least one month off because of floods. It affects their studies as well as the teaching schedule," Thiem said.

The students of Ong Tu Village are not the only ones who struggle to get to school. There are other poor and remote areas across Vietnam where children have to go to school on makeshift rafts or swing on a cable to get across dangerous waters.

Since last year, hundreds of primary students in Dak R'moan Commune, Gia Nghia Town, in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong have been using wooden rafts to cross a hydropower reservoir to get to school.

Several dozen ethnic minority students at the Be Van Dan Primary School use a five-square-meter raft, made simply by joining several wooden boards, to go across the three-meter-deep Dak R'tih lake every day.

As the students are not strong enough to row the rafts, a rope is tied across the reservoir that the students on the raft hold on to as they propel themselves to the other side and back.

Duong, a fourth grader, said he was scared to sit on the raft as he cannot swim.

"If I don't use the raft, I can take a roundabout route but it is too far (10 kilometers).

"I am still lucky because my classes are in the morning. Those whose classes take place in the afternoon must use the raft when it is dark, and the wind gets stronger and it is very hard to push it."

There used to be a direct path linking the center of Dak R'moan Commune and the Be Van Dan Primary School. But when the Dak R'tih hydropower dam was built last year, the path was submerged by the lake.

Dangerous

Bui Ngoc Duong, the principal of the Be Van Dan Primary School, said a raft recently capsized, but luckily all the students on it were rescued by nearby residents.

"Our teachers are very concerned about the safety of the students, and we have reported this to the local authorities but we have not received any response," he said.

Hoang Thi Oanh, a teacher, said many of her students were always late for classes, and some entered the class with wet clothes and books after falling into the lake.

When approached by Thanh Nien reporters, Tran Dinh Ninh, vice chairman of Gia Nghia Town People's Committee, the local government, said no accidents have happened since local students began using the rafts as their means of transport.

"However, we are aware that it is very dangerous for the kids to get to school like that. We have reported to the provincial authorities and sought solutions.

"To minimize the risk, we have asked the school to talk the students out of using the rafts."

At the Ong Tu Village in Quang Binh Province, local authorities said there used to be boats at the Rao Stream for transportation, but they have all been damaged or swept away by floods.

Ho Phin, the Trong Hoa Commune's Party unit chief, said the commune could not afford a bridge.

"Along with the Ong Tu Village, there is Ka Ooc Village where residents have to swim across a stream too. We have asked higher authorities to provide funds for the two villages to build bridges, but to no avail."

The pictures of children from Dak Nong Commune in Kon Tum Province's Ngoc Hoi District zipping down a cable to get across the Po Ko River to school captured headlines across the nation last year.

It turned out that local residents had been sliding themselves down a 150-meter long cable over dangerous waters to get to school, workplaces and the market for several years.

The cable was situated at a height of 20 meters over the Po Ko River and it took 10 seconds to slide across with a pulley.

The residents rigged up the cable soon after a storm swept away several hanging bridges over the river.

The cable has been the only means of transportation across the river for the riverside residents, and it has not been very safe. At least five accidents had occurred causing severe injuries when the cable broke or people slipped.

After the stories about the unwitting acrobats were published, a VND1.1 billion (then US$56,500) bridge, funded by the Vietnam Association for Education Promotion and online newspaper Dan Tri, was built across the river.

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