Ethnic H'mong hill tribe children carrying their lunch boxes as they walk home after a school day at a village in the mountainous district of Mu Cang Chai, in the northwestern Vietnamese province of Yen Bai. Children from poor rural and remote regions often suffer from malnutrition due to economic difficulties.
Rice. Withered vegetables. Very watery soup. He vividly remembered the days of frequent hunger as a college student.
Tran Dang Tuan blinked and reality crashed in. That was more than three decades ago, and this was now. The frugal meal was being served to 80 primary students, ethnic minority children, in Yen Bai Province.
"That was the lunch for 80 hopes of the nation," Tuan wrote in his blog immediately after his visit to a boarding school for ethnic minority primary students in September 2011.
"That meant it happened one year after Hanoi had thrown its lavish 1,000th birthday bash. [That meant] it happened in the first year of the new term of the Party Congress," he wrote in a post that went viral online soon after.
People from all walks of life in Vietnam and abroad have since donated money, supporting Tuan's efforts to provide better meals for ethnic minority children .
But when Tuan former deputy general director of Vietnam Television and his friends tried to establish an official welfare fund to help ethnic children in the country, he got another dose of tough reality.
He has been waiting in vain since May to get the license from the Ministry of Interior. Under Vietnamese law, agencies concerned have 45 days to decide whether or not they will approve the application.
The silence from the government has baffled Tuan and experts in the field, and it has raised some vexing questions: Why is the government reluctant to endorse a humanitarian project for ethnic minorities? Is it just entrenched red tape or something else?
"I hope that red tape is the reason," Tuan told Vietweek.
But in an open letter addressed to Minister of Interior Nguyen Thai Binh, published last week by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, he was more forthright.
"I'd like the minister to make a thorough check of all the backlogged applications for setting up charity funds.
"What is the reason behind the backlog? Is it merely a matter of red tape or is there a concern about the oversight of philanthropic activities?"
It was after the letter appeared in print that Tuan heard from the ministry for the first time.
A ministry official, who declined to be named, said the ministry would send him a written response.
"But by and large, there has still been no progress," Tuan said. "However, we shouldn't jump to any conclusion or speculate anything at the moment.
"The thing is that even without the license, people are donating money every day."
Since September last year, the money Tuan has been able to raise has far surpassed his expectations.
He had hoped to raise about VND18 million per month to support the 80 primary students in Yen Bai. Now over VND5 billion has poured in, enabling Tuan to provide better meals to around 6,000 ethnic minority students in 46 schools in six mountainous provinces.
Tuan said he could have continued in the same fashion, but the purpose of setting up an official fund was to provide a legal basis for his work. The fund would be able to acknowledge the contributions of the companies and make donations tax-deductible as allowed by Vietnamese law.
The slow response from the government has not disheartened him, Tuan said. If it had, he would have to feel so for the rest of his life, he said.
Experts in the field have generally supported the project and castigated the Ministry of Interior.
"At the very least, it illustrates the callous attitude of government bureaucrats toward the kindness of the philanthropists and the needs of ethnic people," said Mai Thanh Son, an independent expert with the Institute of Social Sciences.
At the primary school in Yen Bai Province, parents contribute two kilograms of rice and 2.4 US cents every week to fund their children's meals. The boarding school's strength of 80 means it falls short of the minimum of 100 students needed to receive state subsidies.
Many stories in the media of late have mentioned the meager food rations that ethnic children get at school.
One in three children under age five in Vietnam is stunted, or too short for her or his age, and that this is an irreversible outcome of chronic nutritional deficiencies during the first 1,000 days of a child's life, the General Nutrition Survey 2009- 2010 said last April.
The stunting among children in remote and hard-to reach areas is twice as high as the rate among their peers in the plains, the survey said.
Stunting rates are highest in the Central Highlands (41 percent) and other disadvantaged regions where ethnic minority people live, according to the United Nations. Ethnic minority children experience the highest rate of stunted growth, up to 41 percent in the Central Highlands, according to the latest government figures.
A report prepared by the United Nations says ethnic minorities in Vietnam have not enjoyed the benefits of the nation's progress.
It says geographical isolation alone did not explain the disproportionate vulnerability to poverty among ethnic minorities who have more difficulty in accessing social services for a variety of reasons including linguistic barriers. If patterns are not reversed, poverty will remain a phenomenon dominated by ethnic minorities, the report said.
A 2009 World Bank report cited "widespread cultural stereotypes" as a factor in the high poverty rate among ethnic minorities compared with the majority Kinh group.
Experts concur, saying ingrained prejudices against the minorities have percolated to every level of the Kinh community.
"The prejudices stem right from the scholars who only seek to study the "˜eccentric' cultures of ethnic groups," said Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who runs the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), a Hanoi-based nonprofit.
"Actually, the "˜eccentricity' of any culture is just in the [biased] eye of the outsider, in this case the Kinh people," Binh said.
Experts say the biased perceptions have led to the ill-conceived strategy of lawmakers, who have chalked out top-down, non-participatory policies that, while well-intentioned, have not really benefited ethnic minority communities.
The media has also been guilty of carrying and fostering prejudices against the ethnic minorities, studies show.
An iSEE-commissioned report in 2011 studied how the ethnic minorities' characteristics were portrayed in the media and examined the assumptions that underlie reportage on minority issues.
It found that the biases were "more negative than positive."
Experts say that ethnic minority communities have consistently been blamed, without any justification, for not adopting a sedentary lifestyle, and for causing deforestation. In fact, the reality is that they have taken very good care of the forests they depend on for their livelihoods throughout the years, they add.
Binh, the Hanoi-based sociologist, cited the case of an ethnic minority community in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan that was forced to move from the highlands to the plains where they were ill-equipped to survive. They now languish as one of the poorest, downtrodden communities in the country, he said.
The iSEE-commissioned study identified several common trends in news articles about ethnic minorities, including the "mystifying" of spiritual and traditional practices of mountainous peoples, "romanticizing" mountain culture and "dramatizing" the lives of ethnic minorities.
The report, which has been endorsed by independent experts, said the biased reporting has projected distorted and stereotypical images of ethnic minorities in mountainous areas that have come to dominate perspectives of the Kinh majority.
Experts also say the prejudices have ostracized the ethnic minority communities and fueled low self-esteem among them.
"These people will inevitably ostracize themselves. It would create a vicious cycle very difficult to break if this continues," Binh said.
Ethnic minorities have been recognized for playing a pivotal role in providing shelter to Vietnam's revolutionary forces during the wars against colonialists and imperialists decades ago.
"It will be very painful if they continue to remain outsiders as the country notches up economic achievements," said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, an outspoken lawmaker who retired last year.
The government will be seen as unwilling to face up to its policy failures and reluctant to admit
the difficulties facing the marginalized communities if they do not respond rationally and in a timely manner to people trying to help address some of the problems, experts say.
People like Tuan, the former deputy general director of Vietnam Television, should be encouraged
in their efforts because, "Irrefutably, the government by itself cannot handle all of these issues," Binh said.
An ethnic minority citizen who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed with Binh.
"We shouldn't close the door to a [non-governmental] organization with a clean record that is just looking to support ethnic minority people," he said.
"We are always grateful to such philanthropists and their initiatives."
Rice with meat
Moved by his visit in September 2011 to a boarding school for ethnic minority primary students in the northern moutainous province of Yen Bai, Tran Dang Tuan, former deputy general director of Vietnam Television, decided to do something to improve the lives of ethnic minority children in Vietnam's mountainous areas.
He set up Cơm Có Thá»‹t or Rice With Meat (email: email@example.com), a charity initiative which raises funds to provide ethnic minority children with nutritious meals, blankets, warm clothes and school stationery. It accepts donations from both individuals and organizations across Vietnam and elsewhere in the world.
Donations can be sent to:
Account owner: Trần ĐÄƒng Tuấn
Account number: 0011004025430
Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam (Vietcombank) - Operations Center
For those donating from abroad, please add: Swift Code: BFTVVNVX