Vang A Chong’s trip to school must rank among the most arduous in the region.
This ethnic Hmong ninth-grader loads a bundle of firewood and 3.5 kgs of rice on his back, then walks 10 kms across cliffs and steep paths from his home in Tran Yen district in northern Vietnam.
It takes him three hours to get across these rough, treacherous paths and he wears out three pairs of plastic shoes every year.
“But sometimes I have to walk on bare feet that are bleeding from the rocks because I have no money to buy new ones,” says the 15-year-old.
Luckily he only has to make the journey once a week because he sleeps at his school.
Chong, who is 1.35 ms tall and weighs just 28 kgs, is one of 90 Hmong students at the school.
They are all from the rural region north of Hanoi which is home to ethnic Hmong who live in some of the poorest conditions in the country.
The school provides free classes for a total of 391 students, including other groups such as the Kinh, Muong and Tay as well as Hmong.
Chong and his fellow pupils eat just two meals per day of rice, soup and green vegetables with salt. Meat is almost never consumed as it’s too expensive.
“I feel hungry all the time but I have to try my best to pursue my studies,” he says.
Chong’s father died of lung cancer in 2005 and his mother cultivates rice, corn and cassava for a living. Their yearly harvest of 500 kgs of rice and 700 kgs of corn and cassava are not sufficient for a seven-member family.
His three brothers and one sister had to drop out of school when they were in fifth and eighth grades to work to support everyone.
“We lack rice for six months and have to eat cassava, vegetables and bamboo shoots,” he says.
Mien, the school’s headmistress, says that each student is given an allowance of just 70,000 dong (US$3.50) each which covers all of their meals for a month – 30,000 dong goes to two cooks, the same amount on ingredients and 10,000 dong is saved for food shortage emergencies.
“Their meals could be the cheapest in the country, as far as I know,” she says.
The students themselves are required to bring their own rice – about 14 kgs every month – and firewood, hence Chong’s heavy load each week.
“Some of them don’t have enough rice to eat during some months but we do not dare to remind them about rice as we fear they will drop out of school,” says Mien.
Another teacher, Thai, says she saw some students catching mice from the local sewer for food.
“I asked them to throw them away because mice are dirty,” she adds.
Chong says there are few ways out from the grinding poverty, except hopefully education. This is what keeps him going, he adds.
“[I wish] to have a bicycle to travel to school so that I can finish my studies to become a doctor in the future but really it is impossible for my family,” he says.