Ha Thuong, Thai Nguyen Province - Duong Van Nam balances a plastic table on a makeshift bed to do his homework. The 12-year-old boy needs to get his "desk" as close as possible to the dim light source in his damp house.
"My dream is to become a teacher, so I need to study hard," says Nam, as he shapes a pile of pillows into a chair.
"I spend the whole day collecting coal and catching crabs, know nothing about the internet, and my boy can win an internet math award." - Bui Thi Bich Phuong, mother of beneficiary
Meanwhile, Bui Thi Bich Phuong, 45, sits patiently in the darkness, waiting for her son to finish his homework. When he is done, the two will go catching crabs at the edges of the fields near their home at Ha Thuong, Dai Tu district, Thai Nguyen Province, in remote northeastern Viet Nam. If they are lucky, they can earn D30,000 ($1.50) after 3 hours in the fields, adding to the D50,000 ($2.50) the mother makes daily by collecting waste coal at the mine of Mo Me, near their home.
"I work hard but I can barely feed my family," says Phuong, a sickly single mother. "So my son has to help me catching crabs."
But, she adds, he always completes his homework first.
That commitment to homework paid off when Nam won the district mathematics competition via the internet.
"I spend the whole day collecting coal and catching crabs, know nothing about the internet, and my boy can win an internet math award," says Phuong with joy on her coal-smudged face.
Education for human resources
Nam's math and internet literacy were supported by the Lower Secondary Education Development Project, launched with the Government of Viet Nam in 1997. The project, which ran until 2006, included $21 million in loans from the government, $50 million from ADB, and a $0.5 million grant from the Government of Belgium.
"Human resources is one of the bottlenecks that hinder Viet Nam's development, which is why we would like to solve the problem together with Viet Nam's government." - Tomoyuki Kimura, ADB country director for Viet Nam
The project focused on three major pillars: quality of education; enhancement of facilities; and institutional improvement and development. According to project manager, Tran Dinh Chau, between 1998 and 2004, a total of 2,482 classrooms were built in 366 schools in 21 provinces and cities of Viet Nam, all with modern equipment and facilities. Moreover, thousands of teachers have received further training to switch to a new curriculum.
"The project will have a long lasting impact on improving the education quality in Viet Nam," says Chau.
According to ADB country director, Tomoyuki Kimura, Viet Nam's Lower Secondary Education Development Project is one of ADB's model education sector projects.
"Human resources is one of the bottlenecks that hinder Viet Nam's development, which is why we would like to solve the problem together with Viet Nam's government," Kimura says. But, he adds, Viet Nam still has a long way to go in upgrading its education quality - even at the secondary high school level, where over 6 million pupils are enlisted.
Internet and schooling for all
Not far away from Nam's home, 15-year-old Nguyen Ngoc Mai does her homework in an old thatched house. She has recently won the district's internet English competition, bringing joy to her parents, who belong to the Cao Lan ethnic minority. Her mother suffers from cancer, and Mai's daily meals consist only of vegetables harvested from her garden.
"I have to study hard to overcome poverty," she says.
Mai and Nam live in a remote district, where 20% of the local population belong to ethnic minorities and many households live "in extreme poverty," according to the commune's party leader, Chu Van Tuan.
The education project has been particularly effective in helping such ethnic minority students access higher education, according to ADB's Independent Evaluation Department. The number of ethnic minority students attending secondary schools increased to 924,867 in 2005-2006, from 571,860 in 1999-2000.
"Many school children can now access the internet and get a modern education at school," Tuan says. "This is a big difference from previous local generations like mine."
Head of the Ha Thuong Secondary School Tran Thi Tu Uyen knows how things have changed better than anyone else. The school computer room has helped Nam and Mai, and many others like them, access the internet, she says. The school also has specific classrooms for other subjects, such as English, physics, and biology.
But for Uyen, while the classrooms are important, the most important thing about the school is the two-storey building itself.
"This is the first secondary high school building this district has ever had. It has really improved the conditions for both teachers and pupils," she says.
Built with community support
Almost 50 kilometers away, Dong Tien Secondary High School of Pho Yen District is even grander, with two buildings - one two-storey, the other three - and with a garden, a fishpond, and a big yard. Nguyen Khac Hai, who has spent the last 20 years teaching pupils here and is now school principal, can still remember working with his parents to build the original school out of mud bricks and bamboo.
It was not until 2000, when local authorities received a grant to build a two-storey school building, that local students' prospects began to look up. As was the case with Ha Thuong Secondary School, and other recipients of grants under the project, 30% of the costs for the new school building had to be paid by the local community.
An independent monitoring committee was set up to avoid waste and misallocation of funds. By 2009, Dong Tien not only had a two-storey school building, but also a three-storey building, with a library and classrooms for subjects such as computing, physics, biology, chemistry, and foreign languages.
Eighth-grade pupil Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen dreams of becoming an English interpreter. Her family was plunged into poverty when her father had a serious accident that incapacitated him. Her mother is the family's sole bread-winner. Huyen sees her dream job as a way for her to escape poverty.
Her English teacher, Ta Thi Hoa, calls Huyen one of her best pupils and pushes Huyen to achieve her goal.
"I always encourage her to study well," says Hoa, "so she will not be poor in future."