A physical education teacher has spent around ten years providing complimentary swimming lessons to a number of children in a flood-stricken rural area of central Vietnam, hoping to help them protect themselves against drowning.
In 2008, Nguyen Viet Tuoc, a gym instructor at Hai Vinh Middle School in Quang Tri Province, was overwhelmed with grief when he witnessed mourning relatives of a young student who had drowned carry his coffin to the grave while wading in floodwaters.
Tuoc was bent on teaching children in his village how to swim free of charge.
He began by driving sections of mature bamboos into a canal and turning them into a structure that novice swimmers can hold.
The irrigation canal, which has a narrow width and has water up to the waist of an average Vietnamese adult, was chosen given the unavailability of a swimming pool.
On a recent day at dawn, over 20 children assembled in rows on the canal’s bank, and flexed their legs and fingers before entering the water.
The students can only learn to swim here on a few weekdays, when the canal is filled with water, Tuoc said.
Many children who were unwilling to step into the water finally had the courage to do it after receiving instructions from Tuoc.
“I used to be very scared of rivers and couldn’t swim. But now I know how to swim only after five sessions learning with the teacher,” said Nguyen Quang Hai, a sixth grader at Hai Vinh Middle School.
“He also makes me have more self-confidence.”
Each of Tuoc’s outdoor swimming classes lasts 15 sessions and he has used his own money to purchase lifejackets and reinforce the handhold structure.
Parents of several students offered to pay the costs because the job consumed too much of his time, but he all turned them down.
“The most important thing I have is the children’s safety,” Tuoc said, underlining that his area has multiple waterways, which means children’s life is prone to risk even when floods have not come.
“People say I hold swimming classes, but actually I’m just showing children how to swim as if we’re brothers.”
Drowning was the leading cause of injury deaths amongst Vietnamese children between 2015 and 2017, with around 2,000 drowning fatalities from this type of population each year, according to Nguyen Thi Ha, deputy head of the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs.
Swimming is usually taught as an extracurricular activity or at facilities outside schools in Vietnam, which has a 3,260-kilometer coastline and a large number of rivers, canals and lakes.