The stilt houses dotting the remote mountain villages in northwestern Vietnam might appear dilapidated but inside they brim with life as young minds attempt to overcome poverty through education.
As city kids enter the doldrums of summer, taking family vacations along the beach or preparing for the fast approaching school year with extra classes, their ethnic minority counterparts in mountainous Son La Province are busy working alongside their parents in local paddy fields.
But Son La children refuse to let reality seep into their dreams of rising from poverty.
Instead, they unwaveringly keep their eyes pointed toward the one thing they see as key to making a better life: education.
‘All for papa’
Eleven-year-old Dinh Thi Khieu is one of these children.
Her mother left her father for another man when she was just a baby and has never been heard from since.
“I don’t remember her,” Khieu says with tears in her eyes whenever the subject is broached.
Her father, Dinh Van O, 50, is all she has left.
Though partially deaf, he refuses to let life get in the way of providing for his only child, even if it means sometimes relying on his daughter as an interpreter or to lend a hand in the field.
|Khieu sits near her partially deaf father to make communication easier. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
“Her mother is long gone. Khieu is all I’ve got,” he shared.
“I want to help her get an education even though it means she will eventually have to move away.
"I can’t describe how sad her leaving would make me, but I will always support her decisions."
And that may very well happen.
As the second-ranked student in her class of 32, Khieu will likely find opportunities aplenty as she continues her academic career.
Khieu has already expressed interest in pursuing a career in teaching.
“I want to alleviate my dad’s burden," she said, underlining the same dedication she has shown to her father throughout most of her childhood.
|Khieu studies beside a window, taking advantage of the natural sunlight. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
|Khieu’s academic awards are a treasure in the stilt house. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Study for the future
Dinh Thi Nhan, 13, is the younger of two children in her family.
She has been fortunate enough to have a youth filled with mother love, but her family’s financial situation has put her and her brother at the crossroads of education and family.
Nhan’s mother, 47, is ill and her grandma is weak with old age.
To stay alive, they have had to dip into the family’s meager savings to afford medication.
As a result, her brother dropped out of school to take up odd jobs in order to help support the family.
The only reason Nhan has not followed suit is that she is able to scrape together just enough cash to afford school fees by selling shellfish she has collected from nearby creeks.
She also occasionally joins her mother working in a local corn field and feeds the family’s cow which was granted to them from a government aid program.
Somehow, she still manages to find time to tutor other children in her village in basic math and literature.
|Nhan tutors other village children in literature and math. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
But the dire circumstance remains stark as ever.
Nhan’s meals typically consist of barely white rice and wild vegetables collected from the forest.
Despite her age, Nhan is fully aware of her household’s economic crisis.
“I want to continue studying, but I fear it won’t be possible,” Nhan said. “I don’t want to quit school like my brother,” she continued.
“When I move out of the village to pursue higher education I will focus on whatever it takes to make money.”
“I want to become a doctor so that I can cure all the diseases in my village,” she said with determination.
|Nhan’s family and their meager meals. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Pillar of the family
Brothers Mui Van Thuan and Mui Van Tu have never lived in a house connected to the electric grid – the location of their mountaintop village makes it nearly impossible.
When their father was working with the village to run cables connecting the village with the national grid, he was electrocuted and died.
Their mother, Mui Thi Thuc, 47, has been struggling to make ends meet ever since.
Tu, her second son, was born prematurely by two months and needs monthly medical checkups to ensure his health.
Yet Thuc still does what she can to ensure her children are able to attend school.
|With her husband long gone, Thuc’s two children are her ultimate comfort in life. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Likewise, Thuan, 12, is able to lend a helping hand.
“I just want to help my mother and brother out,” Thuan said with honesty.
In the last academic year, Thuan was recognized as a good student, a much needed success for a family which has experienced so much tragedy.
Thuan intends to become a policeman so that he can help protect his family and village from danger and hardship.
|Thuan does his best to fill his father’s shoes. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Parenting in remote, mountainous northwestern Vietnam is a challenge every minute of every day.
Poverty is the only common commodity in these off-the-grid villages.
Seeing children so earnestly doing their best to determine their own fate is a constant inspiration to the adults who raise them.
At the very least, they are aware of their future, and have enough guts to battle the odds.
|Tu (left) holds his brother’s certificate of recognition with utmost pride. Photo: Tuoi Tre|