Vietnam's Education An Expatriate Teacher's Primer

by Steven K. Bailey, Mar 1, 1999 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Expatriate teaching has a long tradition in Asia. Americans, Canadians, Britons and Australians can be found in classrooms from Seoul to Singapore. The vast majority of these teachers work as instructors of English, which is rapidly becoming the common tongue of Asia. The ever savvy Vietnamese certainly recognize its value and a growing number of westerners are heading to Vietnam to meet the demand for English instructors. If you are one of these Vietnam-bound teachers, I recommend reading Vietnam's Education: The Current Position and Future Prospects from The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi (1998). Written by Dr. Pham Minh Hac, this book will provide you with an invaluable introduction to Vietnam's unique system of education.

Few people could be better qualified to lead you on a tour of Vietnam's education system than Pham Minh Hac. Born in 1935 in Hanoi, he received a doctorate in psychology from Moscow University in 1971. A professor of psychology, he is the author of numerous research works, books and articles. He served as Minister of Education and later as First Vice Minister of Education and Training. As of the book's printing, Pham Minh Hac is the First Vice Chairman of the Central Committee for Science and Education as well as the Chairman of the National Commission for Literacy. Clearly, he has not merely worked within the country's education system--he has in large part created it. In fact, his policies are those that all teachers in Vietnam must follow, expat instructors included. If you teach in Vietnam, Pham Minh Hac will be both your colleague and your boss.

The author clearly believes that no instructor--Vietnamese or foreign--can teach successfully in Vietnam without first understanding the background history of its education system. He shows how in this century (the main focus of the book) fifty years of French occupation left an abysmal legacy. In the early 1940s, for example, a mere three percent of the population had entered the education system and over 95 percent of the populace remained illiterate. The small number of Vietnamese enrolled in school studied in French-language classrooms as colonial subjects. Instructors regarded Vietnamese as a foreign language and textbooks did not refer to Vietnam as a country but rather as one of five subservient regions of French Indochina. In summary, the book states that the colonial school system was "designed to implement an education policy of enslavement and assimilation."

Given the appalling state of the colonial school system, it seems little wonder that the Communist Party considered educating the masses to be one of their primary goals. The day after he proclaimed Vietnamese independence in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared that "An ignorant nation is a weak one. Therefore, I propose that a campaign against illiteracy be launched. Education is the cause of the masses; schools are instruments of the people's power."

Pham explains that while the Communist Party's Central Committee had come to believe by 1996 that the education system must produce an educated workforce capable of competing in the global economy. The committee also believed that "the fundamental tasks and objectives of education are to foster generations deeply attached to the ideal of national independence and socialism."

Throughout his book, Pham Minh Hac emphasizes that in many ways the Vietnamese education system represents an astounding success story. For example, the basic goals of universal primary education and literacy have been achieved. Eighty percent of children now complete their primary education, and in 1998 the country boasted a 91% literacy rate--an astonishing achievement. Another worthy accomplishment has been the emphasis of gender equality in education--sexism is an age-old problem in Vietnam--and the attempt to extend educational opportunities to various disadvantaged groups from street children to ethnic minorities like the Hoa, Khmer and Hmong. Primary education is free and the modest monthly fees for secondary education are based on the value of two to four pounds of rice. Impressively, some 500,000 students pursue university-level studies at over a hundred campuses nationwide.

For all the progress made, however, Pham makes it clear that Vietnam's education system still suffers from a number of critical shortcomings. Too few students continue their studies after primary school and the dropout rate is too high among those that do. Underpaid teachers divert their energies to moonlight jobs as cab drivers and tour guides, or accept bribes in exchange for favorable treatment of students. Too many teachers rely on rote learning rather than pedagogical techniques that impart creative and analytical skills; a shortage of everything from chalkboards to glass beakers cripples instruction at all levels. There are not enough classrooms, and many schools are little more than unfurnished one-room schoolhouses.

Pham Minh Hac recognizes that a great challenge awaits all educators working in Vietnam, including himself, with the government's plans to achieve a 100-percent primary education rate by the year 2000. By 2010 the goal is for all students to attend junior secondary education; by 2020 the goal is for all students to attend senior secondary education--a goal not yet achieved even in the United States.

As a western teacher, you have a small but important role to play in this ambitious undertaking. You can teach English or other European languages; you can teach computer science, macroeconomics and other vital skills necessary for the nation to succeed in the global marketplace. But before you enter a Vietnamese classroom, my advice is to read Vietnam's Education so that you will know where and how you fit into the nation's long and valiant struggle to educate its people. Pham and his book, not to mention your Vietnamese students, will undoubtedly teach you as much as you teach them.