With zero prospects at home, many children in impoverished Ha Giang drop out of school to join the illegal workforce in China.
Sung Mi Tu returned home from school one afternoon in late February to find his father on the phone discussing a job across the border in China.
He hung up and turned to Tu, saying: “I’m old, I’ll let you take it.”
The 15-year-old thought about it for a couple of minutes and then nodded his head.
The next morning, the father woke up early and prepared steamed rice with stir-fried mustard greens while Tu packed a light bag containing just a set of clothes.
A chilly spring breeze gusted through the door as they were saying goodbye.
The only advice his father could offer was to be careful and watch out for snakes and border guards.
“Okay, Dad,” he said, leaving his home, pet dog and ninth-grade classmates, who were just starting their second semester, behind.
It’s a familiar story for many teenagers in rural H’Mong ethnic villages in Dong Van District, Ha Giang Province. Leave school and head for the border in the belief that their futures will not be built on the lessons they are unable to digest in school, but instead on the illegal jobs they can find in China.
Ha Giang’s border officers recorded 23,460 people crossing the border to work in China in 2014, more than double the number in 2012. Most of them left to work on plantations, construction sites or mines, just a few kilometers from their homes in Vietnam.
Tu’s job is to dig holes to plant eucalyptus trees. He gets paid 80 Yuan ($12) for digging 160 holes a day.
The teenager shares a tent deep in the jungle with nine other workers from Vietnam. He does not know where he is in China and has been told to stay within one kilometer of the tent to avoid getting lost or captured by Chinese border guards.
Cha Mi Sung, another member of the migrant worker force, also has to look back on his decision once in a while.
“The more I learned, the less I knew,” said Sung, who dropped out of 10th grade and has been cleaning up garbage from construction sites in China for nearly three years.
When he asked to quit school, his father agreed in a second. The widower was struggling to feed eight children with just a small paddy field at the time.
“Crossing the border is the easiest way to make money,” Sung said.
He earns VND35 million ($1,540) a year, twice the average income in Ha Giang. Vietnam’s average annual income was around $2,200 last year.
Sung, one of only two children from his village to go to high school, can read books, but without really understanding them. The other kid, who graduated from high school, has also joined the workforce in China.
When education fails
Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a seasoned educator who retired in 2011 as vice chairman of the parliamentary committee on youth and education, said border children do not have good conditions for learning Vietnamese effectively.
There has been no serious intervention to improve the teaching of Vietnamese in the area, seriously testing the teachers’ patience.
Hung, who has spent more than 10 years teaching H’Mong children in Ha Giang, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, said 70 percent of them cannot read or write without making mistakes.
They grow up not speaking a single word of Vietnamese at home, and most struggle to keep up with Vietnamese lessons in the national textbooks.
Hung admitted there were moments he considered giving up, such as when he almost lost his voice and the students could still not pronounce the words correctly.
He’s come to accept that he and his students only need to understand what each other say.
“For them to use Vietnamese fluently, we might need another 30 years,” said the teacher, who only wanted to be referred to by his first name.
A child helps to dry harvested rice in Ha Giang Province, one of the poorest parts of Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Cuong Do Manh
According to Vietnamese border guards in the area, local ethnic children can understand 80 percent of what they hear but only manage to express half of what they mean.
Many local children are not bothered about it. They are prepared to follow in the footsteps of their brothers and sisters as they have no career prospects even if they study hard. Across Vietnam, 2.28 percent of the working age population (1.1 million people) are jobless, according to statistics released in June this year.
Sung Mi Cau, an orphan whose only brother left for China last year, has been counting down the days until he can join him.
“I’ll leave after ninth grade. I don’t have the money to study further,” he said.
He spends most of his spare time sitting on high rocks looking down on the curvy road running down to the national highway.
The stunning path amazes many travelers and photographers in Vietnam, but for him it is the path that took his brother to China.