Vietnam’s students pray for luck in high-pressure exams

HANOI (AFP) — Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese students Friday sat university entrance exams, kicking off a nail-biting season when family nerves are frayed and police are deployed to ferret out cheats.

All week students have flocked to Hanoi’s ancient Temple of Literature, where mandarins were once trained in the Confucian classics, to pray for luck and burn incense at the country’s oldest university.

“Last year I failed the exam, so I spent the whole year studying,” said 18-year-old Tran Van Lam of northern Thai Binh province, who said he wants to study engineering at the Hanoi Polytechnic University.

“I really hope I’m luckier this time. If not, I’ll try again next year.”

More than 500,000 students are due to sit maths, physics and chemistry exams on Friday and Saturday assembled in 24,000 rooms throughout 974 examination centres, competing for places at 92 universities, institutes and colleges.

Learning is highly valued in Vietnamese society, yet many complain about a tertiary education system constrained by funding shortages and a less-than-open academic environment.

Communist Vietnam, where two thirds of people are under the age of 30, is struggling to cope with surging demand for higher education, and several foreign universities now offer degree programmes to fill the gap.

Foreign education experts often complain of too much knowledge-cramming and a culture where the idea of students questioning their teachers is still sometimes frowned upon as a sign of disrespect.

Overseas Vietnamese have a reputation as academic high achievers, yet many are reluctant to come home to teach in a system where faculty staff typically earn 150 dollars a month and work at several institutions.

Many feel stifled by a system where classes on Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh Thought are mandatory and many political topics remain taboo.

Professor Jim Cobbe, a Fulbright Scholar teaching economics at the University of Danang, said that while academic standards vary widely, many universities lack adequate teaching materials and equipment.

Another problem, he said, is that “the incentive structure for academic staff is highly counterproductive because it encourages them to teach as many hours as possible because that’s how they raise their income.”

Foreign business groups have complained that the often poor quality of universities will stifle Vietnam’s economic growth and say they can’t find enough graduates in finance, management and information technology.

The European Chamber of Commerce here has recommended Vietnam lift restrictions on setting up foreign-invested educational establishments.

This year, the Ministry of Education and Training has launched an ambitious programme to produce 20,000 PhDs by 2020, many of them foreign-trained, and there are plans to set up “international-standard universities.”

Despite the current limitations, competition is fierce for university places and has often fuelled rampant cheating and graft.

In recent years police raided photocopy shops mass-producing tiny cheat-sheets and arrested a ring that used bluetooth mobile phone earsets hidden under wigs to feed answers to people sitting the exams.

This year the Ministry of Education in an urgent message warned exam organisers that the papers are “top secret” and urged them to “ensure maximum security in printing, management and distribution.”

At the largest exam halls at Hanoi’s University of Natural Science, 50 police will keep an eye on 17,500 students taking exams — and even the officers will be barred from carrying mobile telephones.


Spratlys row gives Vietnam youth a taste for protest – Feature

Hanoi – For two weekends in a row, hundreds of young people have marched and chanted in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, waving protest banners and dodging phalanxes of helmeted riot police. The cause they are demonstrating for is one the government approves: Vietnam’s claim that it, and not China, owns the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

But authorities are trying to tamp down the protests, which threaten to damage relations with Vietnam’s giant northern neighbour and to encourage students to participate in politics in other ways.

For their part, the students are elated.

“I was so happy to be able to raise my voice,” said 24-year-old university student Nguyen Van Nhat, who marched with the protestors in Hanoi last Sunday. “I think it’s the right thing for me to do.”

The protests were triggered by China’s decision earlier this month to establish an official locality, called Sansha, which it claims administers the Spratlys and Paracels. Vietnam officially protested the move on December 3, as government spokesman Le Dung said the issue should be resolved through peaceful dialogue.

The demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City began the following Sunday. The fact that police tolerated the first demonstration for roughly an hour before dispersing it led to speculation that it had been instigated by the government.

In fact, the protests appear to have been largely spontaneous, organized by students through blogs, online communities and mobile phone messaging, with some participation by veteran pro-democracy activists and dissidents.

“We found out about the demonstration through blogs and emails,” said 23-year-old student protestor Ngo Quynh. “I joined the demonstration based on my love for Vietnam.”

Vietnamese have used blogs like (named for the Vietnamese term for the Paracels) and networking sites like Yahoo360 to spread the word about the demonstrations. The blogs have continued to discuss the Spratlys issue furiously.

A number of democracy activists were also active in the demonstrations. They include Le Quoc Quan, a lawyer who spent six months in the United States earlier this year on a fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy, and was imprisoned for three months by the Vietnamese government on his return.

Quan said he had participated in the demonstrations in Hanoi on December 9, but that police prevented him from reaching this past Sunday’s protests. He said his brother, Le Quoc Quyet, was arrested at Sunday’s demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City, and held for four hours before being released.

Quan said police at the demonstration had also arrested and released one of his uncles and his uncle’s friend.

Last Sunday’s demonstrations, in contrast to those on December 9, were met by dozens of riot police who had pre-emptively blocked off the street in front of the Chinese embassy and the adjacent park. Vietnamese blogs related the stories of three students who were arrested at the demonstrations in Hanoi, and released several hours later.

Vietnamese police sources refused to comment on the arrests, except to confirm that they had occurred.

But the harsher police response followed a Chinese statement condemning them last week. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Wednesday that Chinese Foreign Ministry Qin Gang had urged Vietnam to prevent any future anti-Chinese demonstrations, which he said could harm bilateral ties.

Vietnam’s government-controlled press has printed numerous articles over the past two weeks laying out Vietnam’s claim to the islands. They rely on documents dating from medieval Vietnamese emperors and from 17th-century European explorers.

The arguments are widely taken for granted by Vietnamese, who view China’s claim to the islands as the latest in a long series of Chinese incursions on Vietnamese territory.

The dispute has intensified because the waters surrounding the Spratlys and Paracels are believed to contain substantial petroleum deposits. A Vietnamese agreement with British Petroleum to begin exploration in waters near southern Vietnam was scrapped earlier this year because of concerns over the sovereignty conflict.

The protestors say they will try to march again this weekend. That will present the government with a dilemma, as it tries to restrain protests involving independent democracy activists it opposes, but which also reflect widespread patriotic and anti-Chinese sentiment.

“When we were marching in Hanoi in the demonstration, passers-by were excited, and some of them joined us,” said university student Nhat. “There must be measures to stop China’s conspiracy to invade the islands.”

“I think the best solution is democracy,” said Quynh. “The issue must be discussed publicly so that all people will know about it, not just the Communist Party, so that we can unleash the nation’s power.”

Such unauthorized political activity, however, is precisely what Vietnam’s government would like to avoid.