Twelve Years of Education in Vietnam: A look Into What My Head is Filled With

First of all, I want to start of by saying: Man, it is never easy to talk about your country, especially when you were used to be told to just shut up and listen.

I never truly become aware of the extent of propaganda in the education system in Vietnam until now. Like I know because some whispered about it in the air; or my parents implied it in their conversations, but no one is confident enough to say it out loud. They covered up by saying: “That’s how we Asians are. We never say what we mean. We use metaphor to imply our opinions.” To put it another way, we are just afraid to speak up.

Man, I am confused. I don’t know where to start. I feel like this entry will put not me and everyone I know into jeopardy (and I don’t even know who/what I should be afraid of. I am just afraid). Maybe I will just upload it for a few hours then take it down. But for now, I need to make a few words. So let’s explore what the education system fill into my head.

First is the constant presence of Chairman Ho Chi Minh in schools:

Ho Chi Minh was not just our nation’s hero. He was called the Dear Father of the Nation. I know, I know it sounds like North Korea. I admit, now translating all the terms we use for him into English, it does sound like he was our Vietnamese “Dear Supreme Leader”. We call him Uncle Ho or Grandpa Ho — emphasize the close relationship he had with the citizens. Or we called him Uncle, or Grandpa for short. Yes, with the first letter capitalized. Yes, like Him (for God). Because he was kind of a God to us. He was our religion, the flawless model of morality, charisma, lifestyles and working ethics. Everything he did, (or did he?) is promoted all over the country.

Actually this is what my high school currently look like

In elementary school, we would have an annual competition of telling stories about life of Chairman Ho Chi Minh. We would then take turns to step to the board of our class, and told the story that we found about Uncle. The person with the best story judged by the teacher, would represent their class to tell it in front of the whole school. Then, this student would compete against other class’s representatives to win some prizes.

A competition in another city (just to show these kinds of competitions are really popular)

The problem was the stories overlapped a lot. There are some mainstream stories that kids after kids, after kids tell. So, sometimes the teacher just chose the ones with the best story-telling skill. Then, the teachers alter the content a little bit so the stories do not repeat. So the show would go like. First kid started: “Uncle Ho once was going for a walk in the park after a long day at work, when he saw a bunch of kids playing. He came closer to say hi, hug them so tight, and asked them about their studying. Then he gave each of them sweets…”. Second kid goes like: “One time Ho Chi Minh went to the market to buy some fruit. He soon noticed the sound of children playing nearby. He followed the laughter and singing and see a bunch of kids playing. He decided to walk up to take a closer look and say Hello and hug them. Then he asked them about their school work…” And then other kids’ stories just basically followed the same structure, characteristics and messages. Just from different situations, at the beach, on the mountain, in the jungle, when Uncle visit his hometown, when Uncle walked to a meeting, etc. We just promote him like he is a God.

We literally hang his picture in every classroom across the nation, with a slogan that goes: “Live and study following the example of Chairman Ho Chi Minh”.

In 2008, courses like “Marxism-Leninism Ideology” and “Thoughts of Chairman Ho Chi Minh” are offered free in colleges to encourage students to study. Then everyone stopped taking those classes. The Ministry of Education freaked out and add the word “compulsory” to its free courses. So now, everyone has to learn it, but it is free, so… thank you?

Second is the privilege of the “chosen ones”

I was taking part in this National Competition, the best students of each city all over the country compete in various subjects such as Math, Physics, Geography, etc. Mine was Chinese. And so, after the Municipal Round, we had about three months until the National Competition.

And it is a policy. I repeat, it is a common-known fixed policy of every school to isolate these “chosen students” and put them into a “special environment” for some preparatory practice. So, what we were made to do was studying Chinese and only Chinese for seven to eight hours a day, every day, for three months to maximize the chance of winning prizes and bring honor to the school. Because they put us in such extreme practice, we would have no other time to study other subjects (also should not be distracted by them) so we didn’t have to. The teachers took the highest GPA of each subject to put into our transcript. We literally attended no classes then stole the GPA from the best students of each subject.

Every “chosen student” feels privileged about this. Other students looked at us like we were the nobles. We possessed the golden ticket to access to unlimited corruption that was legalized by the teachers.

I felt guilty taking advantage of my “privileges”, but my transcript comes out so outstanding that it blinded my eyes of the corruption behind it. It is scary how a thing that used to make me so proud, can now make me so ashamed.

Third is the Political Ideologies Propaganda in Literature

I have to talk about Literature. Gosh, literature is the worst. Absolutely full of propaganda but has more psychological influence, I would argue, than the history book, which is also, full of propaganda. I don’t think we ever learn anything in Literature. Most of the time, we just praise on poems about generosity, kindness, love in general, the beauty of nature, family, Chairman Ho Chi Minh mostly wars with soldiers who stands like a statue of gods that sacrifice for the sake of humanity; while on the other side reside the evil inhumane enemies whose appearance resemble bloody hideous devils and monsters.

Sometimes we get to study foreign literature works. And guess what ? They are Russian and Chinese literature works that also promote those communist uprisings. Same case applies to national bookstores.

Lesson about a poem named “Tay Tien” (Westward) that talks about the journey across mountains and forests of the soldiers to their military points during the war with the French. This poem is one of twenty literature works that is taught in Grade 12. Every works is about war, communism, Ho Chi Minh and the heartless American/French monsters.

The transition from secondary school to high school, we have to go through an entrance exam. This exam made us study every single literature work that has been taught during the two last years of secondary school, which is about twenty works. The funny part is the teachers realize they can make a profit out of this. Man, they are paid poorly. Poor them as well. They don’t know any better. So anyway, they open “extra-classes” — private tutor, but on large scale, for, say, fifty to a hundred kids— what we call “the blast furnace” like in steel and iron mill, but for students, to transform them, into, say, high-educated, civilized intelligent citizens.

I myself did go to a lot of extra-classes (because everyone was doing it). I had three different English classes, two Literature class, and a Math class. High School Entrance Exam and College Entrance Exam are always considered the two most important events of your entire life, like, more important than your wedding or your funeral. No summer vacation at all.

I stop going to extra classes in high school, not because I thought different about it and had a clash of enlightenment about this wrongdoings or anything. I just realized: I no longer need people to tell me how to right correctly and get good grades, I can absolutely do it myself. I know the drill. It is scary to think about that now. But I was able to spurt pages after pages after pages with the speed of lightning, just kept on writing nonstop until the bell rings — about things I do not necessary believe in or understand or conscious of its influence on the ideas in my head.

I made a record of finishing a total of ten handwriting double-sided A4 papers after an hour and a half. It was written about how the soldiers are depicted like angels that God Almighty sends from the sky to help the Vietnamese military win the war. Oh even God was on the side of us. God sees the righteousness in the ideology of the Communist Party. God supports us. We are not only fighting for the nation, we are fighting for the world, we are fighting for the whole universe. The victory we made did not just make history, it continues till present and till forever future. Communism is the new hope of humanity. Something like that is so easy for me to spurt out. I just needed to feel excited and totally devoted. Then my mind went blank and I just follow a kind of … instinct. I was promoting and cherishing propaganda myself without knowing it. And it is terrifying.

What I used to consider a talent, now a shame. I thought I was more capable than others because I know exactly what to write that would please the teachers. I need no guidance to absorb the indoctrination, I actively take part in propagate it. But the most horrifying fact was that I am not the only one who was able of doing that.

Tons of confusing subjects that keeps our mind too busy to even question why we study them

Usually a student spend 5 to 7 hours at school everyday 6 days a week. But still, that’s never enough. Since the information is enormous, students are expected to take “extra-classes” as I mentioned above. Then spend the rest of their not-attending-lecture-time to do the homework. We have 14 subjects with extreme level of difficult to cover. What the Americans study in college, we study since we were twelve. We were able to calculate the probability of rolling the dice, stock market and winning elections before we get into high school. In fact, the probability calculation question was the easiest one on our High School Entrance Exam.

There are even a subject that is called “Civic Education”. How the hell do you educate a person to be a good citizen ? Well, you tell them how great and wonderful and peaceful he government is. You tell them how just and righteous the law is. You tell them how perfect Chairman Ho Chi Minh was. You tell them how beautiful and brilliant the idea of communism from Karl Marx and Lenin is. And you tell them, at every ending of every fucking lesson that in a small table named “Remember”, in order to be a good citizen, this is what you should be doing. You are supposed to learn by hear these “remember” for the exams. Oh, the gradings are tough, for example, if you mention that one good citizen must love and treasure and devote to his country. But you forgot to mention “sacrifice”, that’s pretty severe, you get no points, because your morality needs help.

It’s not that I didn’t know about these problems before, but I never want to dig into it. That’s what everyone else is thinking as well. We want to keep quiet. We want to stay away from troubles as far as possible.

I was wondering so much why people keep on discouraging me to study Journalism. At first I thought they just think the workload and travelling would be tremendous for a girl to handle. Then, I realize they were pananoid what I would find out about the problems in Vietnam. They freaked out at the thought of me criticizing the government and condemn everything they teach at school, which could probably put everyone to jail. Or, they just felt sorry for me, they don’t want me to study so hard, realize all this, then go back to Vietnam, work for the government newspaper that is strongly penetrated by censorship and surveillance.

Oh, poor souls. What have they taught us in Vietnam?