Vietnam has made progress by leaps and bounds in the past decade, improving economic growth, boosting newborn and child survival rates and getting more kids in school. As I traveled throughout the country last week, I could see that this progress was rooted in the determination and industriousness of the Vietnamese people. They have worked so hard to make a better life for themselves and their children, and their hard work has paid off in an increased per capita income and an active economy.
Yet Vietnam, like so much of the developing world, continues to be a study in contrasts—and these contrasts are stark in the lives and experiences of Vietnam’s children. In the capital city of Hanoi, a young girl arrives at school on the back of a motorbike. But in the Hmong highlands, in the northwest part of the country, a girl of the same age walks for several miles through the mud in her bare feet to get to the classroom.
I found in Vietnam—just as I do in all of my travels—that children are fundamentally the same, regardless of their background or economic circumstances. Give them a chance to learn and a passionate teacher and they will astound you with their eagerness and excitement. I met a little girl in a first grade class high in the mountains, where the largest minority population and poorest people, the Hmong, have lived for thousands of years. Since most of the local community does not speak Vietnamese at home, we are using modified tools from our Literacy Boost program to help children learn the national language. This little girl was just learning the sounds of her new alphabet and she waved her hand wildly when the teacher asked for a volunteer. When the teacher called on her, her face broke out into a huge smile and she got herself ready to practice the funny new sounds in front of her friends. For this little girl, learning is pure joy—and it was a joy for me to see, too.
As much progress as there is to celebrate in Vietnam, the country still has a long way to go. Despite huge drops in child mortality, malnutrition rates are still very high. One out of every three children living in rural areas is malnourished and signs of stunting—reduced growth and development due to malnutrition—are everywhere.
But if I’ve learned anything from my visit, it’s that Vietnam is poised to overcome the challenges to its development with the right investment and the industriousness of its people. Their kids will be the beneficiaries of a healthier, more educated society and—hopefully—the joy of an even better future for their own children.