Educational investments from the lens of ethnic minorities in Vietnam


After a fast-and-furious bus ride, and an overnight train from Hanoi, we arrived in Sa Pa. 318km far from Hanoi, Sa Pa was a world apart. In a summer day, Sa Pa was a surreal charm with picturesque terraced rice fields, scattering ethnic wooden houses here and there on the hills, and bustling markets filled with lively colors. Above all the beauties this little town had to offer us, to me what set Sa Pa apart from other parts of Vietnam was its ethnic diversity. Across Vietnam, most of the inland deltas and coastal areas are made up of homogenous societies in terms of ethnicity. The major ethnic group – the Kinh – accounts for more than 86% of the country’s population, and dominates in all the main economic hubs or midsize cities of the country. Sa Pa, on the other hand, is home to a good mix of ethnic groups, Hmong, Muong, Thai, Dao, Tay, to name a few. Such an ethnic composition has created a unique social dynamic and mindset for people in Sa Pa.

Does education always bring the same value across ethnic groups?

Wandering through the night markets, I was stunned by how the street vendors could master the art of bargaining not only in Vietnamese, but also in English! Their English proficiency was incredibly impressive. Later on, I learned that most of these street vendors were typically very young, probably did not finish their high schools, and they belonged to different ethnic minority groups. As I was told, the ethnic minorities in Sa Pa found it more profitable to invest their time and resources to learn English from books or tourists, than going to official schools administered by the government. For them, speaking well English would bring back a larger gain of income from tourists. Whereas, going to schools would not only reduce their working time, but also schooling did not seem to be much interesting or provide a clear path of returns in the future.

This logic can strike as shortsighted at first. However, once weighing in all the constraints faced by a minority ethnic individual from a small village, it seems to make sense. As in any other cases, an ethnic minority’s decision to forgo attending formal schooling is tightly linked to his or her returns to education. If the returns to education are not sufficient to cover the cost of not working, the individual would be discouraged to invest in schooling per se and more likely to invest in other practical skills, which are rewarded better in the labor market. In the case of education for the ethnic minorities in Vietnam, the returns to formal education are considerably low. This could be due to three reasons.


First, location, location, location… Areas, where minority ethnic groups allocate in Vietnam, are mostly remote or rural areas, which are isolated with the lack of basic infrastructure to facilitate economic activities intra-regions. This leads to limited economic opportunities for an educated ethnic youth.

Secondly, not only is the quality of formal education in these remote areas is substantially lower than other parts of the country, but the content of formal education is regarded as “Kinh-centric”, failing to reflect the history and culture of other ethnic groups. Together, these factors of formal education quality make attending schools become less attractive to an ethnic minority.

Lastly, current or past discrimination factors in the labor market against ethnic minorities could potentially discourage ethnic workers to obtain a high education in order to compete in the workforce. Differences in cultural heritage, and social behaviors or expectations could be barriers for an ethnic minority to enter the labor market, where the major ethnic group dominates. I once overheard a young Dao girl told her friend that most of the well-paid jobs in town would be reserved for the Kinh people. Ethnic workers like themselves would not stand a chance to take the job. Regardless of whether such speculation is true or not, if an ethnic minority believes that there is a segregation in the job market not based on skills, but rather on ethnic identity, her expectations to gain from education would reduce, which eventually translates to her decision not to invest in formal education. What are the perks of investing in something without a return?

A long-term social division

While the Vietnamese government has taken up many social integration or economic assistance programs, such as the Commission for Ethnic

Minorities and Mountain Areas (CEMMA), these initiatives have not succeeded in fully addressing the ethnic groups’ differential needs, which are rooted from dissimilar cultural heritage and social norms. For example, even though commune health care centers could provide ethnic patients with fee exemptions or free medicines, the minorities still prefer going to shamans due to superstitious beliefs. In terms of education, the Vietnamese educational system is centrally planned, and as mentioned before, the curricula are perceived by ethnic minorities as irrelevant to the realities and local needs of the ethnic groups.

Investing in skills that are rewarded better in the local labor market, in this case, learning English, is probably the best (or the second-best?) option for an ethnic worker. However, in the long run, these different attitudes toward educational investments would potentially widen the social and economic gap among different ethnic groups, and increase social oppression in society.

Jacqueline Nguyen

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