Vietnamese study, pray, eat beans for crucial college exams


Hanoi : For a young Vietnamese, passing crucial university entrance examinations can mean the difference between life as a factory worker and a leg-up to prosperity in the country's burgeoning economy.

Support TwoCircles

But getting into university isn't easy in a country where higher education hasn't grown as fast as the booming economy. Of the 1.8 million students who will take the exams this month, only about 300,000 will be admitted due to a shortage of university slots.

So many of the 515,000 who began taking the three-day entrance exams Wednesday were pulling out all the stops to secure good results.

"I have studied very hard for the exams, but I am still nervous," said 18-year-old Nguyen Thu Hien, who travelled from nearby Hoa Binh province to take the exam for the University of Industry.

Like many Vietnamese students, Hien has been going to afternoon "cram sessions" to prepare for the tests.

And just in case studying isn't enough, Hien's mother, Quang Thi Gieng, took her to a pagoda the day before to burn incense and pray for good marks.

"I was so anxious, I couldn't sleep last night," Gieng admitted. "But I believe in Hien's ability to pass. She has studied hard."

This week, thousands students taking the test in Hanoi made a pilgrimage to the 940-year-old Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university, to touch the heads of 82 sacred stone turtles – representing past university laureates – for good luck.

Other students eat "lucky meals" of green beans and sticky rice before the exams – the word for green been in Vietnamese also means "passing" – and avoid foods like eggs (bad luck because they are shaped like zeros), peanuts and bananas.

Others, though, take a more direct route to success: cheating on the exams is a perennial problem, although authorities have successfully cracked down on the practice by calling in police and thousands of monitors for the tests.

Already this year, one person has been arrested on charges he took up to $2,500 from about a dozen students to hire brainy university students to take the tests for them using forged identification, local newspaper Tien Phong reported.

Last year, 24 students were busted in an elaborate scheme involving people feeding exam-takers answers through Bluetooth headsets hidden under wigs and hats.

The incentive to cheat is fuelled by Vietnam's severe shortage of university places.

The country has 92 universities but the system hasn't expanded fast enough to keep up with both population and economic growth. Nearly 60 percent of Vietnam's population is under 30 and high schools graduate more than 1.2 million students each year.

The higher learning gap is in sharp contrast to Vietnam's traditional reverence for education. According to a survey last year, 90 percent of parents want their children to go to university, but less than one in five can achieve that goal unless they study abroad.

Not only is there a shortage of university space, but the quality of higher education – compared to China and India, which have both built world-class universities – is outdated, according to a study by Harvard University's Kennedy School Vietnam Programme.

The group points out that Vietnamese universities rarely publish in scientific journals or apply for patents.

The Harvard programme, led by Tom Vallely seeks to help Vietnam with its efforts to reform universities – which he says are in "crisis" and must be reformed quickly or the shortage of skilled workers could choke Vietnam's impressing eight percent GDP growth.

"If Vietnam does not institute systemic reform to its university system, immediately, the country will fall far short of its potential," Vallely told an online newspaper last year.

"There is a crisis in higher education in Vietnam, and I think it is every bit as pressing as the crisis in agricultural production Vietnam confronted in the 1980s," he added.