Project Sao Bien – Schools for Vietnam

Thomas in the classroom

For a long time I had had the idea of wanting to work abroad as a volunteer. But it was only at the beginning of 2016 that I finally made this decision without knowing exactly what I was getting myself into.

At the beginning of April I was on my way to Hanoi, Vietnam in order to teach English to children and students there.

I lived in a house for international volunteers in rooms with three bunk beds, which (fortunately) were not occupied all the time. Lunch and dinner were prepared by a Vietnamese cook.

Because the volunteers had been assigned to different projects, people were constantly coming and going.

The helpers from all continents did not mind the simple accommodation but rather it helped us to reflect on the important things in life.
Hanoi itself is a very exciting city with an amazing old town near the Hoan Kiem Lake, the meeting point for students and tourists, many pagodas and temples and an incredible number of motorbikes which, in the daily traffic jams, convert the pavements into roads.

Despite all of these attractions, I will always have fond memories of Hanoi due to its people – with their amazing friendliness and openness they are incredibly hospitable and helpful.

Children wave at you happily and do their best to have a brief conversation with the few English words that they know. And time and again, you are invited spontaneously to tea by people whom you have never seen before.

The activities as a volunteer were varied and the work with the children („Pascal Secondary School“) and students („Hanoi University of Industry“) was truly inspiring. I would like to take the opportunity here to thank the organisers of the volunteer projects, Ubelong and VPV, who helped to make this experience so special.

One of these inspiring moments was when I asked the students about their dreams and goals and they told me studying was not important but rather only necessary – necessary in order to earn money and then to be able to help their home villages!

And so the idea was born to „pitch in“ with this urgently needed help and not to leave it to the students alone.

When I returned to Vienna after six weeks, I had already made two decisions: That I definitely wanted to return to Vietnam and that I wanted to help the country and not „only“ by volunteering.

Upon returning to Vienna, when I told others of my – possibly somewhat absurd – idea of wanting to build schools in the Vietnamese mountain villages, as an Austrian, the feedback was totally mixed. While the meaningfulness of an investment in basic education and the choice of Vietnam as a country needing help were never questioned, I often had to respond to the question of what I would be able to achieve in a country with a population of 94 million with a few schools.

So time and again I told a story that I had heard many years ago and which could provide a better answer to this question than any argument could:

While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.

Source: The Starfish Story: You can make a difference

The implementation of my idea to enable more children, particularly in poor mountain villages, to have regular access to schooling by building small schools, required the founding of a non-profit organisation.

„Sao Bien“ is Vietnamese for starfish – and the organisation was named thus as a constant reminder that we can achieve something. Yes, we can make a difference!

The objective of the organisation is the promotion of education, above all by building schools. Often the closest schools cannot be reached due to the distance and the lack of roads or the existing schools are too small. The buildings are sometimes not always available as schools due to other reasons or they are not stable with the result that no lessons can take place if it is raining or stormy.

With the active support of the @Verein für Soziale Gerechtigkeit and Idealism Prevails it was indeed possible to raise donations for the first school projects.

A small team supported me in establishing an association (not exactly easy with Austria’s bureaucracy) and an excellent management board was formed which allowed me freedom for my own ideas without at the same time neglecting their monitoring functions. I also thank you for your great work!

After exactly two months, I returned to Hanoi. In addition to my volunteer work – this time community classes and teaching English lessons at the University of Natural Resources and Environment – I dedicated much time to seeking a local partner who could help us in finding a location as well as in communicating with the local authorities and the building of the schools. We were very successful in our search and already in August I travelled to Lai Chau, a province north-west of Vietnam to view potential locations for our projects.

The journey itself was certainly interesting – by night bus from Hanoi to Lai Chau, by a smaller bus to Muong Te, when we had to stop en route due to rocks blocking our path, and then by moped to the largest town of the community.

There is a state-funded school there and many children who cannot be expected to make the daily journey from their surrounding home villages live on the school grounds.

Building dormitories in the schools and the building of so-called „satellite schools“ ie schools in the surrounding villages themselves, are two possibilities to enable the children of these small villages to also have access to schooling.

After viewing the school, I wanted to visit the village in which we planned to build the school. Because the village was only 15km away, I thought that this would still be feasible at 4pm even in light drizzle but the local teacher strongly advised me against doing so.

We postponed our departure until 5.30 am the next day. At 5.35 I realised why a trip the previous day would in fact have been impossible.

On a motorbike – thankfully only as a passenger – we battled up and down muddy hills, drove around large stones and potholes which were just as large and crossed knee-high streams.

It is precisely this inaccessibility, the great poverty and the fact that this mountainous region in the north of Vietnam is home to several ethnic minorities that make the help there particularly important!
Trips in this region at the same time impressively highlight beautiful landscapes and amazing friendliness but also poverty.

After almost an hour, we reached the village and the school, which basically consisted of a few wooden uprights with plastic tarpaulin stretched between them.

My second field trip in the province of Son La was also similar. The school there is an old wooden building, which is secured by numerous supports as termites have extensively destroyed the wood. The toilet also clearly shows how urgent help is needed here.

The Vietnamese authorities were cooperative and clearly welcomed the help. The cooperation with our Vietnamese partner organisation was excellent and the project is otherwise widely supported.

Numerous offers to help as well as almost 1,300 likes on our Facebook page after only ten weeks serve to further motivate us. We are currently working on our website and hope that this will go online this year.

We would particularly like to mention the support of Ambassador, Dr. Vu (photo), the Vietnamese Ambassador in Vienna, as well as Dr. Loidl, the Austrian Ambassador in Hanoi, whom I would once again particularly like to thank for their trust.

What is going to happen now?

In November 2016 I was once again in Son La in order to view the building site of our first project. The old school building has already been demolished and the foundation is currently being prepared.

The second school (in Lai Chau) should be completed before the Lunar New Year Fest („Tet“) in January 2017.

For the remainder of 2017 we plan to build (at least) four further schools and in the next few weeks I will make field trips in order to look at the locations personally – at @saobienroomforeducation I will of course report on the construction work and, hopefully soon, on the first opening of a school!

I hope to be able to tell you soon of some other ideas and plans which, however, are still in their infancy. At the same time we are looking for further sponsors and donors in order to be able to continue our project and any contacts who can help us to raise awareness for the project.

Even if the first school should be completed this month, the idea is not even six months old. Therefore, I consider the project to be in a development phase and am happy to receive any ideas and every form of constructive feedback… because we can make a difference!

If we have aroused your interest, simply follow Sao Bien’s Facebook Page for on-going updates!

And please remember: Every LIKE helps to make the building of further schools possible through donations.

Thank you.

Translation into English: Donna Stockenhuber


Image Title Author License
bulldozer bulldozer Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
construction site with people construction site with people Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
letter of support letter of support Thomas Farthofer CC BY-ND 4.0
Projekt Sao Bien - schools for Vietnam Projekt Sao Bien – schools for Vietnam Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
shack shack Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
schoolbuilding 2 schoolbuilding 2 Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
schoolbuilding schoolbuilding Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
classroom classroom Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
mountainview mountainview Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
river from above river from above Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
woman carrying wood woman carrying wood Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
Woman with child and cows Woman with child and cows Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
man riding an ox man riding an ox Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
Moped crossing a river Moped crossing a river Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
construction area construction area Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
pupils swinging pupils swinging Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
pupils pupils Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
classphoto classphoto Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
Thomas with pupils Thomas with pupils Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
Thomas in a pub Thomas in a pub Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
heartshaped sculpture heartshaped sculpture Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
lit-up skyscraper lit-up skyscraper Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
mopedgang mopedgang Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
nightlife nightlife Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
bicycle with fruits bicycle with fruits Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
room with bunkbeds room with bunkbeds Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
mealtime mealtime Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
Thomas in the classroom Thomas in the classroom Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0
bicycle on the wall bicycle on the wall Thomas Farthofer CC BY-SA 4.0