A teacher who ended illiteracy in a commune hinh anh 1Nguyen Van Bon (second from right) and his students (Source: nhandan.vn)

Lai Chau (VNS/VNA) - Two days of travel in a truck on a very bumpy road rattled every bone in the body.

This was followed by six days of walking on rough terrain to get to the remote commune where residents were very poor, unexposed to the world outside, and spoke no Vietnamese.

Living and teaching here would not be easy, but the young man, just 22, was not fazed. He had known it would be very difficult and was determined to do the best he can.

A personal meeting with Uncle Ho before he set off had motivated him further.

Welcoming the batch of volunteer teachers, the late President Ho Chi Minh, lauded their spirit, but also said: “Anyone, if you are in poor health, have rheumatism or heart problems, should not go.”

But the warnings about difficulties, particularly poverty, diseases and poor infrastructure, did not deter the young, idealistic teachers.

“I was not afraid of the difficulties. They made me understand more about life in the mountainous remote areas and sympathise with the locals, and motivated me to do something to help them,” Nguyen Van Bon told the Nhan dan (People) newspaper.

In his eighties now, Bon said the older he gets, the clearer his memories are of Mu Ca, the remote commune in northern mountainous Lai Chau province that he first set foot on almost 60 years ago.

Bon was 20 when he graduated from the Central Teacher Training School and found work in the northern province of Thai Binh in 1957.

Two years later, when the State called for volunteers to teach in remote, disadvantaged areas in northwestern provinces, Bon applied to work in Lai Chau.

He was among more than 500 teachers from lowland northern provinces who went to the mountainous northeastern provinces to fight illiteracy.

“18 young teachers and I were assigned to Muong Te district (where Mu Ca is locted),” he said, adding that each of them was given a blanket, a jacket and a few quinine tablets against malaria.

It took two days to travel from Son La province to Lai Chau Town (now known as Muong Lay Town) by truck. The road was so bad that they felt there were being thrown up all the time. From Lai Chau Town, they walked three days to reach Muong Te district. From downtown Muong Te, they walked another three days to arrive at Mu Ca commune.

The commune was home then to about 500 people of the Ha Nhi ethic group. None of them could speak any Vietnamese.

A person from Thai ethnic group who could speak both Ha Nhi and Vietnamese was hired to work as an interpreter for Bon.

Bon himself learnt Ha Nhi language for a year.

From scratch

When Bon discussed with local authorities and people about teaching local children to read and write in Vietnamese, they agreed that the school children would bring rice and clothes to stay at the school.

For days, Bon collected timber and bamboo to build a small shack with desks and chairs for about 40 children aged seven to 12.

Local people called it Bon’s school – the first public work in the commune at that time.

On September, 10, 1959, Bon opened the first class in which he taught children how to address their teacher, how to introduce themselves and a poem about doing physical exercises to get rid of fatigue.

“Keep sitting –back fatigue

Keep writing – hand fatigue

Do exercises like this…

No fatigue.”

Following these lessons, with a box of chalks and a board, Bon taught alphabets. The children repeated what the teacher said. The sounds from the class rang out over the mountainous village.

Bon recalled that his students did not have any pencil. They were given chalks and practiced writing on their wrists to show the teacher. Later banana leaves were used as “notebooks” or “boards” and wooden sticks as “pens”.

After school, Bon showed the students how to play football with a grapefruit. They also collected mushrooms, bamboo shoots and went fishing.  

After a semester, almost all school-aged children in Mu Ca commune were still at attending classes, while just four or five children attended other similar schools in Muong Te district.

Besides classes for children, Bon also opened classes for local adults. There was an early morning class for people who would go to their terrace fields later and another class in the evening for elderly women and housewives.

Bon said that he wrote letters and words on the back of buffaloes so that learners could review lessons while they were working in their fields.

In 1963, Mu Ca was the first commune in the northern mountainous region to eradicate illiteracy. A year later, Bon left Mu Ca, returned to his native Hai Phong city and kept teaching until retirement.

He continues to live there with his son.

50 years later

In 2009, local authorities in the provinces of Dien Bien, Lai Chau and Son La looked for the pioneer volunteer teachers and invited them back to their schools.

Bon found that the place had changed beyond recognition in the 50 years that he’d been away, but his formers students, grandparents now, still had fresh memories of the first teachers and first classes held in the commune.

It was an emotional reunion where the former students expressed their gratitude and respect in tears, recalling things that they’d learnt from their first ever teacher who’s teaching went far beyond normal subjects. (Bon returned to Mu Ca in 2013 to meet his former students.)

Po Phi Nhu, 69 remembered that teacher Bon had taught local residents to grow cassava, cultivate rice, and also helped dig a canal to take water from the hills to the school.

Nh, who used to be the deputy head of Muong Te district’s Education Department, said few residents at that time believed this could be done.

Since then, locals have called the canal “Teacher Spring” and the hill nearby the school “Mr Bon Mountain” in honour of their teacher.

She also recalled that local residents – all belonging to the Ha Nhi ethnic group – were amazed when, for the first time, they heard a human voice from a thing that Bon called a radio.

Bon remembered that the radio was bought with money they earned after selling their rice and cassava.

‘Writing on air’

Another former student, Go Su, also 69, said that Bon had made pillars for them to do morning exercises.

She said that when they did not have pencils, they “wrote on air” and then, banana leaves or the dirt floor.

In the five years he spent in Mu Ca commune, Bon brought many big changes to the area.

Several of his former students have become Government officials and one even became a National Assembly Deputy.

He won many medals from the Government for his work, and was the first teacher on whom Uncle Ho conferred the “Labour Hero” title in 1962. -VNA