Teacher Le Viet Minh has been teaching ethnic minorities in the mountains of the north-central province of Quang Binh for so long that there is a little of the ethnic Vietnamese in him.

After more than 18 years of teaching Ma Lieng children in Ke, Chuoi and Cao villages of Tuyen Hoa district, Minh believes he is like a relative to his students.

"My students call me a name in their language because they love me," he said. "It makes me happy and I feel I belong to the mountain and its people."

Before he became a son of Ma Lieng, the young Minh had lived with his family in another district of Quang Binh.

In 1992, he began teaching at Lam Hoa Secondary School located in the remote commune of Lam Hoa.

He has travelled to remote villages in the mountainous areas to call on villagers and encourage them to send their children to school.

"It was tough in my first days, but I decided to live and work here, and that turned out to be the most important decision of my life," Minh recalled.

When Minh visited Chuoi, a small village located on the mountain slope of Lam Hoa Commune, he discovered that local children faced many difficulties in life.

"They had no idea about school and study," he said. "I was their first teacher."

Minh and his students did not have a school or even a classroom. With some pens and notebooks, his students struggle to write with hands that had been accustomed only to hard work in the fields.

With his passion for teaching, Minh encouraged many villagers to support their kids, who walked for hours to the school.

His anti-illiteracy drive began to show results.

"The Ma Lieng ethnic minority people speak their own language but they, particularly the youth, have to learn our language (Vietnamese) so they can communicate with ethnic Vietnamese," he said. "I felt I had a duty to help them."

Hot or cold weather, rain or shine, the teacher continued.

Minh said that he did it because he loved the Ma Lieng children as if they were his own relatives.

"I know how my students think, hope and dream. I want to help them escape poverty by living from knowledge they obtain from school."

Through his teaching, Ma Lieng students can open a door to the outside world.

"Once they have information on the outside world, they realise they are not so different from everyone else after all."

"The thing that makes me happiest is seeing the mountain children go to school every day," said Minh.

He also dreamed that some of them would even make it to university.

So popular is this veteran of the mountain classrooms that locals have dubbed him "the big tree in the mountains". /.