From Mu Cang Chai to Fulbright


Khang A Tua’s journey from Mu Cang Chai to Fulbright is a long story with various ups and downs.

Tua and other 53 students of the Co-Design Year at Fulbright receive full scholarship for this year, including tuition and fees, and living expenses.

An excellent student from Mu Cang Chai

The first time we met, Tua did not look like how I expected an ethnic minority person from a faraway land would look like. He did not have the typical “Mu Cang Chai” look, except for his baggy linen trousers – a signature garment of H’Mong ethnics.

Standing in front of me was this charismatic short, skinny young man with a bright, intelligent face. He spoke fluent Vietnamese.

Tua was born in 1995 in a poor and remote area of Che Cu Nha village, Mu Cang Chai district, Yen Bai province. 1995 was the year shown on his birth certificate; yet, not even Tua’s parents could remember his exact year of birth, whether it was 1994 or 1995.

Tua has six siblings. With some chickens and a small piece of land deep in the forest, Tua’s parents were able to feed their children by growing dates, corns, and rice. Knowing the importance of education, though poor, Tua’s parents tried all their might to send the children to school. When Tua was in junior high school, he was among five most excellent students of the village who got accepted to the district boarding school.

At boarding school, most of the students were of H’Mong ethnic and H’Mong language was widely used in their daily conversation. Since Vietnamese was only used in class, Tua’s Vietnamese was not at all fluent even after he graduated from junior high school. Nonetheless, Tua excelled and was among the top four students got accepted to the Viet Bac Highland High School in Thai Nguyen city. That was the first time ever Tua left the village.

In the new school, Tua struggled to make friends because they could hardly understand his thick accent. It took him a full semester to speak fluent Vietnamese. In 11th grade, Tua received top prize for the Provincial Excellent Student Contest in Physics and Solving Physics with calculator.

For Tua, excelling in school was the only way to rise above poverty and he was determined to get into university. Yet, poverty was a dead weight that kept dragging the young man full of ambitions and dreams down.

Leaving the city

Those were the years when Mu Cang Chai became one of the most popular travel destinations. The local villagers joined in on the new trend. Though the economy was better, the price to pay was very expensive. In exchange for more income, they sacrificed the pristine environment, the beautiful culture, and the rich connections between villagers.

Tua still remembers his university entrance exam in 2013. He determined to pursue Environmental Studies major at Hanoi University of Science and Technology so that he could return to his village and help with tourism planning. His wish was to continue developing the local economy while keeping the environment in check and preserving the unique H’Mong culture.

It did not go as planned.

Tua’s home was too deep in the forest so his family could not take advantage of tourism development. His family’s income depended mostly on selling chickens and dates. A successful year to them was harvesting enough rice to eat so that they did not have to buy rice from the market.

Yet chickens and dates were seasonal and could not be sold for much. If Tua were to go to Hanoi for college, that would put so much burden on the family. Worse, his younger siblings might have to quit school to help their parents earn a living.

He thought to himself that he should go back home to support his parents, so his siblings could finish school; then, he would go back to college. That thought kept haunting him. He decided not to take the university entrance exam.

While his friends were studying for the entrance exam, Tua left the city with a clear vision. With the money he saved from his monthly allowance, scholarships and awards, he bought two baby goats. Tua planned to grow more dates, raise the goats, and tag on the tourism wagon to support his siblings through school. He could always go back to university afterwards.

Lost and found

As it got closer to the entrance exam date, Tua’s teachers and parents kept encouraging him to take the exam. Tua went along with their wishes. To him, the results would not matter much. If he were to pass, he would go to Hanoi; if not, he would go back home.

He failed. His exam result was not enough to help him get into his major of choice. However, it was enough for him to pursue Chemistry major at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology even though he possessed no passion for this major. Everyday coming to class was a torture to him.

He couldn’t help but feeling helpless and useless. There was no one he could confide with. Though the despair kept eating him up day by day, he was determined to graduate. Despite his effort, he became more lost. He felt that he had lost his life purpose and that he was just one lost soul in the vibrant Hanoi.

Tua started participating in a H’Mong community in Hanoi in the hope to feel belonged. The experience changed his life. He began joining more activities and social research about H’Mong ethnics. These activities brought more meanings to his life and helped him realize that he was not at all useless; chemistry just was not meant for him.

Tua and 11 other H’Mong students then decided to establish the Action for H’Mong Development association (AHD). The association has been organizing many public talks on the H’Mong culture, including topics on H’Mong’s calendar and new year traditions, sexual orientation and the view on genders in H’Mong society, etc.

These talks attracted a large audience and generated a lot of interests and follow-ups.

Tua shared: “I realized after joining AHD that I prefer doing social works rather than pursuing Chemistry in university. The more I participate in AHD’s activities, the more I understand what I want to achieve in life and how to get there. Somehow, I always knew that Chemistry was not suitable for me but I was too afraid to make a critical decision. The fear of being wrong or having to bear the responsibility of my own decision still daunted me.”

After two years at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, Tua decided to share with his parents his plan to quit school and focus only on social work. That was not an easy decision to make considering his family’s economic background. Fortunately, Tua’s parents fully respected and trusted him.

In 2016 and 2017, Tua became the main moderator for AHD and facilitated various projects, such as H’Mong’s Tet (New Year) traditions, H’Mong’s fairy tales, share of voice of H’Mong’s children, and free English program for ethnic minority youths in Hanoi.

For the better

The day Tua published the H’Mong Fairy Tales Collection was the day his friends graduated from university. Instead of regretting not being able to finish his degree, Tua felt happy about his decision. He thought to himself: “Today, I feel very accomplished to be able to publish this Fairy Tales Collection. Had I were to be on stage and receive the degree, it would be quite somber.”

Yet, he couldn’t help but think how his life would have turned out had he decided not to go to Hanoi for university. He might have had a wife with a few children; they might have still been poor and worked on the farm like the others. Their lives might have still revolved around feeding the cattle, taking care of the chickens, worrying about the harvest, or putting food on the table.

On the contrary, the decision he made turned his life around for the better. He had the opportunity to go to different places, widen his knowledge, and change his point of view. It was an invaluable opportunity that not many people in Mu Cang Chai were fortunate enough to have.

To pay it forward, Tua hoped to open a community center in Mu Cang Chai to teach the children how to read and write, tell them the stories from the outside world, and encourage them to pursue learning to give their lives purpose.

While working on his social projects, Tua was invited to be a speaker for a conference on the effects of mass tourism on ethnic minorities. By chance, the Senior Admission Associate of Fulbright University Vietnam (Fulbright) was also present at that conference. After hearing his story, she encouraged Tua to apply to Fulbright.

Tua was a bit perplexed because he did not know about this university or its application process. At the same time, he wanted to return home.

On to the big dream

Tua decided to apply. For his first round of application, he had to submit a video of him speaking in English about a topic of his choice. He chose to talk about his H’Mong culture, what he had been through, and what he had achieved. He admitted that his English was mostly self-taught and refined through different interactions with native English speakers from the social projects he initiated.

Thus, his English in the video was not fluent but very convincing. Tua was accepted to Fulbright.

For this second time being in a university, Tua no longer felt dispirited but excited for each and every subject. He understood the purpose of learning a specific subject. For example, he learned how mathematics could be applied in psychoanalysis and not just purely integrations or equations.

He also struggled with English at first, the same way he used to struggle with Vietnamese. Yet, he kept on improving. To him, either Vietnamese or English was his mother tongue; but he was not intimidated.

Tua shared: “Vietnamese is actually my second language. Up until 10th grade, I was still not fluent in Vietnamese. But it did not discourage me to come to class every day. I even won a few excellent student awards.

I realize that I don’t need to understand every single word in a poem or an essay; I just need to understand the main points of the question and use my language, within my capability, to express my thinking.

Now with English, it’s the same. I am not that fluent in English at this moment yet but I don’t feel left behind in an English-speaking environment at Fulbright University Vietnam. At the end of the day, language should be used to connect people both in learning and in life.”

While studying at Fulbright, Tua is still active with his social projects. Talking about his future plans, Tua shares that he still wants to do beneficial things for the community and his village. Specifically, he hopes to create more opportunities for children of ethnic minorities to go to school.

Content:  MINH GIẢNG – Youth Newspaper

Translated by Fulbright University Vietnam

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