HANOI - For a few hours most afternoons, you can find 24-year-old Pham Minh Dap selling balloons and children’s toys outside Hoa Binh park in central Hanoi.
He has worked as a street vendor here for five years, along with roughly 30 of his relatives who come from a poor village of rice farmers in Thanh Hoa province. Each day he makes about $5.
"Every Sunday morning, I go to Dong Xuan market, I buy the balloons," Pham said. "I bring home and put the air in the balloon and hang it on my bicycle. The customers, they see and they buy."
Dap has another job, too. Earlier this year, he and his brother set up Stand By You, a language center with volunteer teachers offering free lessons to poor students in Hanoi, a place where education is often seen as a way out of poverty.
Rent and other expenses add up to around $500, or 10 million dong, each month. Dap contributes around $150 from his earnings as a street vender and private-language tutoring. His brother matches that with money earned from his work as a secretary. The rest comes from friends and a fee of 25-to-50 cents, or 5,000 to 10,000 dong, per class for advanced students.
Free foreign-language training
The aim is to help students who would otherwise have no opportunity to learn a foreign language. Most come from agricultural communities and face challenges in covering city rents, food and other expenses.
It’s "here just for students who don’t have money," Dap said of the free school. "… Their parents are farmers. Farmers are really poor in Vietnam."
While the percentage of impoverished Vietnamese people has fallen from 58 percent in 1993 to 14.5 percent as of 2008, according to the World Bank, rapid economic growth has contributed to rising inequality in income and opportunities.
But unemployment among college graduates remains a persistent problem, with one in 10 university graduates unemployed, according to local media.
Last year, Pham Vu Luan, minister of education and training, blamed their unemployment on universities failing to teach the kinds of skills employers need.
Language skills aid employment prospects
Dap says employers want good language skills.
"We know that only language can develop this country. We need language [so] students can work with foreigners and they have a good chance to go outside Vietnam and they can come back to help build this country."
But with language schools charging up to $150 per course, opportunities for poor people are limited. Dap himself is self-taught.
The original plan was to offer English classes, but the majority of volunteers offered to teach Japanese, so the school now offers both languages, Dap says.
"Twenty-six Japanese classes are running. … But we only have four rooms, [so] we run from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m." to accommodate them all.
Ten volunteers teach at the school. One is university student Ta Khanh Huyen, 20, who is studying Japanese.
She said she heard about the school through friends who had studied there. She offered to teach Japanese to “give something back,” adding that the environment is sociable and has helped improve her Japanese speaking skills.
Pham Thi Trang is one of the school's 600 students. The 24-year-old accounting student, whose parents work in a Ha Nam province market, is in her final year of studies.
She earns about $50 a month from a part-time job and her parents give her another $75, barely enough to get by in the city. She thinks improving her language skills will enhance her earning potential.
Demand for the school is growing. Around 1,000 people are on a student waiting list and 10 others have offered to teach for free.
Dap said he hopes to raise money through a crowd-funding campaign to pay for a bigger place so he can open more classes.