DEN THANG: Teardrops on my cheeks.

Posted on 01 November, 2012 in Links, Reads/ Writes, Thoughts

 Pushing the door open, we were astonished to see over twenty little ones quietly huddling themselves up in a corner, inadequately dressed in such cold weather. Their skin were pale and slightly purple; their bodies were trembling.

 All of them crossed their arms in front of their chest. Not because they were about to greet us, but because it could keep them a bit warmer.

Without any socks, when it was only 3-4 Celsius degrees outside.

Mai Thanh Hai: The main campus of kindergarten school Den Thang (Bat Xat rural district, Lao Cai) was half-way up the path from Muong Hum to the Y Ty Peak. This path was always deeply covered with fog and clouds.

The closer it was to noon, the colder it got. Rain has been pouring down hard since the morning, helping the cold air to freeze raindrops on the leaves into tiny droplets of ice.

Sitting in the car with the heat on and covered in lots of layers, we were still shivering. The thermometer showed 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees Fahrenheit), no wonder it was so cold. We stopped at the main campus right when the last of the series of shower started and drenched everyone.

It was almost noon, yet all three classrooms’ doors were tightly shut. Peeking in from a chink in the door, it looked not much different from a grain barn, since all light bulbs were burned out. The only thing that distinguished this classroom from a grain barn was the voice of the children repeating after, and singing along with the shaky hand claps of the teachers.

We entered the classroom – it was divided into two parts by a blue piece of cloth. One part was the classroom itself, the other part served as a meeting/ working place of the school administrators. Pushing the door open, we were astonished to see over twenty little ones quietly huddling themselves up in a corner, inadequately dressed in such cold weather. Their skin were pale and slightly purple; their bodies were trembling.

All of them crossed their arms in front of their chest. Not because they were about to greet us, but because it could keep them a bit warmer.

Arms crossed to stay warmer.

It was 3-4 degrees Celsius.  Even the ceramic floor released some cold air. I had a pair of thick socks on, yet I could still feel the cold air piercing through the socks, to the sole of the feet. All these kids, however, were barefoot. Only a few had socks and warm clothes on – I heard they are the children of some local administrators.

The teacher said: “Only a few have boots or sandals, the rest always walk barefoot from their homes to the school.” We pointed to the rubber mats in the corner: “Why don’t you put this on the floor to keep the feet a bit warmer?” She stumbled over her words “Well, those were sponsored by Only Rice Is Not Enough. But we want them to last for a long time, so we only use them when the children go to sleep to keep their backs warm…”

Put the mats on the floor to warm up the little feet.

Oh dear, the teachers being this thrifty was definitely a backfire to our sponsoring! Please, please, get the mats out, all of them! Put them down on the floor, we’ll replace them if they break. We acted as we were speaking: all people in the group brought the rubber mats out on the floor, and put the children in positions such that their feet rest on the mats, and they sat shoulder-to-shoulder to share the heat with one another.

Slowly and mindlessly, I touched the shoulders of the trembling children, and suddenly drew back my hand when it got to a little girl. Her wet hair was sticking on her face; her lips were completely pale.  She was as wet as a drowned rat!

I ran to our car and searched in my backpack for the only clean piece of clothing left. The little girl put it on, instead of her thin top which was completely soaked. She got a bit warmer but her teeth were still chattering. My top was a short-sleeved, thin shirt to wear inside the house; of course it wouldn’t be warm enough!

Tears were welling up in my eyes when I suddenly felt a relief: someone wrapped around her a purple big scarf. It was big enough to serve as a mini blanket, covering the tiny body.

I turned and looked behind my shoulder: Lana, the scarf’s owner, was bursting into tears in a corner.

The teacher at Den Thang told us that the little girl was Sung Thi Sua, five years old. She lives about two hills away from the school. Even in decent weather condition, it would still take an adult about an hour to cross that distance. In these days, little Sua has to wake up early and starts for school since 6 AM. When it rains, she would have no shelter to hide, and has no other options other than just keep walking to school. And that was how she got soaking wet like that.

Sung Thi Sua (first from the right), now warmer with some extra layers.

At the class for 5-year-old children, my attention kept being drawn to the pair of brother and sister Trang A Chao (born in 2004) and Trang Thi Lan (born in 2006). They both had round faces, completely resembled each other.  There was always a sad look in their eyes as if they were about to cry anytime. And it would be totally understandable if they wanted to cry. Their mother, after going to China to work in a factory, passed away a month ago (December 2011). Their father, after weeks of mourning over his wife’s death, continued her path: he also went to China to work in a factory, hoping to make enough money to raise his children up.

Therefore, during these days, the two siblings walked from one house to another in the village, asking for a place to sleep and a bite to eat. They tried to survive day by day, like swaying shadows of candles in the wind. Thus, the older brother, Trang A Chao, should have been in first grade, but the teachers had to let him stay for an extra year in Kindergarten, so he could take care of his sister all day.

Brother Trang A Chao (front) and younger sister Trang Thi Lan (first left).

I read the list of students and saw that the little girl Trang Thi Lan shared the same birthday with me(October 23rd). I couldn’t help calling home, asking for some clothes to be prepared to send for her.

Getting back inside the classroom, I saw Khanh – a volunteer with Only Rice is Not Enough, currently working for WHO in Vietnam – counting some money to give the principal. She wanted to buy a pair of socks for each kid. 260 kids, 260 pairs of socks, a total of 1,620,000 VND (~ 81 USD).

Right when I was about to thank Khanh, my phone rang again. Dr. Le Viet Duc, who lived in Sweden, just came back to Hanoi for a short visit. He asked: “It’s freezing cold in Hanoi, 9 Celsius degrees (48.2 Fahrenheit degrees). All students get a day off. Do students there get today off as well?” Choked with emotions, I told him about the children’s bare feet and their lack of winter clothing. On the other side of the phone line, Dr. Le’s voice suddenly became hoarse: “I’m flying back to Sweden tomorrow. Please let me chip in 4,000,000 VND (200 USD) to buy them each a pair of boots, okay?”

I walked back out of the door. My cheeks were all wet.  Was it from the freezing rain? No, I don’t think so. My tears fell down for the sad plight of these poor children, and also from the warmth that my friends spread to these kids of this remote area named Den Thang.


Original post by Mai Thanh Hai: Đã bật khóc, ngay tại Dền Thàng. Translated by Nghi Nguyen.


ONLY RICE IS NOT ENOUGH is a charity program that raises funds to provide food and cooking services in elementary schools of poor highland mountain regions. The children in these areas usually have only plain rice and salt everyday without any other sources of nutrition. Together with supplying food, the program also aims to expand its activities by aiding more basic needs, such as clean water, hygiene, books and learning tools.

“A Dime For A Meal to the little kid. Not much, but everyday.”

For more information, please visit:

Vietnamese page:        

English page:

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