Education was traditionally available only to the upper classes. Scholar-officials, known also as mandarins, constituted the top of the social order and were recruited through civil service exams on classical Chinese literature and philosophy.
With French colonial rule the educational curriculum became Westernized. Nowadays, people have to pay for school, and poor families are left disadvantaged. Because of limited government funds, private universities and colleges have risen alongside the public system, though they are controlled by the Department of National Education.
The Communist Party government still controls all schools. Primary education is compulsory and lasts from ages 6 to 11. Secondary school lasts for seven years. Children attend school six days a week for half a day. In general, schools are overcrowded and lack basic supplies. School curricula, which formerly reflected French influence, now include Vietnamese history, language and literature. Students also study morality, civics and Vietnamese customs. Girls may learn home economics, while boys learn handicrafts. All students must spend time each week on manual labour at the school.
The Vietnamese view education as the key to success, and a successful individual brings honour and prosperity to the entire family. Parents will sacrifice almost anything to provide their children with a good education. Parents are used to taking an active role in encouraging their children to do well at school, and they expect them to do a great deal of homework. Though poorly paid, teachers receive great respect: parents do not question or interfere with the wisdom of teachers' decisions.
Years of war diverted government funds from the school system and teacher training. However, Vietnam has maintained an unusually high level of education in spite of war and poverty; literacy rates average 91%.
After secondary school, students can attend a vocational school, college or university. However, few students enroll in post-secondary institutions because of the cost and the perception that vocational schools limit employment opportunities. In addition, universities in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh have tough competition for one of the few admission places. Government has been working to promote vocational schools as an alternative and to expand the network of universities.