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Vietnam students seek help from ancient tortoise
Bài của AFP



The procession of young people continues all afternoon in the muggy heat, and so does the message from Phan Bich Hong's megaphone. "Please don't touch the head of the tortoise!" Hong, 20, calls. She is one of several student volunteers in blue shirts who try to protect the 82 ancient stone tortoises on the grounds of Hanoi's Temple of Literature.

The tortoises and attached stelae honour 1,307 graduates of royal exams hundreds of years ago on the site of the country's first university. Modern-day students flock to the temple hoping the tortoises can boost their chances in nationwide examinations that begin this weekend.
The Ministry of Education said more than one million candidates from across the country will sit the exams for a coveted spot at a higher-education institution.

Hong said the annual tortoise ritual began last Sunday. "All of them want to touch the head of the tortoise because they think that it makes them perform well at the exam," she said in an open-air pavilion with rows of 20 tortoises and attached stelae, some of them cracked. "We just try to encourage them not to."

Some are content to squat down beside the tortoises to have their photos taken. Others insist on dashing in to slide a hand quickly over one of the heads, the smoothness attesting to the numbers of students who have sought their inspiration. "My brother asked me to do it," an 18-year-old woman said after successfully completing the tortoise dash. "He came here to touch the head of the tortoise, and he passed." The student declined to give her name but said she hoped to enter Phuong Dong University in Hanoi.

A tree-shaded courtyard contains four large tortoise-and-stelae pavilions, and two smaller ones, on either side of a fish pond. The grey stelae are engraved in ancient Chinese with works of literature, and carry the names of mandarins who organised the royal exams, as well as the names and birthplaces of successful exam candidates. A plaque at the site says tortoises are considered holy creatures in Vietnam, and the stelae were first set up in 1484 under Emperor Le Thanh Tong to honour students of the day, and to encourage study by future generations.

They have certainly done that. "I believe it will bring me luck because it will help me feel at ease before the pressure of this most important exam," said Nguyen Hoang Lan, 18, a farmer's son from Hung Yen province just outside Hanoi. Learning is highly valued in Vietnamese society but concerns have been raised about the quality of higher education in the communist country.
Foreign business people have noted a shortage of highly-skilled workers in Vietnam, and education experts have complained there is too much reliance on memorisation in the system, where Marxism-Leninism is still a required course.

The World Bank said last month that Vietnam's higher-education sector is expanding rapidly, partly paid for by rising tuition fees. This has prevented a heavy burden on the state budget but may have made it more difficult for the poorest to pay, it said. The rapid changes have "certainly challenged the sector's ability to deliver high-quality education services," said the Bank, which allocated 50 million dollars to support development of a modern higher-education system.
Vietnamese authorities have set up the first of four "international standard" universities because the financial resources, labour force and management methods of existing institutions "are not good enough" to reach global standard, said Tran Thi Ha, director of the government's University Education Department. She was quoted by state-linked VietnamNet news website.
Vietnam's universities may not be globally competitive but there is an intense competition among young Vietnamese to enter them. "Last year I failed, so this year I hope that I'll be lucky," Nguyen Huong Lan, 19, said after praying among a small crowd of students and parents before an altar in another part of the Temple of Literature compound.

Still more pass through clouds of incense and squeeze into a temple containing figures of Confucius, whom the temple calls "the everlasting exemplary teacher".  Hong, the megaphone-toting protector of the tortoises, said she also came to pray -- but not to touch the animal's head -- when she was seeking admission to Hanoi Teachers' Training College. "I think it worked because I could feel myself at ease in the exam. I tried my best, and I passed."
She blares her message again. "Please don't touch the head of the tortoise!"

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