Travel Report: The National School, Hue, Vietnam.
The National School, Hue, Vietnam.
It was my second full day in the Vietnamese city of Hue and I was felling a little run down. By this point I’d been on the road for several weeks. And my legs were feeling the effects of the previous day’s efforts exploring the majestic remains of The imperial City.
Thus I decided to sleep in, before wiling away the afternoon in a number of local cafes. After consuming a startling amount of caffeine I figured I was ready for… something. Consulting my trusty travel notebook, I found myself drawn to the words National School. Ah yes, another truly unique Hue sight that I’d been curious about for months in the buildup to my Vietnam trip.
Vietnam’s most famous high school was not difficult to find. In fact, it was a straight shoot from the city centre, all the way down Le Loi Street. Along the way, I did some online reading to remind myself about its fascinating history.
The French colonial government established Hue National School in September 1896 in partnership with the influential Vietnamese catholic mandarin Ngo Dinh Ka. Built on the site of a former Nguyen naval headquarters, this handsome complex mixes Vietnamese and French architectural styles.
According to a weathered plaque near the main gate, the school was created in order to train the region’s most gifted young Vietnamese students for a range of roles within the French government. As a result, French Language was one of the main subjects.
The National School, Hue.
It certainly felt weird to casually stroll through the entrance gate of what is still very much an operational high school. However, back in 2018 both domestic and foreign tourists were actively encouraged to visit. All you had to do was show up on a weekday after 17:00 following the last classes of the day. No guide, no chaperone, nada.
Nevertheless, I felt more than a tad uncomfortable about the prospect of taking photographs. On the one hand, I wanted to capture the school as much as I could and meet the students. But it also felt a bit weird, I mean wasn’t this an invasion of privacy?
I needn’t have worried. As I tentatively made my way towards the main cluster of buildings, numerous students approached me. “Welcome to Hue!” cried one bespectacled boy, a mountain of books cradled under one arm. “Hey, where are you from?” called a passing group. “You wanna photo?”
The French called the school École Primaire Supérieure (Superior Elementary College), while in Vietnamese it was (and still is) known as Truong Quoc Hoc (National School). In those early years the school educated some of the country’s most privileged young men, including Ngo Dinh Diem (son of Ngo Dinh Ka). Yup, the man who would become President of The Republic of Vietnam from 1955 until his assassination in 1963.
Adventures in Vietnam.
Diem was just one in an astounding list of alumni. The doomed revolutionary Tran Phu, The First General Secretary of The Communist Party of Vietnam, also studied here. As did Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese general regarded as one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century.
And then you’ve got the celebrated poet, journalist and literary critic Xuan Dieu. And the cherished songwriter and musician Pham Tuyen. Moreover, even the great Ho Chi Minh passed through The National School’s halls. Though he was ultimately expelled in 1908 for engaging in “revolutionary activities”. Oh well, it didn’t seem to hold him back.
With this history very much in mind, it was definitely a thrill to saunter around the main courtyard. While the school day had ended, there was still plenty of activity. Resting on a stone bench, I spotted a teacher striding down a signature red balcony.
Elsewhere, a pair of boys exchanged books from their backpacks, while a quartet of girls chatted quietly outside a first floor classroom. I couldn’t help but wonder if, among them, Truong Quoc Hoc was shaping yet another young student destined for greatness.
The deeper I explored, the more surprised I became about how run down the school was. Just about every building was crying out for a fresh coat of paint. Furthermore, there were cracked windows and splintered doors, in addition to weeds growing out of the stone in all the courtyards. Surely those responsible for maintaining the place could do better than this?
The National School, Hue.
This sad looking playground summed up the neglect perfectly. With only a lone volleyball net to keep the weeds company. I was breathing in the silence when I felt something… or rather someone… tugging at the sleeve of my t-shirt.
“Ha-lo!” cried the tiniest boy. Dressed in blue shorts, a playful Power Rangers t-shirt and a tilted cap, he shot me what is quite possibly the cheekiest gap-toothed grin I have ever seen.
“Ha-lo” turned out to be the extent of the little boy’s English language skills. Hence he proceeded to babble away in Vietnamese, his machine-gun-fire sentences rattling around me as I walked the playground. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing there. Clearly too young to be a student, perhaps he was waiting on an older brother.
The little power ranger was so curious about me he decided to follow me around. And all the while he never stopped talking. Eventually, a security guard of some sort mooched over and asked if he was bothering me. “Oh no, not at all” I replied. Next, my stroll took me to the school football pitch, where a game was in progress.
Once again the so-called facilities were somewhat lacking. The pitch in question being more of a sand pit, with occasional bursts of clumpy grass diverting the trajectory of the ball. Still, the boys did their best with the conditions and it was a good game with several standout players.
Truong Quoc Hoc.
125 years after it opened, Hue National School remains a prestigious institution. In fact, home to around 1400 students, places are limited. To stand any chance, one needs to pass the tough entrance exam and impress in a string of testing interviews.
As I headed for the exit, I stopped for a brief chat with Keung, a serious, softly spoken boy from the nearby city of Hoi An. “I’m really lucky” he told me, with only a hint of a smile. “I got a sponsorship to come here, not many of those available”. Keung was in his final year and was studying French, which he described as “easier than English”.
I asked him what he wanted to do after he graduated, a question that produced a long pause. “I’m not sure” he sighed. “But whatever it is, would like it to be in Paris”. I wonder if he actually got there.
In 2018 anyone who wanted could show up after classes and walk around the school grounds. I wasn’t allowed to enter any of the buildings, though in all honesty there was very little in the way of security. Today, in COVID times, I see casual visits like the one I made are no longer permitted.
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What an amazing opportunity you hit upon to explore The National School. It may be lacking in maintenance but I’m confident its students don’t give a jot and are just pleased to have the opportunity to study there. A really interesting post as usual Leighton.
Hey Marion, yes I’m sure you’d be hard pushed to find a student who’s too bothered about the peeling paint and weeds. A place here is indeed a life-changing opportunity for any young Vietnamese student. Thanks for reading and for kicking off the comment thread!
The building, with what seems like a French-style red two-storey house certainly looks visually striking – no wonder tourists going on this road are attracted to the beauty of this school.
It is indeed a very pretty complex. Glad you liked this article Aiva, thanks for your ongoing contributions to my comment threads.
Such stunning architecture! I think it’s fair to say that is the probably the most beautiful school building in the world- certainly puts my high school to shame. Although you would think for being still such a prestigious school they would give it a new coat of paint.
Hey Meg! I do love the colours and yes, a fine handsome old building indeed. While they are probably not the richest institution in Vietnam, it does feel like a simple makeover would hardly break the bank. Thanks for reading!
Kids just want to learn and it does not matter about the building. They will soak up all education they receive. Better to be at the hands of teachers, than those of a revolutionary force. We stopped at Dr. Sun Yat Sen School in China when we were there. The school was decrepit and ill equipped, but the students were clean and neatly dressed and so polite. Thanks for sharing. Allan
It would have been cool to have seen the Sun Yat Sen School. I saw his mausoleum when I was in Nanjing. While I agree that fresh paint and neglected facilities are not key in receiving a good education, I still feel these are really simple things that should be done. As, if nothing else, a mark of respect to the history of the place. Just my two cents. Thanks for reading Allan!
I was a little surprised you didn’t see more students given the size of the school. Busy studying no doubt. Most large schools have a tenement style construction – big and cheap. This must have really been impressive in its earlier life. I’m guessing the classrooms were spacious and undecorated, though.
Yeah, from what glimpses I had you’re quite right. Cavernous classrooms with very little in the way of decoration. Wooden desks and chairs, large blackboards.
I also know those difficult beginnings of the day after the curiosity starts to wane. Yet we must try to make the most of these rare moments spent in foreign countries. I like these touches of contemporary ethnography.
Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread!
I’ve been aware of the French influence in Vietnam, but it was none so more apparent than in this article, about The National School. It’s incredible just how much Western power still has on those who go to this school, and I’m sure that this school has churned out plenty of great thinkers today!
Absolutely Rebecca. It would be fascinating to witness a day in the life here. Thanks for reading!
Well like previous comments – what a differently interesting thing to do. You wouldn’t normally expect a visit to an operational school to be on the travel agenda.
Thanks for weighing in! Just reading your latest post now…
An amazing story about Vietnam 👌🌷♥️ beautifully written and photos 👍🏻🌷so nice to read 👌🌷🙏😊
Thank you for sharing 👏🌷
Hey Thattamma, thank you so much for reading and leaving such a nice comment. It didn’t come through to spam, don’t worry!
We visited that area in Hue. Very interesting site to learn about. So many students heading to class. A great site to see.
Thanks for reading and adding to the thread!
This is a very impressive school. It is puzzling that with labor being fairly cheap it is not in better physical condition. Giap was a great general. Though his overall strategy for defeating the French and Americans seemed to be pretty simple — outlast the MFers.
Ha ha that’s a great slogan. Thanks for catching up on my recent Vietnam chapters.
Pretty school- what cute kids! I would have loved to tour the inside!
Me too! I’m sure there would have been some amazing photographs and furniture to see. Maybe even a trophy cabinet or two. Thanks for reading!
What a beautiful red building 😍
Thanks for reading and commenting! It’s good to have you back.
Who would have thought that a school would be on your list of “places to visit”? Though the school (and grounds) are not in a great condition, it was great to see how neat the students are. And as for that little one with the wide smile, he is just so sweet ☺️. Thanks for sharing the history on this very old school!
Glad you like the school and yes, it’s a most unusual tourist attraction! Still can’t believe people were allowed to just roam around without supervision.