One Austrian man has been instrumental in building schools in some of Vietnams most remote areas.

By LE DIEM on May 09,2017 10:41 AM


Photos: SAO BIEN

When Thomas Farthofer, an Austrian ghostwriter, told his friends and colleagues about his idea of building schools in poor villages in Vietnam, they thought he was crazy to talk about doing such a thing in a place more than 8,000 km away. And how many children could he help by building schools not in the cities but in remote areas in a country of nearly 95 million? ‘Maybe not many, but even one is still better than none,’ was his answer.


After years working in banking and business, Thomas decided to come to Vietnam in 2016 to do some volunteer work. He taught English at some universities and schools and was soon taken in by the friendliness and kindness of local people. ‘People would always smile at me, even strangers,’ he said. ‘When I walked down the street, some old men would ask me, using body language, if I wanted to play chess with them. When I broke my knee, my landlord’s friend, who I had never met before, took me to the hospital.’

His newly-found love of the country made him want to do something in return. When he once asked his students about their dreams, he was impressed by one who said he wanted to go back to his poor hometown after graduation to do something for it, and studying was the best way to do it. ‘I’d never heard a dream like that before,’ he said. ‘In Europe, if you ask this question, young people would say they study to earn a good income in the future and buy a nice car and apartment. I thought his dream was great, as he wanted to contribute to his community.’


Inspired, Thomas returned to Austria with the ambition of providing sustainable support to Vietnam rather than just volunteering. Despite the doubts of others, he didn’t give up.

That’s how Sao Bien, an Austrian non-profit organization, was established last year. Sao Bien, meaning starfish in Vietnamese, is a message in itself. It originates from one of Thomas’s favourite stories, about a young man picking up starfish on a beach and returning them to the ocean, so they wouldn’t be stranded on the sand and die when the sun came up. When the man was told he wasn’t making a difference because the beach was long and the starfish many, he just bent down, picked up another starfish, and put it back in the ocean. ‘It made a difference to that one,’ the man said.

Thomas believes that the best way to help a country is by education and a child’s life can also be changed by education. The effect isn’t immediate, however, as it’s a long-term effort. Sao Bien therefore targets access to basic schooling for children between the age six and eleven who live in remote areas with a high proportion of ethnic minorities.

Different to similar efforts, it has focused on remote villages that are cut off during the wet season and difficult to reach even when it’s dry. ‘I could build schools in places closer to Hanoi with better infrastructure and lower transportation costs, but I want to help those who live in poorer conditions,’ Thomas said.

While searching for appropriate locations in the northern mountainous region, the home of ethnic minority people and where infrastructure is almost non-existent, the few schools he found were in bad shape.  After identifying areas with potential, cooperating with local authorities and organisations was an innovative aspect of Sao Bien’s work. The actual construction will be done with the support of local partner organisations, such as the well-established NGO Centre for Sustained Development Studies (CSDS) and Volunteers for Peace (VPV) Vietnam. They support Sao Bien in finding suitable locations, meeting with local authorities, and then building the schools. The active involvement of these groups aims to ensure that the newly-established infrastructure will be used correctly while raising awareness about the problem of the poor infrastructure and schools in these regions.

An initial plan to use bricks as the main building material proved infeasible because it was impossible to deliver them along rough mountainous roads. Lighter materials, like corrugated iron, are now being used, which reduces transportation and construction time but still provides students with adequate shelter from rain and storms and can last ten or 20 years.


The rough roads and even an absence of roads have proven a major challenge. Access to some areas is only possible by motorbike or on foot. When it rains, it’s impossible to continue and work is postponed.

Despite the difficulties, though, the Sao Bien team and its partners still move forward. They are also more motivated by the gratitude and support from local people. While Sao Bien offers materials for new schools and arranges construction, local authorities ensure the school is maintained, properly staffed, and has facilities such as furniture, water and electricity. After nearly a year of work, two primary schools have been completed in Lai Chau and Son La provinces and a third is under construction in Ha Giang. Local residents in Ha Giang also lent a hand in preparing the foundations for the school, and kids have eagerly watched their school being built from scratch.

Enterprises have also partnered with Sao Bien, viewing it as an opportunity to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. The network already consists of cooperative partners like RongViet, a Vietnamese financial company, which in the mid-term will act as a potential sponsor as well as connector with others. Another sponsor is the French company N’go-shoes, whose shoes are made with the involvement of ethnic minority people in Vietnam. For each pair of shoes sold, two euros are donated to Sao Bien to support local communities.

Sao Bien won the Austrian Audience Award of Sozialmarie, which bills itself the oldest prize for social innovation in Europe and which helps it with marketing and promoting the project’s activities around the world.

Sao Bien

Anyone wishing to contact Sao Bien can email office@sao-bien.com or donate via paypal@sao-bien.com

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