Secondary Education in Vietnam



Vietnam is currently one of the fastest growing sources of international students for U.S. institutions of higher education. In academic year 2010/11, Vietnam sent the eighth largest cohort of tertiary students to the United States, behind Japan in 7th and ahead of Mexico in 9th. Over the last decade numbers have increased from just over 2,000 in 2001 to almost 15,000 in 2011, with especially significant increases over the last five years. Current trends suggest that these numbers will keep growing, especially in light of the country’s booming economy and current under-capacity in the tertiary sector.

Three-quarters of the almost 15,000 Vietnamese students in the United States last year were studying at the undergraduate level (ranked fifth among all sending nations), with just 16 percent of students enrolled at the graduate level. Perhaps more significantly, of the 89,853 international students enrolled at America’s community colleges in 2010/11, 10 percent (8,895) were Vietnamese. This means that approximately 60 percent of all Vietnamese tertiary-level students in the United States last year were enrolled at a community college, making them the third-ranked nationality at U.S. two–year colleges behind China (by less than 200 students) and South Korea. The vast majority of these students transfer to four-year colleges, so it seems fair to assume that the pipeline of savvy Vietnamese students transferring to bachelor’s degree programs over the next couple of years is set to remain strong.

Year # of Students
From Vietnam
% Change from
Previous Year
2010/11 14,888 13.5%
2009/10 13,112 2.3%
2008/09 12,823 46.2%
2007/08 8,769 45.3%
2006/07 6,036 31.3%
2005/06 4,597 25.3%

Source: IIE Open Doors, 2011

A number of factors seem likely to continue driving growth in overseas Vietnamese enrollments, particularly to the United States. Surveys continually show that a majority of Vietnamese regard U.S. higher education as the best in the world, and while income levels have not exploded to the extent that they have in China’s east coast provinces, the last decade has seen significant per-capita income growth in Vietnam thanks to a robust expansion of the manufacturing and service sectors. Both these sectors now need skilled labor, which the Vietnamese higher education system is currently failing to supply due to capacity and quality constraints.

Nonetheless, the median income in Vietnam is still very modest (2010: US$1,100) which, when combined with the value traditionally placed on education among Vietnamese families, helps explain the popularity of U.S. community colleges. Not only do they represent significant savings as an avenue to a U.S. degree, but they also tend to be easier to get into in terms of both language and admissions requirements.

Given the popularity of U.S. undergraduate programs among Vietnamese students, it is important for admitting institutions here to have familiarity with the Vietnamese secondary system and associated credentials when conducting freshman and transfer evaluations. In this profile we offer an overview of the Vietnamese secondary system, including a sampling of common academic documents.

Education System

Since 1990, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has overseen nearly all aspects of the Vietnamese education system, including the regulation of new institutions, the creation of textbooks and curricula, decisions on admissions criteria, and the issuing of certificates and diplomas. Some specialist colleges are under the purview of other ministries, but the vast majority is governed by MOET.

The structure of the Vietnamese education system is similar to the United States in that it has 12 years of schooling followed by a four-year bachelor degree, a two-year master’s degree and a three- to four-year Ph.D.

Primary education is five years in duration (grades 1-5), and is followed by four years of lower secondary (6-9) and three years of upper secondary. The first five years are compulsory.

The language of instruction is Vietnamese, although a few private schools and ‘schools for the gifted’ teach in English, as do international schools following British or U.S. curricula. The school year runs from September to June.


Primary schooling (tiểu học) is for children aged 6 to 10 and is free and compulsory to all. The curriculum is divided into a three-year first phase and a two-year second phase.

In grades 1 to 3 students study: arts, mathematics, morality, nature and society, physical education, and Vietnamese language.

In grades 4 and 5 they study: arts, basic technology, geography, history, mathematics, morality, music, physical education, science, and Vietnamese language.

Students completing primary school can either continue their studies at lower secondary school or begin vocational training.

Lower Secondary

Lower secondary education (Trung học cơ sở), which is not compulsory, is offered in grades 6 to 9 (4 years) to students who have completed primary education (grade 5).

Curriculum guidelines are mandated by the Ministry of Education and Training, and include art, biology, chemistry, civics, a foreign language, geography, history, mathematics, music, physical education, physics, technology, and Vietnamese literature and language.

Students who successfully complete lower secondary education are awarded the Lower Secondary Education Graduation Diploma (bằng tốt nghiệp trung học cơ sở). This award gives access to upper secondary education. Students can also enter a vocational education or training program.

Senior Secondary

Upper secondary school (trung học phổ thông) is three years in duration (grades 10 to 12) and is offered to students who have earned the Lower Secondary School Diploma and passed an entrance examination.

At the upper secondary level, there are three different streams and four different types of school:


  • Academic (3 years)
  • Secondary Technical and Vocational Education (3-4 years)
  • Vocational Training:
    • Long term (1-3 years)
    • Short term (< 1 year)


  • Specialized General Education Schools (major and specialization specific)
  • Vocation and Technical Secondary Schools
  • High Schools for the Gifted (these are very competitive to get into, based on an admission exam passed by only 1 to 2 percent of test takers. These schools are mostly in the public sector, although some private schools exist too).
  • International Schools
    • British schools offer the Cambridge exam
    • International Baccalaureate schools
    • Schools with American curriculum and Advanced Placement subjects

At World Education Services, we mostly tend to see credentials from specialized schools and high schools for the gifted.

Academic Track (trung học phổ thông)

Admission is subject to the passing of an entrance exam, with higher-scoring students attending more prestigious schools.

The academic year is divided into two semesters from September to May and consists of an average of 35 working weeks, with 35-37 classes per week (six days) of 45 minutes in duration. The exact number of classes will depend on the student’s specialization and school.

Education is regulated and administered by the Ministry of Education and Training, which places a strong emphasis on mathematics at the secondary level. The upper secondary mathematics curriculum includes: Geometry, algebra, trigonometry and analytical geometry.

There are three different streams that students can choose to follow:

  • Natural science
  • Social sciences and Foreign Languages
  • Technology

All three streams must include the following mandatory subjects:

Subjects and Hours per Week
Grade 10 Grade 11 Grade 12
Art 2 2 2
Chemistry 2 2 2
Civics Education 1 1.5 1.5
Foreign Language 3 3 3
Geography 1 2 1
History 1 1 2
Literature 2 2 2
Mathematics 4 5 5
Physics 3 3 3
Biology 1 1 2
Sports & Military Education 2 2 2
Technology 2 2 2
Vietnamese 2 2 1
Other activities/classes 13 10.5 10.5
Total 39 39 39


In addition, students take an extra six hours a week in their area of specialization or streaming. The Natural Science stream requires advanced training in: Mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. The Social Science stream requires advanced training in: Literature, history, geography and foreign languages.

Core curriculum classes are either taken in a morning block from 7:00 to 11:30 or an afternoon block from 1:00 to 5:30, with specialization and other classes taken in the other half of the day.

Students take exams at the end of every academic year. If they fail twice, they have to repeat the year.

Vocational (trung học chuyên nghiệp)

Secondary technical schools provide training in a wide variety of fields including engineering and technology, allied health professions, teacher training, arts and cultural studies, and banking and economics.

The programs are typically one to four years in duration, and students are awarded a Diploma of Vocational Secondary Education (bằng trung học chuyên nghiệp). If the program follows general secondary education, it takes 1 to 2 years to complete.

Upper Secondary Education Graduation Requirements

To graduate from high school students must pass a national exit examination. Students that are successful in the Secondary School Leaving Examination (thi tốt nghiệp trung học phổ thông) are awarded the Certificate of Secondary School Graduation (bằng tốt nghiệp trung học phổ thong).

Students are examined in six subject areas, three of which are compulsory: Foreign language (usually English unless they go to a French or German school), mathematics, and Vietnamese literature. The other three subjects vary from year to year as decided by the Ministry of Education and Training, but typically include: physics, chemistry, biology or geography. It is rumored that a technology subject will be included in coming years.

The examination is administered at the end of grade 12, usually in late May or early June. Each exam is worth 10 points and students must achieve a grade of at least 5 in each subject to pass (30 points total). Results of the entrance exams determine which mode of study a student will undertake, as well as which type of institution they may gain entrance to.

Top schools train students rigorously for the exam, the details for which are typically released at the end of March. Students from schools for the gifted usually pass with an 8 or higher in most subjects.

Admission to Higher Education

General Requirements

  • Certificate of Secondary School Graduation
  • Passing of the National University Entrance Examination

National University Entrance Examination

The National University Entrance Examination is administered by higher education institutions. Each institution sets their own entry scores for admission. Examinations are administered in one of five groups depending on the major that the student wants to pursue:

Group A: mathematics, physics and chemistry (for specialization in physics, engineering and computer science).

Group B: mathematics, biology and chemistry (for specialization in medical and biological sciences).

Group C: history, geography and literature (for specialization in humanities and social sciences).

Group D: foreign languages, literature, mathematics (for specialization in foreign languages and foreign trade).

Group E: mathematics, physics and another subject (for specialization in other fields).

Some students take multiple examinations if they are unsure of the major they wish to pursue.

Students with a three-year junior college diploma (bằng tốt nghiệp cao đẳng) can transfer to a bachelor’s degree program.

It can take up to a year for the school leaving certificate to be issued, so students are initially awarded provisional certificates (giấy chứng nhận tốt nghiệp), allowing students to sit any necessary entrance examinations for higher education.

Junior College Admission

The bằng tốt nghiệp cao đẳng (Diploma of Secondary Vocational Education) grants access to higher education, with students primarily enrolling in junior colleges. Individual colleges may also administer an entrance examination.

High School Grading Scale

Secondary schools in Vietnam use a 10-point grading scale, with 10 being the highest and 5 being the minimum passing grade.

Vietnamese Grading Scale Description Translation WES Grade Conversion
8-10 Gioi Excellent A
6-7.9 Kha Good B
5-5.9 Trung Binh Fair C
0-4.9 Kem Poor/Failing F

To calculate the GPA, WES takes into consideration the whole-year average for all three years of high school, in addition to the six exit examination results. The GPA is determined from those combined scores.

WES Document Requirements

WES requires that applicants submit the following:

  • Provisional High School Graduation Certificate (mẫu giấy chứng nhận tốt nghiệp THPT) indicating national examination results.
  • Year 10, 11, 12 results (hoc ba)

WES requires that all documents come from the institution. Some envelopes from sending institutions will be handwritten, but should have a school stamp that matches the stamp on the hoc ba, which is proof that it was sent directly.

The degree certificate is not required by WES for an evaluation as students often will not receive it until a year after graduation, meaning most recent graduates would not be able to submit it for evaluation. Because the provisional certificate is required to sit the National University Entrance Examination, it is adequate proof that a student has passed his or her exit examinations and completed the requisite coursework.

If official documents are issued in Vietnamese, WES requires a precise word-for-word English translation.


A. Provisional Certificate

Outside of the major metropolitan areas, it can take up to a year for students to receive their final high school certificates, so a provisional document is issued in the interim period to allow students to take the university entrance examinations. This document displays the exit examination results from the high school attended.

The first document shows the Vietnamese version of the provisional certificate and the second is the translated version. The notes below refer to the highlighted areas on the translated version:

  1. Name of the certificate: “Certificate of Graduation from Senior High School (Interim)”
  2. Student’s biographic information and the name of the school attended.
  3. Examination results (out of 10, with 5 being the pass mark)
  4. Attestation to the fact that the student has successfully completed high school and passed the necessary examinations to qualify for graduation. With this documentation, it is not necessary to require the graduation certificate as it is attested to here by the ministry.
  5. Qualitative description of the student’s examination results.

B. Transcript

The transcript usually comes in pamphlet form, although recently WES evaluators have been seeing transcripts issued on a single piece of paper. These usually come from Schools for the Gifted, and more frequently in English rather than Vietnamese.

In the traditional pamphlet, each grade will have two pages. In addition, the student should supply exit exam results.

  1. Hoc Ba = Student records.
  2. Student name and biographic information.
  3. School stamp. To verify, the same school stamp should be on the outside of the envelope, which shows that the documentation came directly from the institution.

On the English translation of the document, point 3 highlights the student’s ‘history of studies,’ which reflects schools attended. Typically the school will send in both the Vietnamese version and the translated version. The example shown here is the standard MOET format, to which schools are required to adhere.

C. Transcript Pamphlet Interior

Marks are usually handwritten on the pamphlet version of the Hoc Ba. Each page will have the school stamp and on top it will have the student’s name, the year that the courses referenced on the specific page were taken and the stream followed. Each school grade has two pages within the pamphlet, although on the English version there will be just one. On the translated sample shown here, the highlighted points show:

  1. Grade (12) and school year (2009-10) that the subjects were taken. The ‘B’ in 12B refers to the second semester of grade 12. The advanced subjects are mathematics, chemistry and biology, which means that the student was following the natural science stream.
  2. The actual transcript of grades shows 1st semester marks, 2nd semester marks and the average in each subject.
  3. Attests to the fact that the student passed all his or her courses and is therefore eligible to sit for the national school leaving examination.
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