Vietnam - A Country with 54 Ethnic Groups


Vietnam is known to the world from many different perspectives, such as geography, history or wars before 1975. However, particularly in English language, there are few documents providing information about the diverse culture of Vietnam. Therefore, this article brings a general view of the ethnic groups in Vietnam, a country with 54 of them living under one government.


Vietnam has gone through many historical periods with several different names. An important historical milestone, on September 2, 1945, President Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence, officially giving birth to the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam". The official name of Vietnam today is the "Socialist Republic of Vietnam", approved by the 6th National Assembly on July 2, 1976. Vietnam is since an independent, unified, people-owned country under the leadership of a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam (Articles 1, 2, and 4 of the Constitution of Vietnam). Based on the results of the government census on April 1, 2019, the total population of Vietnam is 96,208,984 people, making Vietnam the 15th most populous country in the world (Huy Thang, 2019). The Vietnamese belong to 54 different ethnic groups. While Kinh people make up the majority, the remaining ethnic groups, called "ethnic minorities", are only around 17%. Despite their small populations, they are an indispensable part of Vietnam's culture and community.


Figure 1: Map of distribution of ethnic groups in Vietnam, 2019

The Ethnic groups of Vietnam


According to the website of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Committee, the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam are divided into 8 language groups as follows: (1) Viet - Muong group (with 4 ethnicities Kinh, Muong, Tho, Chut); (2) Tay - Thai group (include Tay, Thai, Nung, Giay, Lao, Lu, San Chay, Bo Y); (3) Mong - Dao group (Mong, Dao, Pa Then); (4) Ka Dai group (La Chi, La Ha, Co Lao, Pu Peo); (5) The Burmese Tibetan language group (Lo Lo, Phu La, Ha Nhi, La Hu, Cong, and Si La); (6) Mon Khmer language group (this group has 21 ethnic groups: Ba Na, Brau, Bru-Van Kieu, Cho Ro, Co, Co Ho, Co Tu, Gie Trieng, H're, Khang, Khmer, Kho Mu, Mang, Xinh Mun, Mnong, O Du, Ma, Ro Mam, Ta Oi, Xo Dang, X’tieng) (7) The Austronesian language group (Cham, Gia Rai, Ede, Raglai, and Chu Ru); and (8) The Han language group (with Hoa, Ngai, and San Diu) (Khanh Hoa Provincial Front Committee, 2018).


Most ethnic minority groups live in the midland, mountainous, or border areas. The Burmese Tibetan, Kadai, and Mong-Dao ethnic groups live mainly in the North, while the Austronesian group exclusively lives in the South Central Coast, the Central Highlands, and the South. Especially the ethnic minorities in the areas of the mountainous region and the central highland in the south-central region have created two unique and distinct cultural features of Vietnam and attracted the attention of the world.


Figure 2. A group of Dao women in their distinctive head-scarves.

Ethnic groups in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam


With the characteristics of culture and diversity of ethnic groups, the northern mountainous region of Vietnam has become a tourist destination not only for Vietnamese tourists but also all over the world. Lao Cai, a province in the north of Vietnam, is home to the Hmong, Red Dao, Tay, Giay, and Xa Pho ethnic groups. In particular, the Hmong is the largest ethnic group in this area. The traditional clothing of the Hmong includes daily clothing with colours based on their groups. For example, the Hmong Den use black as the primary colour, while the Hmong Hoa like colourful dresses. However, their clothing is sophisticated with many textures, especially the beeswax motifs. Furthermore, Hmong strongly believe in the spirit world, the universe, and ghosts. In the religious sphere, they believe humans have three souls located in three different places of the body. The first soul is at the top of the head, so they avoid rubbing the head, especially children, because they fear the spirit will leave and lead to illness. The second soul is on the chest; thus, they often wear a necklace to prevent the soul from leaving. The third soul, in the navel, is responsible for protecting a person's internal organs. Likewise, they also have many beliefs, such as ancestor worship or the human life cycle (Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, 2022). The main occupation of the Hmong is agricultural and handicraft production. Besides, the Hmong and other ethnic groups together develop tourism when Sapa becomes an ideal destination for many tourists.


Figure 3: A project to recreate costumes of Hmong ethnic group

19 ethnic groups live in Ha Giang province. Within the mountainous region each ethnic group has its clothing, its language and its own traditional festivals, forming a unique culture. The typical festival, such as the Gau Tao Festival of the Hmong people, the festival of worshipping the Forest Gods of the Nung and Pu Peo people, the Fire Dance Festival of the Pha Then or the Long Tong Festival of the Tay people. For instance, the Forest Spirit Festival is a Pu Peo festival. They believe that the forest god is the ruler of the forests, and whoever wants to cut down trees and burn the fields must ask permission from the forest god. The ceremony of worshipping the forest god takes place at the edge of the forest, and the community members share the work of organising the worshipping ceremony. This ceremony creates a close relationship between the community and the village, raising the awareness of preserving nature and contributing to the protection of increasingly depleted forest resources and living water sources for the people. Vietnam has recognised this worshipping ceremony as a national intangible cultural heritage since 2012 (Department of Cultural Heritage, n.d.). The main occupation of ethnic groups in Ha Giang is growing rice in terraced fields. Hoang Su Phi, a district in Ha Giang province, is a great example, with immense terraced fields of a brilliant yellow in each harvest season. The whole district has about 25 villages of ethnic minorities: Tay, Nung, Dao, Hmong and some other ethnic groups. They are responsible of creating the scenery of these beautiful terraced fields.


Figure 4. Rice Terraced Fields.

Ethnic groups in the central highland in the south-central region


With a completely different style from the ethnic groups in the northern mountainous region, the ethnic groups living in the south-central region are typically Ede, Xo Dang, Gia Rai, M'Nong, or Bana. These ethnic groups live in villages close to the mountains. Some ethnic groups follow the matrilineal system, the oldest woman being head of the family, and the children taking the mother's last name. However, in social relationships, men still play an equal role. In addition, the basic social structure is a village with a head called "village elder". Traditional houses are houses on stilts. Depending on each ethnic group, they build their houses according to wide or long stilt houses. In particular, these ethnic communities are famous for transmitting and preserving Gong Ethnic musical instruments because they believe owning the gongs can show their wealth and power. Until today, they use music from gongs in all festivals or casual parties and gatherings around the fire. In 2005, UNESCO recognized Central Highlands gongs as a masterpiece of the intangible heritage of humanity (People's Daily Online, 2005).



Figure 5. Gong Festival

Language and education


Due to a large number of ethnic groups, language and education pose significant challenges to the country. Generally, Vietnam uses Vietnamese as the primary language for the education sector. The languages of ethnic minorities, nevertheless, are still used in some schools where the people of that region have the need and desire to learn their ethnic language. The introduction of ethnic languages into schools must be proposed by the People's Committee of that locality to the Ministry of Education of Vietnam (Article 4 of Decree No. 82/2020/ND-CP of the Vietnamese Government on teaching and learning Vietnamese language and script of ethnic minorities). To encourage children of these ethnic groups from mountains and borders to go to school, Vietnam has built many boarding or semi-boarding schools in areas where ethnic minorities live. According to a report dated September 25, 2019, of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, the whole country officially implemented 6 languages in high schools, including Mong, Cham, Khmer, Gia Rai, Ba Na, and Ede, with a large-scale of 715 schools, 4,812 classes, and 113,231 students (Ethnicity Committee, 2019).


Figure 6: A project to support ethnic minority children by Plan Int'l Vietnam

As this article has shown, Vietnam is a place with enormous cultural diversity. While the Kinh ethnic group constitutes a substantial majority of the Vietnamese population, the culture of other constituent groups forms an essential component of the culture of Vietnam as a whole. The 54 ethnic groups can be broadly categorized into those from the northern mountainous region and the groups from the central highlands, each of which maintains its own distinct cultural practices.


Bibliographical References

Department of Cultural Heritage (n.d). Lễ cúng thần rừng của người Pu Péo [The ceremony of worshipping the forest god of the Pu Peo people]. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from http://dsvh.gov.vn/le-cung-than-rung-cua-nguoi-pu-peo-3161


Electronic People's Daily (2005, November 25). Cồng chiêng Tây Nguyên được UNESCO công nhận là Kiệt tác phi vật thể của nhân loại [Central Highlands gongs are recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Masterpiece of Humanity]. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://nhandan.vn/cong-chieng-tay-nguyen-duoc-unesco-cong-nhan-la-kiet-tac-phi-vat-the-cua-nhan-loai-post427392.html


Ethnic Committee (2019, September). Report 135/BC-UBDT. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from http://chuongtrinh135.ubdt.gov.vn/DATA/DOCUMENT/2019/10/135-bc-ubdt.signed.pdf


Huy Thang. (2019, July 11). Tổng Điều Tra Dân Số Và Nhà Ở [Census of Population and Housing] 2019. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from http://tongdieutradanso.vn/cong-bo-ket-qua-tong-dieu-tra-dan-so-2019.html


Kim, T. T. (1951.). Việt Nam Sử Lược [Vietnam History]


Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences. (2022, October 27). Tín ngưỡng của người H’mông ở Việt Nam [Beliefs of the Hmong people in Vietnam]. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://www.vass.gov.vn/tap-chi-vien-han-lam/tin-nguong-cua-nguoi-hmong-o-viet-nam-13


Vietnam Fatherland Front Committee, Khanh Hoa province, Đôi nét về 54 Dân tộc Việt Nam [Some views about 54 Vietnamese Ethnic Groups] (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2022, from http://mattrankhanhhoa.org.vn/chitiettin/id/285/Doi-net-ve-54-Dan-toc-Viet-Nam

Visual References


Author Photo

Bui Le Hoang Yen

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