VietnamCulture and HistoryVietnamese People: the Different Ethnicity in Vietnam

Vietnamese People: the Different Ethnicity in Vietnam

Vietnamese kids have been told the folktale about Lac Long Quan and Au Co from an early age. The couple had one hundred children together, and the story ends with each person taking fifty sons and daughters to raise them in different parts of the country. According to this tale, Vietnamese share the exact same origin, which makes us all brothers and sisters. In reality, Vietnam has 54 ethnicities, each with identifiable cultural traditions influenced by a myriad of elements. In addition to language being one of the most distinguishable factors in culture, history, nature, and the culture sphere of neighboring countries also play a significant role. Read more to learn about the different ethnicity in Vietnam and how you can get more in touch with the local life.

ethnicities-in-vietnam
  • Vietnam’s population is made up of 54 ethnicities, with the Kinh (Viet) people taking up a large majority.
  • Most ethnic minorities in Vietnam live in the Northern or Central mountainous areas in Vietnam.
  • While Vietnamese is spoken nationwide, each ethnicity in Vietnam has their own local language.
  • Patriarchy runs deep within the majority of the ethnicities in Vietnam, but some communities still embrace matriarchy.

Due to the diversity in languages, origins, and history, the different ethnicity in Vietnam have many forms of categorization. The most common and understandable way is to divide them by languages. Though we are unable to go in-depth into each ethnic community in the country, we can provide you with an overview of the main ethnic groups in Vietnam.

1. Vietic (Viet – Muong) Group

This group includes four ethnicities: Kinh, Muong, Tho, and Chut. Their ancestors are believed to have lived together in Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa, and Phu Tho (three provinces in Northern Vietnam).

Kinh (or Viet) is the most populated ethnicity, taking up 86.83% of Vietnamese popularity. Therefore, when you come to Vietnam, most of the locals you meet belong to the Kinh ethnicity. Kinh people are believed to have lived in Northern and Northern-Central Vietnam for a long time, and now they have settled all over the country, from big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to the countryside.

However, they prefer living on flatlands that are near the rivers due to the impact of the wet-rice civilization, which appeared thousands of years ago. Worshiping their ancestors is such an essential custom in the tradition of the Kinh people that there is an altar in almost every house. It is also emphasized in the biggest holiday of Vietnam – Tet Nguyen Dan. The Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, happens in February since the first day of the Lunar Calendar usually falls in this month.

Unlike the Kinh, Muong people build villages at the foot of the mountains or on the hillsides. The community usually gathers in the Northern or Central mountains. They also have their own calendar based on neither the Sun nor the Moon. Their calendar is made from bamboo and also has twelve months.

The ancestors of Tho were originated from the combination of the Kinh and the Muong. Therefore, they have many similar customs to these two ethnic groups. Even though they have their own spoken dialect, they do not have their own written language, so they use the Vietnamese alphabet.

Chut is quite different from the rest of this group, and their culture bears a strong influence from Laos. Most of them live in the mountainous areas of Quang Binh Province. Some historical records show that they have been there for more than 500 years, but their population in Vietnam remains humble nowadays. Their lives depend primarily on hunting and picking fruits, and vegetables, which makes them very good at climbing the trees to get honey.

2. Tai – Kadai (Tay – Thai) Group

There are eight ethnicities in this group, which share the same origin and similar customs. Additionally, they also have specific impacts on one another’s culture. Some groups like Bo Y, Giay, Nung, and San Chay immigrated from China 150-400 years ago, and they live in the Northern East and Northern West highlands. Meanwhile, Tay and Thai are in the top 5 most populated Vietnamese ethnicities, together with Kinh, Muong, and Khmer.

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Local market in Sa Pa (Lao Cai)

The majority of the Bo Y ethnicity in Vietnam resides in borderline areas adjacent to China, such as Ha Giang or Lao Cai. Since their predecessors were immigrants from China, Bo Y people speak some Chinese, in addition to their own language as well as Vietnamese.

Not to be mistaken with Laos or Thailand’s people (Vietnam’s neighboring countries), the Lao and Thai ethnicities in Vietnam have their own language and alphabet besides Vietnamese.

The Nung has a unique practice of celebrating the new year. Although they use the Lunar Calendar, they celebrate New Year’s Eve on January 1st, like in some Western countries.

Lu and Tay are two groups that have been in Vietnam for thousands of years. They both live in the Northern region of Vietnam and have expertise in weaving brocades. Despite living in the valleys, the Lu ethnicity prefers eating fish to red meat. Pork and beef dishes are only available on important holidays.

Most of San Chay people live in the Northern mountainous areas such as Bac Giang or Cao Bang, with a smaller group scatters in the Central Highlands area.

3. Austroasiatic Non-Vietic (Mon – Khmer) Group

Mon – Khmer group has 21 ethnicities, most settling in Tay Nguyen – the Western Highlands region of Vietnam – or the Northwest region. Among these groups, the Bana with a population of 220,000 is one of the most crowded and vital ethnicity. Besides, some groups like O-du or Ro-Mam only have 300 – 400 people remaining. Their alphabet, which is rarely used, now takes after the Latin one.

Cho-ro ethnicity, who originated in the South of Indochina and is now living in Dong Nai province, allows the girls to propose, which is not a common thing in the Vietnamese patriarchal society. The last one is the Co. While other ethnicities usually ask for a grand wedding to show the bride’s value, Co ethnicity is used to celebrating small ceremonies only.

Khmer is a special ethnic group as they carry significant traits of Cambodian culture in Vietnam. Before the 12th century, they played an essential part in the culture and life of the community in the Mekong Delta region.

ethnicity-in-vietnam-khmer
Traditional Khmer female costumes

Mong, Dao, and Pa Then are three ethnicities in this group. They all originated in China and immigrated to Vietnam several centuries ago. Now, they live in the Northern Highlands, near the border between Vietnam and China.

A signature of the Mong people’s culture is the kermis, where everyone can exchange the goods they make. Their New Year holiday corresponds to their farming calendar, one month earlier than the Kinh’s Tet Nguyen Dan. During the Hmong people’s New Year celebration, they adorn themselves in the most colorful traditional clothes and party with an abundance of food and wine.

Dao and Pa Then people learn the Han character, the Chinese writing system, or the Nom character, the old Vietnamese writing system derived from the Chinese one. They use these characters in their books, letters, and poems. The three groups have different customs, but they have colorful clothes and silver accessories in common.

5. Kra (Kadai) Group

Kra group represents the minorities who originally came from South China. This is one of the least populated group that consists of four minorities living in the Northernmost provinces of Vietnam: La Chi, La Ha, Co Lao, and Pu Peo.

La Chi and La Ha ethnicities historically loved dyeing their teeth black because they believed it was a beauty standard. Some young people of La Chi also wear golden teeth as a symbol of maturity.

Co Lao is quite different from the other three groups. They left China and came to Vietnam 200 years ago, while the others have lived in the region for many years. At present, they no longer use their mother tongue. Instead, they get used to the language of their neighbors, like the Pu Peo or the Mong.

Pu Peo people can speak Mandarin thanks to their Chinese origin. Additionally, they are able to converse in Hmong and Vietnamese due to the local ethnic communities in the nearby areas.

6. Austro – Polynesian Group

Cham, Gia Rai, E de, Raglai, and Chu Ru are the ethnicities of this group and they have resided in the Central Highlands region and the Central Coast region of Vietnam for ages. Unlike other Vietnamese groups, their societies are matriarchal, which means that children have their mothers’ last names and the smallest daughter inherits the position of matriarch. In terms of languages, they have some writing systems based on the Sanskrit scheme and the Latin alphabet. Now kids go to school and learn Vietnamese, and their traditional knowledge is only passed through word of mouth.

Cham ethnicity has a wonderful culture influenced by India. Some historical temples with Islamic structures that their ancestors built across some coastal provinces.

ethnicity-in-vietnam-cham
Remnants of ancient Cham culture in Vietnam

The Chu Ru is believed to be a part of the Cham dynasty in the past. Gradually, they moved away to live among the mountains, separated from the original community and became a new group.

The Gia Rai and Ede both have the custom of ear-piercing. Some women of these groups can wear round ivory earrings with a radius of 3 centimeters. The Gia Rai also has a ceremony of molar teeth sawing for boys and girls who reach their teenage years. Raglai ethnicity has strong beliefs in the supernatural. They think that there is a nation for Gods, and it is impossible for them to discover that land.

7. Sinitic Group

Hoa, Ngai, and San Diu were once immigrants from China to Vietnam – whose main language is Cantonese. They have formed strong communities and established temples to gather and pay respect to their original beliefs.

Though most of them are able to speak Cantonese, their dialect can differ greatly depending on where they initially came from in China. In Ho Chi Minh City, they can be easily found in Chinatown. They open food stalls or work as shopkeepers at local markets since they have good business sense.

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One of the many old temples in Chinatown

The San Diu and the Ngai only reside in Vietnam’s Northern or Western-North region. They live with people from other groups, so their cultures now resemble one of their closest neighbors, the Kinh.

8. Tibet – Burma Group

The six ethnicities that belong to the Tibeto group live in the same regions as the Mong – Dao group and the Kadai group. Because of this, there are plenty of similarities between these communities.

Cong and Si La are two minorities that immigrated from Laos, and they use the Lunar Calendar. They have their own languages, in addition to being able to speak some Laos, Thai, and Vietnamese.

Besides their Thai and Laos origins, some of Lo Lo People’s culture also come from Southern China. They have a rich spiritual life and practice a variety of beliefs, including animism and Taoism.

Ha Nhi and La Hu People bear some significance from Southwestern China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. Such a diverse root that these ethnic minorities in Vietnam pretty much create their own cultures based on the harmonious blend. They have their own language and spiritual beliefs.

Phu La is a minority living in the North and Northwest of Vietnam. They establish distinctive villages and live harmoniously with other groups, such as Muong, Dao, and Tay communities.

Summary of Vietnamese People: the Different Ethnicity in Vietnam

As a multicultural country, Vietnam has an ethnically diverse population. However, friendliness and hospitality are two characteristics that can be found everywhere in this country. You can come to the Vietnam Ethnology Museum in Hanoi to learn the details about these beautiful ethnic groups.

Source: Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs

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