Vietnam is a large country with an area roughly the size of Germany. Its population in 2016 was 94.5 million, making it the 14th most populated country in the world.
In a way, it is a homogeneous country as the majority, 86%, of the population is from one ethnicity, Kinh, which is also known as Viet. On the other hand, it can also be said to be a multicultural country rich in diversity as the remaining 14% of the population is made of 53 distinct ethnicities!
Most of these minor ethnic groups are concentrated in the northern mountainous regions of Vietnam. They can be easily differentiated from the Kinh by their traditional clothing. Below are Vietnam’s eight main ethnicities belonging to five major ethnic groups.
Kinh people are linguistically and ethnically categorized as Southeast Asian, but they are culturally more similar to southern Chinese people.
Even though Kinh people comprise 86% of the population, they occupy less than half of the land area, mostly in the urban and coastal areas of the country, which are more fertile. The rest of the land area, especially the mountainous regions further inland, is mostly occupied by minorities.
Muong people are linguistically and ethnically close to Kinh people, but they live separately in the mountain regions of Hòa Bình Province in northern Myanmar. Muong people are culturally more closely related to the Tai people.
Nung and Tay
Nung people are closely related to Tay people. Sometimes, their ethnic names are mingled as Tày-Nùng. In China, Nung, Tay, and Tai people are all classified as the Zhuang ethnic group.
The name ‘Nung’ is derived from the word for farmers ('nong nhan' in Cantonese). Almost all of the Nung and Tay people are farmers. They live in Vietnam’s northern provinces bordering with China.
Tai/Thai people, formerly known as Siamese,form the ethnic group dominating Thailand. In Vietnam, Tai people mostly live in the northern parts of the country. They are known for their beautifully woven garments and their houses on stilts.
Hmong people live in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam bordering with China. Hmong people originated from China where they are classified as one of the subgroups of the Miao ethnic group. They can now be found not only in China and Vietnam but also in Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand.
There are many subgroups within the Hmong ethnicity itself. The main Hmong subgroups include the White Hmong, Green Hmong, Black Hmong, and Flower Hmong. Flower Hmong people are characterized by their brightly colored embroideries.
Khmer Krom are ethnically Khmer (Cambodian) people living in southwestern Vietnam near the Mekong Delta, bordering Cambodia. Previously, this area was part of Cambodia but was conquered by Vietnam in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The term ‘hoa’ is from the Chinese word '華' (Hua), which means Chinese. The Hoa are overseas Chinese people residing in Vietnam. Hoa people are mainly concentrated in urban areas.
Before the fall of Saigon, Hoa people represented a high portion of Vietnam’s business owners and made up a high percentage of Vietnam’s educated and upper class.
However, after 1975 when the communists confiscated their businesses and property, many fled the country as Vietnamese boat people. Now Hoa people only run a small part of the Vietnamese economy.
Persecution of Hoa people intensified in the late 1970s and became one of the reasons for the Sino-Vietnamese War.
It is estimated that there are more than 3 million Vietnamese people living outside of Vietnam in diaspora. Most of them out-migrated as a result of the Vietnam War and its post regime.
Well before the Vietnamese war, there had been Vietnamese moving out of Vietnam. Some went to France as students or workers while some went to other parts of French Indochina as the Vietnamese were often trained and sent by the French to occupy governmental positions in Laos and Cambodia.
However, Vietnamese out-migration was taken to a whole new level as a result of the Vietnam War. At the end of the Vietnam War, millions of Vietnamese fled from the new communist regime to the US, France, Australia, and Canada.
In the new regime, some were also sent by the regime to other Communist countries in eastern and central Europe to study as part of the country’s development plans. However, many of them didn’t return to Vietnam after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In more recent history, many Vietnamese also migrated for economic reasons to Taiwan or Japan. Recently there have also been numerous Vietnamese emigrating as brides to the neighboring countries of China, Taiwan, or South Korea.
Trek in Sapa (Ethnic Village)
If you are interested in seeing Vietnam’s minority groups firsthand, you may enjoy visiting Sapa. Sapa is a rural area in Lao Cai Province, in the northern part of Vietnam, bordering with Yunnan, China.
The ethnicities you can find in Sapa include the Hmong, Dao, and Tay. Sapa is a well-known site for tourism,not only for its diversity in ethnicities but also for its breathtaking scenery of terraced paddies and steep valleys. It is also home to Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan, reaching to 3,143 meters above sea level.
Getting to Sapa takes some time but is worth the effort. First, you take atrain from Hanoi to Lao Cai City in Lao Cai Province. Comfortable or luxury cabins are available as well. From Lao Cai City, it takes one hour to drive to Sapa.
Before you go to Sapa from Hanoi, make sure you visit the Museum of Ethnology, which will give you a detailed introduction to Vietnam’s 54 ethnicities.
In Sapa, there are many markets with varying schedules. Visiting one of these markets is a great way for you to meet the locals and buy their produce or crafts. Homestays are also available, through which you can interact with the locals on a more personal level and gain insight into their livelihood.
There are many trekking routes for you to enjoy where you will see local villages with thatched houses, rice paddies, and bamboo groves.
In our 13-day Vietnam Classic Tour, we will visit Sapa along with other parts of Vietnam. We arrange market tours, a homestay, and treks as part of the tour. To learn more, visit here. Don’t miss this opportunity to get to know the people of Vietnam!
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