different ethnic groups live in Vietnam. By far the
largest is the ‘Kinh’, or ‘Viet’
majority population: the minority groups make up about
13% of the total population. They are often collectively
referred to as ‘montagnards’, a French
word meaning ‘mountain people’. Strictly
speaking, the term is incorrect as a sizeable minority
of ethnic people live in lowland areas.
ethnic people, such as the Muong, share a common ancestry
with the Kinh, and have been in Vietnam for thousands
of years. Others have migrated into the country from
other areas, particularly China, sometimes long ago,
sometimes comparatively recently. Some groups are
spread across borders, others across several countries.
Most of the upland ethnic groups lived
in what used to be inaccessible areas, keeping their
distance from the Kinh people and living an almost
autonomous existence until the arrival of French colonists
who used them for unpaid labour. Missionaries sought
to convert them to Catholicism, with some success,
particularly in the Central Highlands.
During the French and American wars,
some ethnic groups sided with the occupying forces,
others with the Vietminh and Vietcong. Whether involved
or not, about 20% of Vietnam’s ethnic people
died in the conflict, particularly around the demilitarised
zone and in the Central Highlands.
After reunification, anti-communist
ethnic groups were placed under close scrutiny and
their leaders sent to re-education centres. A policy
of ‘Vietnamisation’ was initiated for
ethnic people. This involved education in Vietnamese,
deterrents to traditional customs and resettlement
of small villages to larger communities.
The policy was reversed in the early
nineties. A department for ethnic affairs was set
up, and cultural diversity was promoted.
the use of minority languages is encouraged in schools,
books are translated for ethnic minority groups with
a written language, scholarships and positive discrimination
are being used to increase the number of ethnic students
in higher education, and ethnic leaders are becoming
involved at all levels of government. However, despite
the considerable efforts that are being made to preserve
the cultural identity and customs of ethnic people,
tourism and commercialisation are rapidly eroding
their traditional way of life.
visitors, there are three main areas with significant
populations of ethnic people.
The northwest mountain area is home for dozens of
different ethnic groups, many with colourful costumes
and customs, and contains the most developed tourism
infrastructure around the town of Sa Pa. It offers
trekking, homestay, mountain climbing and superb scenery.
The ethnic people who live on the high plateau of
central highlands differ from those in the Sa Pa area.
Less developed than the northwest, the ethnic villages
are often larger and sometimes closer to, or even
a district of, the Kinh towns in the area. Tourism
is well organised, but less commercialised. Homestays,
nature-based tourism and forest hiking are possibilities.
The Central Highlands area is also Vietnam’s
main coffee growing area.
The northeastern area is the least developed, and
some parts are difficult to reach. Few visitors stray
much further than Ba Be Lake, a large National Park
about 250 km from Hanoi to the north. However, Cao
Bang Province, immediately north of Ba Be, has several
ethnic groups that have remained more or less untouched
by tourism. For visitors that don’t mind roughing
it, the northeast offers the most authentic ethnic
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