Fifty-four 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.
Some 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.
Today, 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.
For 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 central highlands
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 experience.