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The ethnic patchwork and linguistic variety of this tiny Asian country are such that it is home to 54 ethnic groups and 5 language families. By comparison, 56 minor­ities share the immense Chinese territory, but only one single family of languages, Indo-European, is spoken from the western shores of the Bay of Bengal as far as the eastern coasts of the Atlantic. Ethnically, Vietnam reflects the same diversity as its great neighbour. The majority ethnic group (86.7 %), the Viet or the Kinh, amount to 56 million, while the smallest, the O Du, number a mere 194 individuals. The roughly 15 % of non-Viet occupy two-thirds of the country, most of it consisting of land which is marginal, either because of its harsh climate or difficult topography (or both). Outside the towns and the coastal regions, it is possible to meet tribes who continue to cherish their ancient, cultural identity in an age of globalisation, others who, over time, have created a hybrid identity, and still others who have wholly opted for Vietnamisation or Westernisation.

Untangling the ethnic web

According to Vietnamese legend

At the dawn of humanity, the dragon Lac Long Quan wedded the immortal Au Co. Their union produced one hundred identical eggs, each of which contained a boy child. However the different backgrounds of Au Co and Lac Long Quan forced them to part. The immortal mother headed for the high mountains taking with her fifty of their children. The dragon, son of the water, descended underground towards the rivers and seas with the rest of their offspring. His descendants formed the line of Hung kings, the country’s first sovereigns. This ancient myth illustrates the divide between the inhabitants of the highlands and the lowlands which still persists today.

According to the map

The homeland of the Viet has spread over time from Tonkin to the centre, the coastal plains of Annam and as far south as the Mekong Delta. They share this southern region with other rice-growers, such as the descendants of the Cham and Khmer kingdoms that have been swallowed up over the centuries. The coastal towns are also home to communities of Hoa, former Chinese nationals, who settled in the region to trade. But it is in the hills and mountains of the Vietnamese Highlands – Au Co’s land in fact – that the country’s greatest ethnic diversity is found, small but distinctive human groupings which in places straddle the border with the neighbouring states of Cambodia, Laos and China.

According to history

This distribution of populations reflects the “order of arrival” brought about by the migration southwards, which involved not only Vietnam, but the whole of Southeast Asia. The Viet and the Muong are among those that Chinese history books describe as the Hundred Yue (Viet being the Vietnamese pronunciation of Yue), who in­habited China to the south of the Yangtse River, well over 2 000 years ago. The Austronesians – by which is meant a family of languages spoken from the Philippines to Madagascar and Indonesia – are another very ancient group of settlers. Among these were the Cham who developed the coastal plains of Annam and founded their first kingdom, Champa, at the end of the 2C BC. At around the same period, the ancestors of the Khmer had set about draining the marshy lands around the Mekong Delta. All these peoples were to be absorbed by the Viet expansion southwards.

In the mountainous regions of the Tonkin Highlands, similar phenomena have been observed. Around 1000 AD, Thai speaking peoples established irrigated rice-growing regions on the borders of China and Southeast Asia, along a strip of land which stretched from Cao Bang to Burma, passing through what is now Thailand. They founded the kingdoms of Siam and Lao, leaving Tonkin to grapple with the vassal rulers of Vietnam and the Middle Empire. Little colonies of Yao speaking peoples probably also settled in the same region around the 13C-14C, having reached the end of their march through neighbouring China.

In the 18C, shock-waves from the ethnic uprisings which rocked the Chinese Empire up until the late 19C were to reach as far as the mountains of North Vietnam. H’mong families, fleeing the brutal Chinese administration, settled in the northwest of the country. Several Tibeto-Burmese groups followed, among which were the Ha Ni, who came from Yunnan through the Red River Valley. All these peoples were already present when the first seeds of the Vietnamese-French Indochinese conflict were sown. The majority rallied to the cause of their adopted nation, but several local chieftains did attempt to back the French.

Contemporary events continue to alter the demographic borders of Vietnam’s popu­lations, as is illustrated by the Highland colonisation policy begun in the late 1970s. The northern and southern deltas, together with the central coastal region, have always been the dominion of the Viet, but of late, many of them have been resettled in parts of the northern Highlands, formerly the sole domain of the Tai, H’mong-Yao and Tibetan-Burmese, and in the Central Highlands, previously only inhabited by Austronesian and Mon-Khmer peoples.

The five Vietnamese families

The Austro-Asians

The “East Asian” family, numbering some 94 % of Vietnam’s population, represents a massive majority. They originate from two language groups, Viet-Muong and Mon-Khmer, but this apparent unity hides enormous disparities.

The Viet-Muong

These two peoples were the pioneers of the North.

The Viet long confined themselves to the Red River Delta, which they had developed since the Neolithic Period, before embarking on their migration southwards. Dominated by the Chinese for a millennium, they inherited a culture which caused them to relinquish some of their own customs. Hence, even though they had formerly lived in houses on stilts, as is shown by the architecture of the communal house at Dinh Bang, near Hanoi, they eventually adopted the Chinese architectural style, building their homes directly onto the ground. The same influence was felt on dress and the women swapped their skirts for trousers.

The Muong (915 000 inhabitants), their closest cousins, have for their part remained in the land of Au Co and can still be found in the foothills of Hoa Binh. They have retained ancient traditions which owe nothing to their Chinese neighbour. Their houses are built on low stilts, close to flooded rice paddies. They improvise ingenious hydraulic systems from bamboo to harness and canalise this water power. The women still wear straight skirts, weave brightly-coloured striped cotton fabric on pedal looms and produce the finest woven baskets in the country. They prefer to transport their goods in a basket, strapped across the back or forehead in mountain fashion, unlike their counterparts in the plains who carry their wares in baskets strung on a pole carried over the shoulders.

The Mon-Khmer

Even though this group is made up of 21 different ethnic sub-groups, it represents only 2 % of the whole population. The Khmer are clearly in the majority (895 300 inhabitants), but not only in numerical terms. They live in the Mekong Delta and are the proud descendants of the Angkor Empire (9C-15C) whose wealth was founded on its intensive crops of rice. These people continue to pass on their know-how by growing 150 species of rice and by their clever craft skills in areas such as weaving, pottery and basket-work. They get about in traditional sampans or what are known as motor-powered “shrimp tails”, perfectly at home on the meandering branches of the Mekong. Following in the footsteps of their Cambodian cousins, they practise Theravada Buddhism, unlike the other Vietnamese Buddhists, who follow the Mahayana branch. Their monks wear saffron-coloured habits and withdraw to study in pagodas built by villagers.

The other Mon-Khmer groups seem to be centuries apart from the Khmer. They are scattered throughout the Highlands and practise a rudimentary form of dry rice-growing using basic tools such as machetes. In the northwest, the Mon-Khmer and neighbouring Tai groups influenced each other. Most of their craft skills are related to the weaving of baskets which they use to display and carry their wares. Their homes reflect their strong community spirit, whether it be the long house (up to 100m long), where several couples and their children live, or the communal house where the village’s teenagers carry out rites of passage into adulthood. The communal house is the pride and joy of stilt architecture and such houses are always larger, higher and finer than any others in the village. In common with their Austronesian neighbours in the Highlands, (the Gia Rai), the largest group, the Ba Na from the Buon Ma Thuot region (137 000 inhabitants) also build elaborate tombs, made almost entirely out of plants.

The Tai-Kadai

The Tai

The Tai branch of this family is the one most commonly found in Vietnam. Similar to the Viet, it descends from the Hundred Yue, who ­embarked upon a migratory trail from China’s southwest coast westwards. The Tay (1.2 million inhabitants) and the Nung (705 000 inhabitants), who have settled around Cao Ban and Lang Son on the Chinese borders, probably arrived first. ­Repeated contacts with China and Vietnam have made deep inroads into their ­culture and their social organisations, formerly divided into hereditary territories. Such ­influences can be seen in their dwellings, built generally from a mixture of clay, straw and unbaked bricks, in Chinese fashion. Similarly, their religion is stamped with Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. All the Tai peoples are excellent craftsmen and their family know-how ranges from weaving mats or baskets to wood carving.

The Tai (1 million inhabitants) developed their rich rice-growing expertise, founded on crop rotation and irrigation, in the fertile valleys of the northwest. Water is transported by a wide variety of techniques (canals, dams and channels), including the emblematic bucket wheel. Their irrigation skills led them to plant fruit trees and tea. The Tai continue to practise traditions such as ancestral worship of spirits and use of mediums. The houses, still built on stilts, differ within the various sub-groups. The White Tai add a veranda in front of their houses, while the Black Tai homes feature a rounded roof resembling an upturned tortoise shell.

The Kadai

This family is only represented by tiny groups, such as the Co Lao (1 500 inhabitants). They practise slash-and-burn techniques but also manure their fields.

The H’mong-Yao

The H’mong (560 000 inhabitants) and the Yao (480 000 inhabitants) – called Dao (pronounced “Zao” by the Vietnamese), are in fact a sizeable (1.1 %) minority, related to population groups which in China amount to 7.4 million and 2.1 million respect­ively. They can be found throughout the vast territory extending from southwest China to the borders with Laos and Thailand, in small, scattered hamlets of montagnards or highlanders. They never founded more than what were to be embryonic political organisations. This situation is explained by their way of life, because the H’mong and Yao are traditionally nomadic peasants, who rely solely on the natural resources of the mountains to survive. They are traditionally very attached to their independence and have continued to fight for their autonomy ever since the country’s reunification in 1975.

The H’mong

They grow crops on the highest lands and live in villages of only a few dozen houses. Their single-storey, often very basic dwellings are made out of planks of wood or woven bamboo. They grow crops, using slash-and- burn techniques, of corn, barley and occasionally rice, as well as flax and fruit trees. They are also distinguished breeders of horses, which are their main means of transport. Their scattered presence and autonomous way of life have enabled them to maintain ancient crafts. Skilled blacksmiths, they make all their own agricultural implements, as well as long barrelled hunting rifles. They still know how to weave bamboo, make silver jewellery, manufacture paper, furniture and harnesses and saddles for their horses. Lineage and ancestor worship continue to play a significant part in the daily life of this scattered people. For the same reasons, fairs remain central to their existence, not only for trading purposes but also so that young people can meet each other.

The Dao

Even more scattered than the H’mong, the Dao speak a variety of languages which are reflected in their different costumes. However this apparent diversity hides a deep-rooted cultural unity, be it just the claim that they all descend from a common ancestor, Pan Hu, a legendary dog married to a Chinese princess. They live in hamlets of less than ten houses, sometimes built on stilts. In the higher regions, they grow corn, but also wet rice crops, fruit trees and medicinal plants. They also breed farmyard animals and draught stock. Chinese practices are strongly reflected in their religion and the Taoist pantheon of gods plays a major role in their exorcism ceremonies.

The Sino-Tibetans

The Chinese

Chinese-speakers, among them the Hoa (900 000 inhabitants) – ethnic Chinese as strictly defined – the San Diu (91 000 inhabitants) and the Ngai (1 100 inhabitants), form the great majority of this language family. The Chinese are mostly descended from trading families from southern China, who settled in the ports of Vietnam in the 17C.

The Tibeto-Burmese

A group of half a dozen small tribes, who are highly-skilled and renowned craftsmen, particularly in the area of basket work. They make a whole range of baskets (attached across the forehead or onto the back) used to transport goods. Depending on their ethnic group, they live either in stilt houses or in single-storey homes built on the ground. The Ha Ni from the high Song Da (12 500 inhabitants) are the largest of these groups. They carve their terraced and irrigated fields into the mountain flanks, like giant sculptures. Women play a major role in Tibeto-Burman society, which also upholds time-honoured traditions of ancestor and spirit worship.

The Austronesians

The Cham (99 000 inhabitants) have bequeathed a great number of inscriptions, both in Sanskrit and in their own language, together with a rich architectural legacy of kala, shrine-towers in brick, which can be found dotted along the coast from the Pass of Clouds to Phan Thiet. These monuments show the boundaries of their former kingdom of Champa, subsequently absorbed by Vietnam. In the 15C, the Cham adopted the religion of Islam on contact with Malaysia, whose language is very similar to their own. Still Muslim today, they grow rice and are renowned for their elabor­ate silk weaving.

The other groups of Austronesians were long confused, under the pejorative term of Moi (“savages”), with the Austro-Asians of the Highlands, with whom they share the same rice-growing techniques in either wet or dry paddies. The confusion possibly also stemmed from the fact they share a common construction of longhouses. The most spectacular of these are those of a tribe of elephant tamers, the E De (or Rhade) from Buon Ma Thuot (195 000 inhabitants). Built as a ship-like structure, they echo the architecture of the Toraja from Celebes in the Indonesian archipelago. Among the Gia Rai of Plei Ku (71 700 inhabitants), the ornamentation of their tombs reveals the influence of their distant Indonesian cousins. The tombs of the chiefs are often decorated by a gallery of wooden sculpture, sometimes elaborate, sometimes quite primitive, depicting men, women and birds.

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