From the early ages, Vietnamese kids have been told the folktale about Lac Long Quan and Au Co. They had one hundred children and each of them took fifty sons and daughters to different places in our nation and nurtured them. According to this tale, Vietnamese all have the same origin, and we are all brothers and sisters, which makes us have some similar characteristics. However, Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups and each of which still has identifiable cultural traditions. Language is one of the most distinguishable factors in culture. Therefore, the demographers divide Vietnamese ethnicities into eight groups depending on their voices. Each group lives in different regions of Vietnam, has their own traditional costume and lifestyle.
This group includes four ethnicities: Kinh, Muong, Tho, and Chut. Kinh (or Viet) is the most populated ethnicity, they account for 86.83% of Vietnamese popularity, and their language is considered Vietnamese. Therefore, when you come to Vietnam, most of the locals that you meet would belong to Kinh ethnicity. Kinh people are believed to have lived in the Northern and Northern-Central Vietnam for a long time, and now they settle all over the country from big cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi to the countryside. However, they prefer living on lands that are near the rivers due to the impact of the wet-rice civilization which appeared thousands of years ago. Over time, they have had some cultural exchanges with other nations and adopted the modern lifestyle, so nowadays, it is hard to recognize their ethnicity just by their appearances.
In some rural places, they still build houses in the traditional ways. Each house would have a court for children to play or for neighbors to come and talk, a garden with many trees or herbs and a pond for fish farming. Worshiping their ancestors is such an important custom in the tradition of 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. Although the Gregorian Calendar is now popularly used, when the Kinh want to choose a good day to celebrate an important event of their lives, they would rather use the lunar one.
Most Vietnamese belong to Kinh ethnicity
Muong and Kinh's predecessor used to live together in Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa and Phu Tho (three provinces in Northern Vietnam). Unlike the Kinh, Muong people build the villages at the foot of the mountains or on the hillsides. They are famous for Ruou Can - fermented rice wine that is served to distinguished guests. The women’s responsibility to get water from nearby rivers, carry it in a one-meter-long bamboo tube and bring home so that it is available for the whole family to use. The Muong have always believed that young people can love and marry anyone as long as both sides voluntarily accept. Another noticeable thing about Muong ethnicity is that they have their own calendar, which is 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. They do not have their own written language, so they use the alphabet of the Kinh's. They own one alike concept about the white scarf with the Muong. Even though the scarf is thought to be a sign of having someone in your family died recently in some communities if you put it around your forehead, these people consider it as a beautiful accessory.
Muong ethnicity consider the white scarf as a necessary accessory
Chut is quite different from the rest of this group. Their population is only around 6,000 people, and they live in the mountainous areas of Quang Binh Province. Some historical records show that they have been there for more than 500 years. Their lives depend mostly on hunting and picking fruits, vegetables, which makes them very good at climbing the trees to get honey. A strange practice of Chut ethnicity is that women have to stand while giving birth to their children without any help.
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There are eight ethnicities in this group. They share the same origin, similar customs and have some influences on one another’s culture. Some groups like Bo Y, Giay, Nung and San Chay immigrated from China 150-400 years ago, and their forebears were really good at working on wet-rice fields. However, in Vietnam, they live in the Northern East and Northern West highlands which prevents them from amplifying their strengths. Instead, they grow corn as the main food. There is a class distinction in communities of Bo Y and Giay ethnicity. The lower class has to do labor work and pay taxes to the upper class. The rich are very powerful since there are a lot of conceptions that make people dream of wealthy lives. For instance, when a person dies, their relatives believe the bigger the funeral is, the more chances he has to go to heaven, or else he would have to live in hell and be reincarnated as an animal. Unfortunately, only well-off families can afford such funerals.
Nung ethnicity and some other ethnicities in the Tay - Thai group have their own view about marriage. While boys and girls can hang out with the one they love, their wedding cannot happen until both families agree with it. Their parents would decide whether they can become husband and wife or not based on their backgrounds and horoscopes. The Nung also has a unique practice. Although they use the Lunar Calendar like other groups, they celebrate New Year’s Eve on January 1st like some Western countries.
Bo Y women love wearing colorful necklaces
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 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.
The two last ethnicities of this group are Thai and Lao which are not only found in Vietnam but also in other countries of Southeast Asia. Thais also have Chinese origin, but their culture is quite dissimilar to one of Bo Y and Giay due to different places of living. As proof, their main food is glutinous rice instead of corn. There is a tradition in Thai communities that the son-in-law has to stay at his wife’s family for 8-12 years before both of them move to live with his big family. They have their own alphabet in the Sanskrit system. Lao is a part of the Thai race, so they have some comparable features. In this group, Tay and Thai are in the top 5 most populated Vietnamese ethnicities together with Kinh, Muong, and Khmer.
The Thais have elegant traditional clothes
Mon - Khmer group has 21 ethnicities. Most of them have settled in Tay Nguyen - the Western Highlands region of Vietnam - or the Northwest region for a great time. Among these groups, the Bana with a population of 220,000 is one of the most crowded and important ethnicity. Besides, some groups like O-du or Ro-Mam only have 300 - 400 people remain. Their alphabet, which is rarely used, now takes after the Latin one. In each of their village, there would be a village head called “gia lang”, the most powerful man. Nowadays, there are still some remains of the matriarchy that they had in the past.
Each group also has its own interesting characteristics. Bru-Van Kieu ethnicity enjoys grilled dishes. In the summer, the Brau, both male and female, enjoy being half-naked. The Xinh Mun, the Mang, the Kho Mu, and the Khang all have identical traditional clothes with the Kinh or the Thai. Other groups that inhabit the same region with those ethnicities are Co-ho, Co-tu, Gie-trieng, Xo-dang, X-tieng, Ta Oi, Hre, Ma, and M’nong.
Khmer is a special ethnic group. Before the 12th century, they played an important part in the culture and life of the community in the Mekong Delta region. They have the traditions of fishing, weaving, manufacturing sugar and pottery. Every grown-up Khmer boy has to stay in pagodas for 3-5 years to learn about Buddhism and the Khmer language.
Khmers are devout Buddhists
The rest of this group also has notable practices. Cho-ro ethnicity, who originated in the South of Indochina 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 value of the bride, Co ethnicity is used to celebrating small ceremonies only.
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. It is also the place for young people to get to know and hang out with others so this place is said to be the start of many love stories. Although there are more than one million people that belong to the Mong ethnicity, they are still able to recognize their relatives since each ancestry has non-identical worshiping ceremonies. Their New Year holiday is one month earlier compared to one of Kinh, which fits with their farming calendar. They have their own writing based on the Vietnamese alphabet, but it is not very prevalent.
Dao and Pa Then people, however, learn the Han character, the Chinese writing system, or the Nom character, the old Vietnamese writing system that was arranged 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.
Mong women usually wear big hats with colorful fringes
This group includes four minorities that are living in the Northernmost provinces of Vietnam: La Chi, La Ha, Co Lao, and Pu Peo. La Chi and La Ha ethnicities in the past loved dyeing their teeth black because they believed it was a beauty standard. The blacker their teeth are, the more beautiful they feel about themselves. Some young people of La Chi also wear golden teeth as a symbol of maturity. It is ordinary for La Chi families to have three generations living together in a house. The La Ha live in the same regions as the Thai, so they learn a lot from Thai culture. They even know the Thai alphabet and use the Thai calendar. However, unlike other groups, their women are not familiar with weaving, so they have to exchange cotton plants for clothes.
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 regions for many years. At the present time, they no longer use their mother tongue. Instead, they get used to the language of their neighbors like the Pu Peo or the Mong. They have experience in using fertilizers to help their lands become more productive. Pu Peo ethnicity has a special belief about childbirth. Parents would only give names to their children five days after their birth. In the meantime, the fathers cannot leave their houses. In some cases, they are allowed to go out with a hat.
La Chi women in their traditional clothes
The ethnicities in this group 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 would have their mothers’ last names and the smallest daughter would inherit the position as a matriarch. However, in recent centuries, the role of male members have gain respectability. They have some writing systems based on the Sanskrit scheme and the Latin alphabet, now kids go to school and learn Vietnamese, their traditional knowledge is only passed through word of mouth. Cham, Gia Rai, E de, Raglai and Chu Ru are the minorities of this group.
Cham ethnicity has their wonderful culture influenced by India. There are some historical temples with Islamic structures that were built by their ancestors across some coastal provinces. The Chu Ru is believed to be a part of the Cham race in the past. They moved 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 believes in the supernature. They think that there is a nation for Gods, and it is impossible for them to discover that land. Because of these thoughts, the shaman has gradually become an official job in their communities.
A festival of the Cham ethnicity
China is the origin of three ethnicities in this group: Hoa - the most populated one, Ngai, and San Diu. But now most of them cannot use Chinese as fluently as their predecessors. Unlike the Austro - Polynesian group, they follow patriarchy. There are more than 820,000 Hoa ethnicity living all over Vietnam, and they still keep a lot of practices from their hometown. Confucianism and Taoism have a large impact on their belief and behaviors.
In Ho Chi Minh City, they can be easily found in Chinatown. Here they open food stalls or work as shopkeepers at local markets since they own good business sense. Their dishes are special as the cooks make sure that they not only are nutritious but also help balance the Yin and Yang in your body. Some of their local beverages also contain herbs that bring you a fresh feeling. They highly value the importance of family, consider it as the foundation for every member’s development, which is also a common tradition of Vietnamese people. The San Diu and the Ngai, however, only reside in the Northern or Western-North region of Vietnam. They live together with people from other groups, so now their cultures resemble one of their closest neighbors, the Kinh.
A festival of the Hoa ethnicity in Ho Chi Minh City
The six ethnicities that belong to the Tibeto group live in the same regions with the Mong - Dao group and the Kadai group. Because of this, there are plenty of similarities between these ethnic groups. One of the most significant differences is their calendar. In this group, Cong and Si La are two minorities that immigrated from Laos, and they use the Lunar Calendar. The other four ethnicities have their own ways. A year of the Lo Lo only contains eleven months, each of them is represented by an animal. There is no written form about the calendars of the Phu La and Ha Nhi. All we know is that their New Year’s Eve is in February and October, respectively. The last ethnicity is the La Hu, who believe that the hats they are given at birth can keep souls.
People in the Tibeto group wear similar clothes with one of the Mong - Dao group
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As a multi-cultural country, Vietnam has an ethnically diverse population. However, friendliness and hospitality are two characters 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. Check out our Vietnam blogs to learn more about Vietnamese people, Vietnamese culture and also some other interesting facts.
I love visiting the villages in the north. I bought some beautiful intricately made fabric as souvenirs at the market