Ethnic Minorities North Vietnam: A Cultural Journey

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Dustin Kemp
Published:

Last Updated: March 15, 2024

Introduction: How Many Ethnic Minorities are there in Vietnam?

There are 54 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Vietnamese government. They are, of course, spread from the mountains in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, making Vietnam a pretty multi-ethnic country. Since many of the minority ethnic groups migrated down from Southern China, though, the provinces of Northern Vietnam bordering China have the most ethnic group diversity.

Google’s Arts & Culture initiative reports that 33 ethnic groups recognized by the World Directory inhabit the highland areas of the far north. They include the smallest ethnic minority in Vietnam, the O Du, with a population of less than 300. And then there’s the Ba Na ethnic group, which resides mainly in Vietnam’s Truong Son Mountain Range. At the other end of the spectrum is the Tay, one of the indigenous peoples we’ll cover in more detail.

Ethnic minority groups only make up 15% of the country’s total population of 98 million people. The rest of Vietnam’s population comprises mainly ethnic Kinh, the largest ethnic group in the country that dominates North, Central, and Southern Vietnam.

However, ethnic minority affairs and traditions make up a major part of the country’s cultural heritage, especially concerning tourism. Because of that, understanding what makes Vietnam’s ethnic minorities unique is key to cultural understanding.

Let’s look at some of the largest ethnic minority groups of Northern Vietnam, from Mai Chau to Sapa to Ha Giang Province to the Red River Delta region and everywhere in between. The main sources we consulted for our investigation are the 2010 book Precious Heritage by Rehahn and 2021’s Ethnic Minorities of Vietnam by Dang Nghiem Van, Chu Thai Son, and Luu Hung.

H’mong people accross Northern Vietnam. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans

The Tay

Population: 1.63 million

Areas: Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Thai Nguyen, Yen Bai, Bac Khan, Lang Son

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The Tay are Vietnam’s largest minority ethnic group and are more closely integrated into the mainstream of Northern Vietnam than other ethnic groups are. The main reason for that is that they only sometimes form their own villages. They prefer to live individually or in groups among the Kinh majority, which comprise about 85% of the country’s population. They also practice a very similar form of Confucianism that emphasizes ancestor worship in religious practices. Because of this, Tay communities are found throughout Vietnam, be it in the mountains of the North, the Central Highlands of Central Vietnam, or the urban areas around Ho Chi Minh City in the South.

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Informative quote highlighting the Tày, Vietnam’s largest minority group, known for their close cultural ties with the Kinh majority.
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A Vietnamese postage stamp depicting traditional musicians of the Tày ethnic group, dated 2005.

Like most ethnic minorities in Vietnam, the Tay are an agricultural people. Their main crops are rice, tea, cinnamon, soy, and tobacco. They’re famous for their advanced irrigation techniques that minimize the water needed for farming. Their mastery of the soil may be partly thanks to them being the oldest ethnic minority in Vietnam–the Ancient kingdom of the Tay was established well over 1000 years ago.

Arts and music are a huge part of daily lives in Tay culture. The Tinh is the long-necked flute-mandolin hybrid many tourists picture when they think of Ancient Vietnamese music. And Luon is a love song that has greatly influenced mainstream Vietnamese folk music.

Tay tribe with information in Ha Giang. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans

The Thai

Population: 1.55 million

Areas: Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Hoa Binh, Son La, Nghe An, Thanh Hoa

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Vietnam’s Thái ethnic minority people are masters of rice cultivation. In fact, they live almost exclusively in flatlands near rivers, the perfect spots for establishing a flooded rice paddy. Even those who live on hills often construct groups of terraced rice paddies, now iconic features in Vietnam’s eco-tourism scene.

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Infographic detailing the White Thái ethnic group in Vietnam: Population, Location, Language, and Historical Arrival.
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Vietnamese postage stamp from 2005 showcasing the traditional dress of the White Thái ethnic group.

Today, the Thai are very likely one of the main reasons Vietnam is the second-largest rice exporter in Asia. The only country that exports more rice is the one that also happens to be the one where the Thais are the majority ethnic group: Thailand. Also, like in Thailand, the Vietnamese Thais traditionally grew and ate mainly sticky rice. Today, they’ve switched to normal rice because it’s easier to grow in Southeast Asia.

Generally speaking, the Thai ethnic group in Vietnam is classified into two subsets: the White Thai and the Black Thai. The groups get their names from the color of the blouse in the women’s traditional clothing, much like many of the country’s minorities.

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Elderly woman in traditional attire outdoors, radiating joy. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans.

The H’Mong

Population: 1.4 million

Areas: Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Sapa, Yen Bai

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A White H’Mong grandmother with her niece in Ha Giang area. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans

Indigenous communities of the H’Mong ethnic group often live in remote villages at high altitudes. The ancient H’Mong settled in the mountainous areas when they came to Vietnam 250 years ago. Unfortunately, they’re not as good for agriculture as most Vietnamese land. As a result, the poverty rate among the H’mong ethnic group is often high.

That being said, the mountainous people of the H’Mong are known for their traditional homes and skilled work with textiles. And, like the Thái people, the two main groups of H’Mong are named after the color of their traditional clothing.

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Elderly Black H’Mong woman in traditional attire at a textile stall in Sapa. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans

The Black H’mong traditionally wear loose-fitting black outfits tinted navy blue by an indigo dye. Interestingly, Black H’Mong has adapted to tourism much more quickly than other ethnic communities in Vietnam. Many H’Mong villages (including Sapa) are full of live traditional music and other cultural shows aimed at visitors. For that reason, they are the most tourist-friendly of Vietnam’s ethnic groups and struggle less with poverty than different H’mong subgroups.

The White H’Mong are named as such because of the white dresses women often wear on special occasions. Despite their geographical constraints, they’ve traditionally focused their economy on agriculture. And they’ve done an impressive job adapting to their mountain areas by developing rice terraces and other high-altitude farming techniques. They also specialize in growing corn, hemp, and poppies–crops most of Vietnam’s indigenous peoples cannot produce.

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White H’Mong woman with baby in vibrant traditional attire. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans

The Red Dao

Population: 750,000

Areas: Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lang Son, Tuyen Quang

Among Vietnam’s Dao people, the Red Dao ethnic group is the largest subset.

They are one of the few indigenous people on Earth who still practice Chinese Taoism, a religion that emphasizes harmony with the natural world. That may partially explain why the day-to-day culture of this particular ethnic minority group is so distinct from the rest of Vietnamese culture. For instance, Red Dao only names their children once they reach the age of 10 years, a Taoist tradition. They are the one ethnic group that still uses Chinese script for writing, though the pronunciation is different than the Mandarin spoken by ethnic Chinese. 

The most widely-known feature of the red Dao, though, is their traditional clothes. They often sew a square fabric into their black shirts to signify their familial relationship with God. Dao women wear a triangular red turban adorned with silver coins and jewelry.

A Priceless Cultural Journey

The different ethnic groups of North Vietnam are incredibly diverse and contribute to a rich cultural tapestry of national unity in a very multi-ethnic country. Sadly, that tapestry is slowly fading as small villages housing ethnic minorities continue to give in to new land law rulings that restrict the rights of the ethnic groups. Many ethnic minorities in Vietnam are slowly but surely disappearing, as are their vibrant traditions.

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A group of Black H’Mong people are performing a traditional music show in Sapa area. Photo by VIA Ambassador Florian Commans

Watching a documentary film about tribes in Northern Vietnam, like the recent Oscar Nominee Children of the Mist, is a good way to educate yourself about ethnic minority affairs. However, the experiences of meeting these different ethnic groups face-to-face and seeing how they preserve their own culture are fleeting.

Experience the unique culture of the colorful indigenous people in North Vietnam before it disappears – a priceless journey worth taking.

Closing Words from Photographer Florian Commans

“During my stay in Vietnam, ethnic minorities have often been fascinating to me; here is a short photo project that presents nine different ethnicities that I encountered during my travels (with a relative degree of confidence), and about which I tried to learn more with some reading. My sources include the following: Precious Heritage, by Réhahn (3d edition, 2021) & Ethnic minorities of Vietnam, by Dang Nghiêm Van, Chu Thai Son and Luu Hung (The Gioi editions, 2010)”

VIA Ambassador Florian Commans
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Dustin Kemp
Content Writer - Vietnam Is Awesome
Dustin moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014 and quickly fell in love with the culture and people of Vietnam. He brings his passion to his writing and planning as the Content Manager at Vietnam Is Awesome.