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Around 10 % of Vietnam's 90 million population comprises an estimated 54 ethnic groups, some with a mere hundred or so members, giving Vietnam the richest and most complex ethnic make-up in the whole of southeast Asia. Ethnic minority groups with members numbering upwards of 500,000 include the Tay (Tho), Tai (Thai), Hmong (Meo or Miao), Muong (Mol) and Nung. Other large tribes (over 250,000) include the Jarai (Gia Rai) and Ede (Rhade), while groups like the Bahnar (Ba-na), and Sedang (Xo-dang) have more than 100,000 members.

The vast majority of Vietnam's minorities live in the hilly regions of the north, down the Truong Son mountain range, and in the central highlands - all areas which saw heavy fighting in recent wars. Several groups straddle today's international boundaries, spreading across the Indochinese peninsula and up into southern China.

Little is known about the origins of many of these people, some of whom already inhabited the area before the ancestors of the Viet arrived from southern China around four to five thousand years ago. At some point the Viet emerged as a distinct group from among the various indigenous peoples living around the Red River Delta and then gradually absorbed smaller communities until they became the dominant culture. Other groups continued to interact with the Viet people, but either chose to maintain their independence in the highlands or were forced up into the hills, off the ever-more-crowded coastal plains. Vietnamese legend accounts for this fundamental split between lowlanders and highlanders as follows: the Dragon King of the south married Au Co, a beautiful northern princess, and at first they lived in the mountains where she gave birth to a hundred strong, handsome boys. After a while, however, the Dragon King missed his watery, lowland home and decamped with half his sons, leaving fifty behind in the mountains - the ancestors of the ethnic minorities.

While the ethnic-Vietnamese and Chinese live mainly in urban centres and coastal areas, the remaining people, an estimated 10% of Vietnam's total population, are found primarily in the high country. While several of these groupings, such as the Tay, Tai, Muong and Nung, number in the vicinity of a million people, others, like the Romam and O-du, are feared to have dwindled to as few as 100. Undoubtedly the most colourful of the hill tribes reside in the north-west, in the plush mountain territory along the Lao and Chinese borders, while many of the tribes in the Central Highlands and the south can be difficult to distinguish, at least by dress alone, from ordinary Vietnamese. The French called them Montagnards (meaning 'highlanders' or 'mountain people') and still use this term when speaking in French or English. Tha Vietnamese generally refer to them as moi, a derogatory term meaning 'savages', which unfortunately reflects all-too-common popular attitudes The present government, however, prefers to use the term 'national minorities'. Some have lived in Vietnam for thousands of years, while others migrated into the region during the past few centuries. The areas inhabited by each group are often delimited by altitude, with later arrivals settling at higher elevations.

Most of the individual ethnic groups share basic, similar traits in their daily lives and are often most easily identified by differences in language, physical features and traditional dress. They have a rural, agricultural lifestyle and show similarities in village architecture and traditional rituals and have a long history of intertribal warfare.

As is the case in other parts of Asia, the rich, inherent culture of so many of Vietnam's ethnic minorities has slowly given way to a variety of outside influences. Many tribes have been so assimilated into mainstream Vietnamese society that very few even dress in traditional garb. Most of those who do are found in the remote villages of the far north, and even there it is often only the women who do so, while the men more typically have switched over to Vietnamese or western-style clothes. While factors such as the introduction of electricity, modern medicine and education do create advantages, unfortunately such evolution has brought about the abandonment of many age-old traditions. A more recent, and perhaps equally threatening, outside influence is the effect of tourism. With growing numbers of people traveling to see the different ethnic minorities, further exposure to lowlanders and a developing trend toward commercialism will likely worsen the situation.

Traditionally, Viet kings demanded tribute from the often fiercely independent ethnic minorities but otherwise left them to govern their own affairs. This relationship changed with the arrival of Catholic missionaries, who won many converts to Christianity among the peoples of the central highlands - called Montagnards by the French. Under colonial rule the minorities gained a certain degree of local autonomy in the late nineteenth century, but at the same time the French expropriated their land, exerted forced labour and imposed heavy taxes As elsewhere in Vietnam, such behaviour sparked off rebellions, notably among the Hmong in the early twentieth century.

Vietnam's minorities have substantial autonomy and, though the official national language is Vietnamese, all minority children still learn their local dialect. Police officers and members of the army in minority areas are often members of local tribal groups and the National Assembly in Hanoi is represented by a good number of ethnic minorities.

The task of neatly classifying the different highland groups is not an easy one. Ethnologists typically classify the Montagnards by linguistic distinction and commonly refer to three main groups (which further splinter into vast and complex sub-groupings). The Austro-Asian family includes the Viet Muong, Mon-Khmer, Tay-Tai and Meo-Dzao language groups; the Austronesian family, related to Indonesians and Pacific Islanders, were probably the earliest inhabitants of the area but are now restricted to the central highlands, speaking Malayo-Polynesian languages; and the Sino-Tibetan family encompasses the Chinese and Tibeto-Burmese language groups, originating in southern China and at different times migrated southwards to settle throughout the Vietnamese uplands. Furthermore, within a single spoken language, there are often myriad varying dialectical variations.

Despite their different origins, languages, dialects and hugely varied traditional dress, there are a number of similarities among the highland groups that distinguish them from Viet people. Most immediately obvious is the stilt house, which protects against snakes, vermin and larger beasts as well as floods, while also providing safe stabling for domestic animals. The communal imbibing of rice wine is popular with most highland groups, as are certain rituals such as protecting a child from evil spirits by not naming it until after a certain age.

Ethnic Minorities Populations in Viet Nam : 1999

Number Ethnic Group Language Group Population 1999 Most Populated Locations
1  Kinh Viet-Muong (Viet) 67,808,743 All over the country
2 Tay Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 1,574,822 Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Cao Bang, Lai Chau, Bac Thai, Ha Bac
3 Thai Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 1,376,646 Son La, Lai Chau, Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Hoa Binh, ...
4 Muong Viet-Muong (Muong) 1,210,011 Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa, Vinh Phu, Yen Bai, Son La, Ninh Binh
5 Hoa Sino-Tibetan (Han) 1,190,945 Ho Chi Minh City, Ha noi, Hai Phong, Vinh Long, Tra Vinh, Quang Ninh, Dong Nai, Hau Giang, Minh Hai,...
6 Khmer Mon-Khmer 1,184,481 Hau Giang, Vinh Long, Tra Vinh, Kien Giang, Minh Hai, Tay Ninh, Sai Gon, Song Be, An Giang
7 Nung Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 933,653 Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Thai, Hau Giang, Tuyen Quang, Ha Bac, Quang Ninh, Lam Dong, Dac Lac
8 Mong (Hmong) Hmong-Yao (Hmong) 738,304 Ha Giang, Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Son La, Cao Bang, Lang Son, Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, Hoa binh, Bac Thai
9 Dao (Yao) Hmong-Yao 627,029 Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Thai, Lai Chau, Son La, Vinh Phu, Ha Bac, Thanh Hoa, Quang Ninh, Hoa Binh, Ha Tay
10 Gia Rai Austronesian 320,551 Gia Lai, Kong Tum, Dac Lac
11 Ede Austronesian 257,601 Dac Lac, Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa
12 Ba Na Mon-Khmer 181,064 Kon Tum, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen
13 San Chay Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 150,838 Bac Thai, Tuyen Quang, Quang Ninh, Ha Bac, Lang Son, Vinh Phu, yen Bai
14 Cham Mon-Khmer (Cham) 130,939 Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, An Giang, Ho Chi Minh Ville, Binh Dinh, PhuYen, Chau Doc, Khanh Hoa
15 Xo( Xe) Dang Mon-Khmer 128,021 Kong Tum, Quang Nam, Da Nang, Quang Ngai
16 San Diu Sino-Tibetan (Han) 125,195 Quang Ninh, Ha Bac, Hai Hung, Bac Thai, Vinh Phu, Tuyen Quang
17 Hre Mon-Khmer 124,705 Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh
18 Co Ho Mon-Khmer 121,967 Lam Dong, Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Khanh Hoa
19 Ra Glai Austronesian 94,854 Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Khanh Hoa, Lam Dong
20 Mnong Mon-Khmer 89,091 Dac Lac, Lam Dong
21 Tho Viet-Muong (Tho) 67,836 Nghe An, Thanh Hoa
22 Xtieng Mon-Khmer 66,407 Song Be, Tay Ninh, Lam Dong, Dac Lac
23 Kho Mu Mon-Khmer 56,695 Son La, Lai Chau, Nghe An, Yen Bai
24 Bru Van Kieu Mon-Khmer 53,095 Quang Binh, Quang Tri
25 Giay Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 50,226 Lao Cai, Ha Giang, Lai Chau
26 Co Tu Mon-Khmer 48,907 Quang Nam, Da Nang, Thua Thien Hue
27 Gie Trieng Mon-Khmer 35,620 Quang Nam, Da Nang, Kong Tum
28 Ta Oi Mon-Khmer 34,456 Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue
29 Ma Mon-Khmer 33,652 Lam Dong, Dong Nai
30 Co Mon-Khmer 29,965 Quang Ngai, Quang Nam, Da Nang
31 Cho Ro Mon-Khmer 19,874 Dong Nai
32 Ha Nhi Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) 16,523 Lai Chau, Lao Cai
33 Chu Ru Austronesian 14,217 Son La, Lai Chau
34 Xinh Mun Mon-Khmer 14,407 Lam Dong, Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan
35 Lao Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 12,719 Son La, Lai Chau
36 La Chi Thai-Kadai (Kadai) 10,403 Ha Giang
37 Phu La Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) 8,499 Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Son La, Ha Giang
38 La Hu Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) 7,037 Lai Chau
39 Khang Mon-Khmer 5,187 Lai Chau, Son La
40 Lu Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 4,874 Lai Chau
41 Pa Then Hmong-Yao (Pa Then) 4,869 Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang
42 Lo Lo Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) 4,146 Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lao Cai
43 Chut Viet-Muong (Chut) 3,211 Quang Binh
44 Mang Mon-Khmer 2,973 Lai Chau
45 Co Lao Thai-Kadai (Kadai) 1,949 Ha Giang
46 Bo Y Thai-Kadai (Tay- Thai) 1,879 Ha Giang, Lao Cai
47 La Ha Thai-Kadai (Kadai) 1,847 Yen Bai, Son La
48 Cong Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) 1,668 Lai Chau
49 Ngai Sino-Tibetan (Han) 1,527 Quang Ninh, Ho Chi Minh Ville, Hai Phong
50 Si La Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman) 786 Lai Chau
51 Pu Peo Thai-Kadai (Kadai) 505 Ha Giang
52 Brau Mon-Khmer 306 Kong Tum
53 Ro Mam Mon-Khmer 300 Kong Tum
54 O Du Mon-Khmer 194 Nghe An
Total ethnic minority population 11 177 476
Total population of Vietnam 78 986 067