Your Guide to a Multicultural Land: Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam

by Steven K. Bailey, Dec 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

I came to Laos somewhat accidentally. I had not expected to end up there and yet somehow I found myself bouncing over the Laotian mountains in the back of a Toyota pickup truck. Clouds fogged the pot-holed road, then parted to reveal isolated ridge-top villages. I had no idea who lived in these villages; I only knew that they were definitely not ethnic Lao. The pickup's driver, a young Laotian who lived, like most Lao, in the lowlands, looked as befuddled as I did. Like me, he was a foreigner in those mountains, surrounded by people who spoke a different tongue, dressed in unfamiliar clothes and looked physically different from both of us. I could only furrow my brow in puzzlement and enjoy the ride.

I'd come to Laos unprepared and those mysterious mountain dwellers could have been anything from Welsh to Wolof for all I knew. I've learned my lesson. When I travel next door to Vietnam, I'll be sure to bring along my copy of Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam from The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi (1993). A little prereading strikes me as a good idea, because different ethnic, racial and linguistic groups have been coming into contact with each other in Vietnam for thousands of years in a complex game of cultural give and take.

This is an epic story and the authors--Dang Nghiem Van, Chu Thai Son, Luu Hung--wisely restrict the scope of their book to the years after World War II. They proudly point out that their book is the exclusive product of Vietnamese scholars, and that it is intended to serve as a reference book for both researchers and general readers. Travelers to Vietnam will also want to read this book, as it provides background information on all the ethnic groups in Vietnam except the numerically dominant Viet.

The Viet--also known as the Kinh--are not covered here as they comprise 87% of the country's population. There are 56 million people of Viet origin in Vietnam; they are clearly in the majority. In contrast, the five largest ethnic groups--the Tay, Thai, Muong, Hoa and Khmer--only number about one million people each, and the smallest six groups total less than 25,000. Ethnic census counts are notoriously unreliable--in the USA as well as Vietnam--and the book's numbers are open to question. For example, does a child born to a Viet father and Muong mother count as Viet, Muong, or both? And what happens when that boy later raises a family with a Khmer wife? Such dilemmas are not addressed in Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam and its numbers should be considered rough estimates rather than precise head counts.

The authors divide the book into three sections, one for each of the major linguistic families in Vietnam. The Austro-Asian linguistic family, whose languages are spoken by the Viet and 39 other ethnic groups, is by far the largest. The languages of the smaller Austronesian and Sino-Tibetan linguistic families are spoken by five and nine ethnic groups respectively. Each ethnic minority group's entry begins with basic data on population, language and location, and is followed by three main sections: Material Life (architecture, dress, agriculture, art), Social and Family Relationships and Spiritual Life. These broad categories do a good job of summarizing the main features of each ethnic group. A detachable map showing the lands traditionally occupied by the different groups and a range of black-and-white/color photos supplement the text. The photos include the inevitable shots of bare-breasted young women and an unidentified and presumably stoned individual "inhaling a pungent liquid through the nose." I do not recommend either practice during your trip to Vietnam.

The introduction is also well worth reading, offering insights into relations between the dominant Viet and various minority groups in Vietnam. As the book points out, equality between ethnic groups is enshrined in the constitution and the government has made a genuine effort to improve the lot of the more impoverished minorities, particularly those living in isolated highland communities. However, the authors admit that many of the government's past ethnic policies were mistakes and that minority groups tend to have lower standards of living than the majority Viet.

Multiculturalism is often equated with the United States, a nation whose citizens hail from all over the globe. But every country is a mix of different races and ethnicities and Vietnam is no exception. A crossroads of civilizations, Vietnam has historically been a convergence point for Southeast Asian ethnic groups, from the Muong to the Si La. Vietnam, in fact, is a startlingly multicultural land and understanding this country requires a basic knowledge of its diverse peoples. Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam will serve as your guide to this ethnically complex nation. It helps to be prepared. As I learned in Laos, you just never know when you'll wind up in a mountain village inhabited by people who look as wondrously strange to you as you look to them.

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Review of: Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam, Dang Nghiem Van, Chu Thai Son and Luu Hung, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi 1993, 5 1/2" x 8", 297 pages.

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