Questions that someone from the US might ask about the lives of ethnic minority people in Viet Nam

See update at end of post, about ethnic minority experience.

3 women and baby following

When we set out from Sapa, heading into the valley towards a series of ethnic minority villages, these three women immediately began “following” us. “Following tourists” is a job. They followed us the whole 6K , chatting in English with a very limited vocabulary, and only left us after we sat down for lunch at a trekker’s restaurant where, surrounded by other women selling embroidered goods, we finally bought three indigo scarves from them. 

Is there a problem?

On page 77 of Nguyen Kach Vien’s Vietnam: A Long History, he’s got a short section called “Ethnic Minority Policy.” Page 77 is near the front of the book, so we’re talking about the 15th century. Here it is:

Viet Nam comprises many ethnic groups: minority groups living in mountainous regions, while the majority group, the Kinh, are plain-dwellers. During the insurrection against the Ming, (1427) the ethnic minorities living in the highlands allied themselves with the Kinh to fight the occupiers. But after liberation, the feudalists in the delta resumed their policy of exploitation and oppression vis-à-vis the minorities. The Le monarchy ruled over the highlands through tribal chieftains upon whom it bestowed mandarin titles. These chieftains collected taxes. Control over mountainous regions was tighter than under the Tran (the previous dynasty). The Kinh mandarins ruling over the uplands also sought to exploit the ethnic minorities.

 This policy provoked frequent revolts among the mountain-dwelling minorities, and this was for centuries one of the weak points of the feudal monarchies. The Thai of the northwest rose in revolt in Lai Chau in 1432, in Son La in 1439 and in Thuan Chau in 1440; the Tay of Lang Son, Cao Band and Tuyen Quang also did on many occasions. In the western part of Nghe An, the head of the Cam family succeeded in holding out from 1428 to 1437.

 All these revolts were firmly suppressed by the Le troops. The secession advocated by the rebel chiefs also ran counter to historical trends, the deltas and the highlands being complementary economically. But antagonism among ethnic groups was to disappear only with the advent of socialism.

…and that’s it for the “ethnic minority policy.” That’s the whole thing.

“Ethnic minority policy” seems like a very modern sub-head for a historian to use in describing something that happened in the 1400s. Does he mean that from the 1400s up until the advent of socialism, the relationships among ethnic groups in Vietnam were antagonistic but now that socialism is here, it’s over, and there’s nothing new to be said?

The majority of the Viet Nam population is from the Kinh group: 85%. There are 53 other different minority groups that make up 15% of the population. They speak dialects of languages belonging to five different language groups. One language group – Australo-Asian – is similar to Vietnamese; the others are more similar to Sanskrit, Sino-Tibetan or groups I have never heard of. The Kinh are everywhere: “We are Kinh,” said a colleague, gesturing around the room to include his whole faculty. I asked how you could tell if someone was some other ethnicity: do they look different? Yes, apparently, but not in a way I can discern.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pine Ridge, and Black Lives Matter

I started writing this post around Thanksgiving Day, 2015 and now it’s more than two months later, February 2016. Around Thanksgiving, this American has thoughts about the arrival in Massachusetts of my English ancestors, about Pine Ridge ( and about Black Lives Matter. As inequality increases in the US, the lives of minorities get harder. Viet Nam is committed to an economy that will increase inequality. How will this affect the lives on minority people? However, mentioning this to Vietnamese in the context of ethnic minority policy produces the blankest of blank stares.

I have been hoping for some more clarity before posting my thoughts.

Are there prejudices that make minority progress difficult?

In the January 31, 2016 issue of Viet Nam News, the National English Language Daily, (obviously written for an English-phile readership, since there is a glossary on page 12 keyed to an article about the Sacred Turtle of Reclaimed Sword Lake, who died) there is a full-page article about how a tug-of-war contest, a traditional part of an ethnic minority agricultural festival, has been awarded UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status. The description of the contest includes the following:

The local people believe that if the team that faces the south wins, the weather will be good throughout the year and they will get bumper crops. If the team facing the north wins, they believe that they will get only a good white bean crop, while the rest of will not be that good.

They really believe that? This is a statement from the same newspaper that has a full-page article explaining why Norway, despite having become rich from the North Sea oil, will not be affected by the drop in price of oil: the oil revenue has been invested at 4% and the interest, not the original revenue, is what Norway is spending. Do I need to put on a different hat to read each article?

Last night at dinner in Hanoi with a young couple who have been involved in education and education assessment in Viet Nam for a long time, we learned the word used by the Kinh people to refer to ethnic minority people: Dan Toc. With a hat on both the “a” and the “o” and a dot under the “o”, and the “D” is pronounced as a “z”. It means: those people, the local people, the stupid ones, those other people, the ones that can’t think very much. This word is used easily without self-consciousness in ordinary conversation.

The woman who told us this is Vietnamese but grew up among Hmong people. Both of them have experience working for the Vietnamese government and with ethnic minority communities in NGO-type poverty alleviation programs.

An Ethnic Minority Village and a Performance

Around Thanksgiving we went to Da Lat City with Vinh and Tinh. They took us first to an “ethnic minority village” and then to an “ethnic minority performance.”

The village, Cau Lan, was about 26 K out of Da Lat by taxi. Da Lat is in the Central Highlands. You bought a ticket to go in a gate and then down many steep flights of stairs through beautiful jungle, across a bamboo suspended bridge, and then along a small pretty stream past thatch-roof houses and out onto what looked like a big playing field. A jeep full of tourists came rattling down the stream bed splashing everyone and making mud.

From all the informational signs I could read, this may have once been an actual ethnic minority village. Now it is a retreat center used for conferences, team-building and tourism. There is a restaurant and a gift shop. To experience a stilt house, you climb up a ladder, but the top of the ladder was a large female boob, so to get off the top of the ladder you have to grab the boob. Inside the stilt house were some life-size wooden carved statues including one of a tiger apparently raping a woman. You could probably sculpt a tiger-woman sex scene that looked consensual, but this wasn’t it. There was a restaurant, a meeting room with Gaugin-esque framed paintings, and more carvings, mostly semi-naked women but one large monkey with a limp dick. I began to feel as if I was being entertained by fantasies of primitive sexuality.

The performance, that same evening,  took place in a purpose-built amphitheater. The other group there was a tour bus full of Russians, who had a great time. I was appalled: the ethnic minority members (who were apparently really members of their ethnic minority) first called the men from the audience into a circle and lit torches and started a bonfire, then had the men join them in a circle dance to pretend to go fishing and hunt animals, then had the women come and join a circle dance to do rice planting and getting water from the stream, etc, followed by some other dances. I thought: Is this really what you want to say about this ethnic minority? That it hunts animals and harvests rice? It was like watching a minstrel show.

I guess I was hoping to see something like a play by August Wilson.

“Ethnic minority” may be one of those English words used by Vietnamese because they can be pretty sure what it means to English speakers. I tried explaining “indigenous”, “First Nations,””tribal,” and “Native Americans,” but none of the more nuanced alternatives did the trick. “Local people” is frequent substitute for “ethnic minority,” but on our bike trip, “local people” also meant whoever was living along our route, whether or not they were ethnic minority.

Ethnic Minority Dolls: A book and the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi

We have a book called “Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam” which lists all 54 ethnic minorities, including the Kinh, and tells about where they live, what language group their language belongs to, what kinds of costumes they wear, what their handicrafts are like, whether they are matrilineal or patrilineal, and what their spiritual beliefs are, if any. All are treated equally – 3 to 5 pages for each. They range in population from less that 500 to over a million. Based on this book, you could make a set of dolls for each ethnic minority. No discussion of the anthropological studies that may be going on or have gone on, no evidence that any of the displays were designed by members of the tribes themselves. No mention of the integration or non-integration of ethnic minorities into the Kinh mainstream, loss of indigenous languages, schooling policy, economic development. Although I have heard that there are export processing zones in minority areas – with lower minimum wages – the ethnic minorities are 100% depicted as making a living from selling handicrafts.

We went to the Vietnam Ethnology Museum in Hanoi, which is organized in the same way as the book. It’s thorough. It’s got curving walls. Each minority has its display of garments, handicrafts, a map, tools, sometimes an example of a typical house, and a film of some key celebration. This museum is definitely worth going to. Every minority is treated equally, and each one with the same respect. But it’s as if the curators said, “Let’s stop while we’re ahead.”

This is as if to confirm what Nguyen Kach Vien said: “But antagonism among ethnic groups was to disappear only with the advent of socialism”, or, once socialism had arrived, antagonism among ethnic groups disappeared.

Two great antagonisms disappeared, in other words: the ones involving ethnic minorities vs the 85% of Vietnamese who are Kinh, and the antagonism between labor and employers.

Bringing my experience as an American to what I am looking at in Viet Nam, I feel anxious, as if something is missing.

We are due to visit Sapa, up in the mountains in the north West, along the border with China, in February. Sapa is a central town for a network of towns that are market places for ethnic minorities. I can’t believe that people choose freely to be simply the makers and sellers of labor intensive handicrafts for the tourist market. I can’t believe that we are not looking at a problem coming down the road.


I was so unsure of my reactions to this issue that I postponed posting it until we were actually in Sapa, February 4th (Lorenzo and Massimo’s birthdays!). I will follow it with some of the things I’m thinking now that we’re here.

This is the cabin we got on the Sapa Express. We had the lower bunks. The train leaves Hanoi at 10 pm, arrives in Sapa at 6:30 am. Joe slept fine; I don’t sleep on trains. I get up and wander around (not all that much) and look out the window and try the various bathrooms.

Sapa Express

Addendum written in April: Here is a link posted on Nha Thi Vu’s New Research on Development Issues in Viet Nam email distribution list included this link (this is the only thing I read, there are plenty of others). I read a chapter (#5, I think) on a study of Bihar people int he Central Highlands (probably near where we were in Dalat) that goes into this quite deeply, confirming my worst fears. There are some mentions of the state of things for the Hmong up in Sapa, too. Click on the link for the full free text of the book.

Connected and Disconnected in Viet Nam: Remaking Social Relations in a Post-socialist Nation.

Philip Taylor. ANU Press, 2016.

 Abstract: Vietnam’s shift to a market-based society has brought about profound realignments in its people’s relations with each other. As the nation continues its retreat from the legacies of war and socialism, significant social rifts have emerged that divide citizens by class, region and ethnicity. By drawing on social connections as a traditional resource, Vietnamese are able to accumulate wealth, overcome marginalisation and achieve social mobility. However, such relationship-building strategies are also fraught with peril for they have the potential to entrench pre-existing social divisions and lead to new forms of disconnectedness. This book examines the dynamics of connection and disconnection in the lives of contemporary Vietnamese. It features 11 chapters by anthropologists who draw upon research in both highland and lowland contexts to shed light on social capital disparities, migration inequalities and the benefits and perils of gift exchange. The authors investigate ethnic minority networks, the politics of poverty, patriotic citizenship, and the ‘heritagisation’ of culture. Tracing shifts in how Vietnamese people relate to their consociates and others, the chapters elucidate the social legacies of socialism, nation-building and the transition to a globalised market-based economy. With compelling case studies and including many previously unheard perspectives, this book offers original insights into social ties and divisions among the modern Vietnamese. Free full text



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Questions that someone from the US might ask about the lives of ethnic minority people in Viet Nam

  1. Thank you, Rick. We haven’t made it across the border into any other country; just stayed in Viet Nam the whole time. But the mention of Catholic Vietnamese rings a bell.

  2. Fascinating questions re ethnic minorities! In January we had a very superficial introduction to SE Asia, but it did include an ethnic wedding in northern Thailand (our goddaughter) and a few days in Cambodia (well, OK, Siem Reap, which isn’t typical). Even in northern Thailand, we were seldom out of cities; maybe that is why I found Cambodia so refreshing. Again, full acknowledgement of the superficiality of this experience, but we did stay in a guesthouse run by siblings who survived the Khmer Rouge, and being nosy we also got guides and tuk tuk drivers to share some of their perspectives. One of the common complaints is “the Vietnamese.” Especially the “Catholic” ones. They are seen as buying up businesses and land in Cambodia to the detriment of the natives. Thailand comes in for some of the same badmouthing. Traditionally many people identified as Vietnamese have lived in Cambodia. Some of those Vietnamese were repatriated to Vietnam during Pol Pot and upon returning to Cambodia have found themselves without land rights and constrained to make their homes on the waters of Lake Tonle Sap. This suggests an attitude toward Vietnamese pervades all levels of society and government.

    An outsider, I don’t know how much if this is scapegoating and how much has some basis. I guess one reality is that Cambodia is a small, undeveloped country between two more advanced neighbors. At the same time it was heartening to see the number of local (and international) NGOs (and our guesthouse, Seven Candles) devoted to childhood education, antitrafficking, employment of invalids from the wars, environmental education, fair trade artisanal production, and other causes. Siem Reap is I am sure atypical because of the tourism money from the Angkor temples, but this can only help in the rebuilding of civil society in Cambodia.

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