With the gradual ascent of the Viet (Kinh) peoples in the region that was eventually shaped into modern Vietnam, many of the indigenous tribes who had shared habitation of the land held onto their traditions by retreating to the country’s most remote and upland areas, where they could continue with their lives largely unaffected by the developing mainstream of Vietnamese national affairs.

In the modern era, many of these traditions continue and, particularly in the north, are a major attraction for tourists, though the reliance on tourist dollars has inevitably had an effect on the genuineness of behaviour amongst some elements of these communities.

Another threat to the continuation of these traditional lifestyles, which is seen in ethnic societies all over the world, is the seduction of the young by the modern world of the smartphone and moneyed celebrity culture of the cities.

The largest of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities are the Tay peoples, who are thought to have flourished in Vietnam since at least 5OO BC, comprising around 2% of the present population, and who are themselves made up of several related groups, such as the Ngan, Phen, Tho, Pa Di and Thu Lao ethnic strains.

The traditional lands of the Tay are the in the northeastern provinces of Quang Ninh, Ha Giang, Bac Kan, Lang Son, Cao Bang, Yen Bai and Lao Cai, where rice farming is their principal livelihood, along with raising cattle and chickens, operating under a feudal system, typically living in large villages of several hundred stilted houses.

The Tay traditionally favour less colourful dress than other of the famous ethnic groups of Vietnam, and wear blank headdresses and indigo dyed cotton clothes with reserved embroidered flourishes, though they are famed for the quality of their patterned brocade. They are also known for their folk songs, poetry and puppetry.

The next largest grouping of Vietnam’s ethnic patchwork are the Thai peoples, almost rivalling the Tay in numbers, who are formed of two distinct sub-groups, White Thai and Black Thai, distinguished by the headscarves of the women. The White Thai predominate in the provinces of Lao Cai, Lai Chau and Mai Chau, while the Black Thai reside in the largely in the areas of Son La, Yen Bai and Mai Chau.

In the modern age, the traditional colourful and artfully embroidered costumes of the Thai are largely worn only by the womenfolk, accented with a distinctive row of silver buttons, whereas men have largely adopted the Viet style, though they do still resort to traditional dress for ceremonial events or cultural performances.

The Thais are traditionally rice farmers, but also grow corn, cotton and mulberry. Their distinct language is based on the Sanskrit style, and vouchsafes their traditions and history for future generations, including their animist and ancestor belief system.

Another of Vietnam’s largest ethnic communities is the H’mong, who are likewise, within themselves, a diverse group, subdivided into Black H’mong, White H’mong, Flower H’mong Red H’mong, and Green H’mong are relative newcomers to Vietnam having come over the border from China in the eighteenth century into the areas of Sapa and Lao Cai, where they are now the dominant ethnic minority, making them one of the best known groups to foreign visitors.

The H’mong use horses as their main transport and farm rice, corn and wheat, along with potatoes, beans, peanuts, flax and various fruits, even at one time trading in the poppy, which they also at one time smoked, now replaced with tobacco which forms a formal part of their social interaction.

As well as breeding horses, the H’mong raise water buffalos, cows, pigs and Chickens and have a thriving craft industry, producing saddles, wooden furniture, textiles, embroidery, batik, rice paper and silver jewellery.

H'mong traditional dress is colourful, and finely embellished with quilting and embroidery, differing between the various groups, with the flower H’mong being the most ornate dressers.

Typical H’mong villages are comprised of a few dozen one-storey households, socially ruled by the village headman and the patriarch of each family. Ancestor worship and Animism are at the core of their ritual observances, with each house having a family altar.

Another of the main cultural groups familiar to visitors of Vietnam are the Dao peoples, also occupying the northern mountains, with a language which shares its origins with the H’mong in China.

The Dao are older inhabitants of Vietnam, having made the journey from China from the 12th century AD, bringing with them syncretic beliefs derived from Chinese folk traditions along with Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism claiming their descent from the legendary sage, Ban Vuang, who features at the core of their ancestor worship.

Again denominated into numerous subgroups, such as Red, Black, and Coin, the Dao share the industrious enterprise of the H’mong, producing a wide range of crafts, including silver jewellery, paper, fabrics, bees wax batik, betel nut boxes, farming implements and even rifles.

Crop production includes rice, corn and vegetables, including sweet potatoes, along with tobacco, cane sugar and fruit oils. Livestock includes buffalo, cows, pigs, horses, chickens and goats. Some Dao tribes, however, remain nomadic.

Their clothes are artfully and colourfully embroidered, often embodying deigns from nature such as birds, animals, trees and leaves.

Other sizeable groups found in northern Vietnam are the Nung people, related to the Tay and Thai groups, who also migrated from China in the eighteenth century, the Giay people and the Muong People, who share a heritage of relation to the Viet peoples, along with tribes such as the Hoa and Cheut minorities.

Elsewhere in Vietnam, more of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups survive and retain many of their traditions within the structure of the modern country, but are typically more integrated into mainstream society than the tribes of the north and, except during special ceremonies, are often indistinguishable in attire from most Vietnamese people.

In central Vietnam, the most dominant ethnic minorities are Jarai, Ede, Bahnar, Sedang, Hre, Coho Raglai, Mnong, and Stieng. The communal Rong houses and stilted villages of the central highlands are a characteristic legacy common to the ethnic groups of the area, the most splendid of which are those of the Bahmar.

The ceremonious tribal dances of the central highlands, to the accompaniment of drums, gongs and flutes, in contrast to those of the agricultural festivities found in the north, are based more upon their historic hunter-gatherer and river-fishing traditions, having a more typically jungle style tribal costumery and ritual displays which often end with the sacrifice of a buffalo.

Another common difference, again in contrast to the patriarchal northern groups, is the matrilineal nature of family inheritance, with the family name and fortune passed through the mother.

The Sedang people were the most warlike of these tribes, and once used to practice human sacrifice, with their warlike attributes much in demand by all sides during the Indochinese wars.

Along the central coast, a population of Cham people still carry on their traditions, though many fled to Cambodia to escape earlier persecution. The Cham once ruled supreme in the southern and central areas of the country, before the Viet gradually defeated and subsumed their empire. Similarly, southern Vietnam is home to a substantial minority of Mon-Khmer descendants, whose ancestors were at the heart of the once mighty Cambodian empire of Angkor.

Part of the Mon-Khmer group are the Ma, who inhabit areas of Lam Dong, northeast of Saigon, and still retain many of their village traditions, though the great long houses of old, which used to measure a hundred metres in length have disappeared in favour of more modest buildings.  

As a slash and burn economy, the Ma place great importance on the cult of the fire god, among other animist practices. Common ritual behaviours include the filling of teeth and the piercing and elongation of earlobes, within which large ivory rings are traditionally worn.

Ethnic discrimination does exist in Vietnam, as everywhere else, and there are derogatory terms in fairly widespread circulation for ethnic communities, who are often disparaged as ‘backward’ by some modern Vietnamese.

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s minorities are protected in law, and are not generally abused or persecuted by the majority, though limits on opportunities and economic advancement inevitably result from linguistic and educational differences.