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The People of Vietnam

Ethnolinguistic groups

Vietnam has one of the most complex ethnolinguistic patterns in Asia. The Vietnamese were significantly Sinicized during a millennium of Chinese rule. Vietnamese, one of the Mon-Khmer languages of the Austro-Asiatic language family, exhibits strong Chinese influence.

Indian influence is found among the Cham and Khmer minorities. The Cham, whose language belongs to the Austronesian language family, formed the majority population in the Indianized kingdom of Champa in what is now central Vietnam from the 2nd century to the late 15th century AD. Small numbers of Cham remain in the south-central coastal plain and in the Mekong delta near the Cambodian border. The Khmer (Cambodians), whose language is one of the Mon-Khmer languages, are scattered throughout the Mekong delta.

Many other ethnic groups inhabit the highlands. While cultures vary considerably in the central highlands, shared characteristics include a traditional way of life still largely oriented around kin groups and small communities. Known collectively by the French as Montagnards ("Highlanders"), these peoples have affinities with other Southeast Asians. Many groups--such as the Rade (Rhade), Jarai, Chru, and Roglai--speak Austronesian languages, linking them to the Cham, Malay, and Indonesian peoples; others--including the Bru, Pacoh, Katu, Cua, Hre, Rengao, Sedang, Bahnar, Mnong, Mang (Maa), and Stieng--speak Mon-Khmer languages, affiliating them with the Khmer. Highlanders have experienced little Chinese or Indian influence, but they were exposed to Western (French and then American) influence from the late 19th century until the early 1970s. French missionaries and administrators provided roman script for some of the Montagnard languages, and additional orthographies have been devised since. The Montagnards have exhibited an intense desire to preserve their own cultural identities.

The various groups in the uplands of northern Vietnam have ethnolinguistic affiliations with peoples in Thailand, Laos, and southern China. The largest of these are the tribal Tai (Thai) groups who speak Tai languages and generally live in upland valleys. Hmong (Miao, or Meo) and Mien groups, who speak languages of the Sino-Tibetan language family, are scattered at higher elevations.


Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism flowed into Vietnam over many centuries. Gradually they became intertwined, simplified, and Vietnamized to constitute, along with vestiges of earlier animistic beliefs, a Vietnamese folk religion that came to be shared to some considerable extent by all Vietnamese, regardless of region or social class. Animistic beliefs are held by many tribal peoples. During the 1920s the syncretic religion of Cao Dai appeared, and in the 1930s the Hoa Hao neo-Buddhist sect spread through parts of the Mekong delta.

Roman Catholicism was introduced into Vietnam in the 16th century and spread rapidly following the French conquest in the mid-19th century. The heaviest concentrations of Roman Catholics in Vietnam once were in the north, but many fled to the south after the partition of the country in 1954. Protestantism came to Vietnam in 1911 and spread mainly among small segments of the urban population in the central and southern regions.

In 1954 all foreign Roman Catholic clergy were expelled from North Vietnam, leaving only native priests. The North Vietnamese government tried to supplant organized religion with its own patriotic Buddhist, Cao Dai, Catholic, and Protestant religious organizations; Catholic clergy and membership renounced their allegiance to Rome. With the conquest of South Vietnam by North Vietnam, all foreign Christian clergy were expelled. The country's current constitution has guaranteed freedom of religion, though in practice government controls have been relaxed only gradually.

Demographic trends

Vietnam's population has grown rapidly since reunification in 1975. As a result, an increasing proportion of the population is young.

The migration pattern long has been predominantly from north to south, and more recently there also has been migration from the lowlands to higher elevations and from rural to urban areas. In 1954 nearly one million people moved from north to south. In both the north and the south in the late 1950s, there were programs to resettle ethnic Vietnamese from the lowlands to the uplands. While these programs were discontinued in the south in 1963, they continued in the north; between 1976 and 1980 they were revived throughout the country and greatly intensified, with a significant number of people moving from the south to the central highlands. Since then, however, there has been an overall flow of migrants into Ho Chi Minh City and its environs, as well as into the central highlands. Out-migration has been greatest in parts of the northeast and along the central coastal plain.

Emigration also has been considerable since reunification. Between 1975 and 1990 hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese left the country, both legally and illegally, and an unknown number died at sea. Many have remained in refugee camps in Thailand and other countries, but a large number have emigrated, especially to the United States.


Additional info

The Cham
The Tai
The Miao
Cao Dai





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