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The Ethnography of North Vietnam

The Red River delta to the north of Vietnam is highly populated, with over 17 million inhabitants sharing 15,000 sq km (5,800 sq miles) of space, with less than half living in cities. The Red River delta witnessed significant population growth in the 1950s, rising from over six million to more than 14 million. A substantial increase in farm production occurred alongside the population 'explosion', with most of the farm expansion taking place on very small farms.

In the 1930s, Famous French geographer Pierre Gourou (1900-1999) noted that the population density in the delta had occurred despite a lack of industry and trade. Back then, the overpopulation resulted in a low standard for the Tonkinese inhabitants of the Tongkin region of northern Vietnam, previously a part of French Indochina from 1887 to 1946. The population subsisted on intensive farming, with very less by way of industry and trade. However, social and economic transformation in the following years, and the move to a new agrarian system - including the implementation of collectivization, consolidating individual peasant households into collective farms - boosted farm production as well as population density. Today, the Red River delta is Vietnam's second most important rice-producing area, contributing 20% of the national crop.

Port Blair
Radhanagar Beach on Havelock
Havelock Island Beach

Vietnam's ethnic groups

The distinct regions in Vietnam are created on the lines of specific geographies, historical events and cultural traditions. Ethnic Vietnamese occupy the lowlands, while smaller ethnic groups that are culturally and linguistically different from the Vietnamese, have settled in the highlands.

The highland population is divided into northern ethnic groups, who share characteristics with the Tai people of southern China. The southern highland people have an affinity with people living in Cambodia and speaking Mon-Khmer languages, and people in Indonesia and other southeast Asian regions who speak Austronesian languages. The expansion of ethnic Vietnamese southwards from the Red River delta to the Mekong Delta resulted in another variation.

The Vietnamese made a distinction between the northern, central and southern regions, with Hanoi, Hue and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City as respective urban and cultural centers. The French colonial empire also divided the country along similar lines: Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina in the north, center and south respectively.

Vietnam's complex settlement patterns are responsible for its ethnic and linguistic diversity. During the Chinese rule beginning in 111 BC, the Vietnamese majority came heavily under the influence of Chinese culture. The Cham and Khmer minorities were exposed to India's cultural and civilizational influence. The Champa kingdom (present day central and southern Vietnam) was established by the Champ people of Malayo-Polynesian stock who came under both Hindu and Muslim influence in their early history.

Chinese or Indian influence is considerably less among highland groups, which share more of an affiliation to French and American cultures. Increasing tourism has ushered new foreign influences in the highland communities.

Port Blair
Radhanagar Beach on Havelock
Havelock Island Beach

Tribal villages of Hoa Binh

On your Halong Bay and Red River cruise, you will disembark at Hoa Binh, home to various ethnic groups, predominantly the Muong hill tribe.

Muong People

The Muong ethnic group comprises 1.3% of the Vietnamese population. They reside in northern Vietnam's mountainous regions, concentrated in Hoa Binh and hilly areas of Thanh Hoa.

Some ethnologists have posited that the Muong developed independently from the Vietnamese by making the mountains their home, while the Vietnamese settled into the low country and became sinicized. It could explain why, although the Muong belong to the Viet-Muong linguistic group, they share a cultural affinity with Thai ethnic groups.

The Muong people speak the Muong language mainly in a domestic setting, and most are also fluent in Vietnamese. Their writing is based on the Vietnamese alphabet, based on the Latin script and comprising 29 letters, 17 consonants and 12 vowels.

The Muong people follow Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, while also incorporating animistic elements. They believe that evil spirits can be summoned to settle scores against enemies.

The Muong own productive lands in the mountains in proximity to roads, to carry on business activities conveniently. They reside in stilt-houses surrounded by orchards and verdant fields. This residential design is oriented to the hot and humid climate, and also safeguards against predators, snakes and centipedes.

The community grows wet rice, corn and cassava, and breeds cattle and poultry. The people also depend on forest products, including cardamom, lac, mushrooms, wood, honey, bamboo and cinnamon.

The Muong are expert weavers and knitters, their creativity evident in their distinctive traditional dresses. Men wear an indigo shirt buttoned on one side, long pants, a belt, long scarf and turban wrap. The women wear a long, black dress and a brown or white shirt with long sleeves and featuring buttons on the front. The dress is hand woven and decorated with knitting fabric. The embroidered patterns on the hem and belt harmonize with the colors of the dress.

Port Blair
Radhanagar Beach on Havelock
Havelock Island Beach

Hmong and Red Dao

The Hmong people of east and southeast Asia are a subgroup of the Miao people, an ethnic group belonging to South China. Over a million Hmong people live in Vietnam, residing primarily in the mountainous regions along the city's northern borders.

China's Yellow River served as the Hmong people's earliest settlement, and the people subsisted on shifting cultivation, rotating crops until the land became infertile. They grew corn and rice in the lowland areas, and wheat and barley in the highlands.

They were a mobile population, moving to a new area every few years. While this mobility had its benefits, it also made the Hmong vulnerable to ruling authorities. In the late 18th century, as the Han Chinese population expanded, the Hmong people were compelled to move southwards into the mountains along the borders of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.

Those who remained were either killed or subjugated by the Qing dynasty authorities. The Hmong people opposed Chinese and colonial rulers of the time. The communism wave created new problems, driving migration to Laos and Thailand. The Hmong people of Vietnam supported the nationalist independence coalition Viet Minh, who drove the French out of the country. Hmong Christians took the French side, and were eventually forced to leave on account of their solidarity with colonial powers. These groups continue being discriminated against even today.

The Hmong communities are richly diverse, and distinguishable by the colors of their costume. The groups are visually identifiable by their green, white, black or white clothing, with each group practicing its own customs and traditions, which can be more easily witnessed during weddings and festivals.

The other ethnic minority, Red Dao, has made rocky mountains and rugged terrains of Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lai Chau and Bac Thai its home. The Dao are divided into different subgroups, identifiable by their clothing, customs and practices.

The Dao are closely related to the Yao, an ethnic minority in China, whose origins can be traced back 2000 years to the primeval forests of Yunan. The Dao's historical patterns forced them to adapt to different environmental and social conditions. The Dao religion is influenced by Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism. The Dao people worship their ancestors and Ban Vuong, their earliest ancestor.

Dao women wear colorfully embroidered blouses and trousers, accessorizing with a red turban embellished with red tassels and silver coins. The men wear a short shirt and long trousers, as well as a head scarf. A square piece of fabric adorns the back of shirts, symbolizing that they are the children of god.

The Dao community is patriarchal, with men taking the lead in family, economy, new home constructions and ceremonies. They follow an arranged marriage system, where the boy's family brings the proposal, and upon acceptance by the girl's family, the boy's side brings several presents for the wedding ritual. The girl may stay with her husband's family, or the bridegroom may live with his in-laws if they have one or no son. In the latter case, the offspring will take the wife's family name.

The Red River delta is also inhabited by the Viet Kinh ethnic group, which accounts for 87% of the country's population.

Port Blair
Radhanagar Beach on Havelock
Havelock Island Beach

Viet Hai, Thanh Ha and Bat Trang

Another stop on your Halong Bay and Red River cruise, at the heart of the Cat Ba archipelago, is Viet Hai, an isolated village with no more than 300 inhabitants. Following the island's designation as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2004, Viet Hai's tourism value has increased.

Surrounded by jungles and mountains, the tranquil village has a few stilt houses and restaurants that cater to foreign tourists who rest here after exploring the jungle. People get around mostly in bicycles, although you may spot a few old Chinese motorbikes too. Village elders or youngsters volunteer to show tourists around.

The Bat Trang village is famous for its ceramic goods, which generate over $40 million in revenue annually. It has a strong tradition of pottery, being the only commune in the northern delta that isn't primarily dependent on agriculture.

Reference to Bat Trang first appeared in the Complete Annals of Dai Viet, a 15-volume work published in the 15th and 16th centuries, detailing the history of the Vietnamese from 2879 BCE to 1697 CE. According to another theory, people from the Bo Bat Commune - now the Yen Thanh Commune - are said to have settled in this land under the Ly Dynasty (1010 - 1225), setting up a pottery and brick-making unit on the banks of the Red River.

The Thanh Ha pottery village is also renowned for its artwork, a tradition it has maintained for more than 400 years. The village craftsmen are proficient in all matter of pottery and decorative work. The pottery is done manually, using traditional techniques and clay from nearby riverbeds.

The Vietnam Craft Villages Associations says that the country has more than 5,000 trade villages, with over 1,700 recognized as traditional craft villages. The tradition has sustained and thrived through ups and downs, and occupies pride of the place in Vietnam's culture. Over the years, local tradition has come under threat from imported goods. Efforts have been directed to preserve traditional handicrafts, such as by ensuring that trade secrets are handed down from generation to generation.



River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay and Red River

Halong Bay and Red River

Halong Bay - Viet Tri

No Single Supplement on selected dates

10 nights

from US$3,580.50
members from US$2,864.40

River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay and Red River
River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay and Red River

Halong Bay and Red River

Halong Bay - Viet Tri

No Single Supplement on selected dates

10 nights

from US$3580.50
members from US$2864.40

River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay and Red River


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Mark E Helbraun, MD posted in Dec 2019

Loved this overview, as I have traveled extensively on land in Hà Giang Province on medical missions. Wonderful areas for Western travelers!


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