In Depth: The People of Vietnam

From stylish city-dwellers to traditional hill tribes, the population of Vietnam is varied and diverse. Trying to balance its economic and population growth with a fiercely traditional culture is proving to be a challenge. Here's how to experience all walks of life and culture on your trip to the country
 People of Vietnam: Smiling street vendor in Ho Chi Minh
People of Vietnam: Smiling street vendor in Ho Chi Minh

Around 5,000 years ago in the foothills and valleys of the Red River Delta, a distinctive culture emerged that can be traced to the people who now call themselves Vietnamese. This is where the kingdom of Van Lang came into being, considered the cradle of Vietnamese culture. Its line of kings, known as the Hung, were the forefathers of the Vietnamese people

Studies on the origins of the Vietnamese show that the people who settled in the Indochinese Peninsula and its bordering regions most likely came from southern and eastern China, the high plateaux of Central Asia, islands in the South Pacific and also other parts of the world. Vietnam can thus be considered the proverbial melting pot into which the major Asiatic and Oceanic migrations converged.

The main racial groups

Almost 87 percent of Vietnam’s 90 million-strong population lists its ethnicity as Kinh (or Viet) – the commonly accepted term for its main indigenous race – but in reality, most Vietnamese have evolved from a mixture of races and ethnicities over thousands of years. That mixture is the result of repeated invasions from outside Vietnam, particularly from China, along with continual migrations within the country, most commonly from north to south. As a result, you will find in Vietnam today the predominant Kinh as well as distinct ethnic minority groups, like the hill tribes of the northern and central highlands, and small pockets of Cham and Khmer people in the south, whose kingdoms were vanquished by Vietnamese armies from the north.

The Cham people of Vietnam mainly inhabit the Phan Rang and Phan Thiet regions in southern Vietnam. Today they number about 100,000 – but the Champa kingdom was once home to a distinctive culture that lasted for several centuries. Ethnic Khmers, part of the same ethnic stock as Cambodians, number around 900,000 and are concentrated in the Mekong Delta area.

Minority groups have been among the last to reap the rewards of Vietnam’s new-found prosperity – with one exception. Ethnic Chinese, who as recently as the late 1970s were ostracised – if not run out of the country – because of tensions arising from the northern border clash with China, have not only benefited from Vietnam’s economic progress but, in many ways, fuelled the country’s economic growth. This is particularly pronounced in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s main economic hub.

Most of Vietnam’s 1.7 million Chinese, known as Hoa, have adopted Vietnamese citizenship. Most are shopkeepers and businesspeople who settled in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cholon district, which has long flourished as the Chinese community’s primary commercial centre in southern Vietnam. Take a guided tour of the city's Chinatown on Insight Guides' Wonders of Vietnam holiday; a local expert will guide you through the city's unmissable sights. 

The Cham people have always been known for their brightly coloured and very beautiful textiles. Photo: ShutterstockThe Cham people have always been known for their brightly coloured and very beautiful textiles. Photo: Shutterstock

Village and family bonds

Much of Vietnamese culture has been heavily influenced by the Chinese, who colonised Vietnam over 2,000 years ago. Among their number were the usual tyrants and exploiters, but also administrators and teachers who brought with them religions, philosophies, organisational skills, and a written language, the chu han. Discover the influence and effects on Vietnamese culture for yourself as you travel the length of the country on Insight Guides' Ancient Meets Modern holiday

For the people of Vietnam, the family is considered to be a small world unto itself. Deeply influenced by Confucian principles, children are taught the importance of hieu (filial piety) – respecting one’s elders. In fact, it was once enshrined by the law. The family, in turn, is duty-bound to pay homage to its ancestors. A traditional family home would typically have as many as three generations under the one roof: grandparents, parents, married sons with wives and children, and unmarried children. In the event that one member needed money for an investment or for university studies, the entire family would chip in to help. Family connections are strong and the family tree can have dozens of branches.

Traditionally, having a boy in the family was a “must” as the eldest son would assume the duties of his father as head of the family when the latter died. Women were generally brought up for domestic duties, and were less educated than men. Despite growing affluence and gender equality today, especially in urban areas, there is a still a clear preference for boys, as witnessed by the number of sex-selective abortions in the country. Vietnam had an official two-child policy for years; while this is no longer officially the case, local penalties and sanctions may still be applied for a further pregnancy.

Greater prosperity, as well as the inevitable rise in materialism brought by television and the Internet, has spurred a desire for personal independence and individualism among younger Vietnamese. Increasingly, young married couples are buying apartments and moving out of the family home. While the older generation, especially in the north, may cling to Ho Chi Minh’s ideals, Vietnam’s younger generation is far more interested in their iPads than ideology. This shift has caused annoyance among some of Vietnam’s elderly population, who can remember the bombs and destruction. As younger people start to outnumber the old and more and more look for careers in the cities, this divide becomes ever greater. Young Vietnamese now are more confident and embrace fashion, won’t be told whom to date and are more outgoing than their predecessors.

Overall, though, this is still a conservative and traditional country where the new-found wealth has created a gulf between rich and poor. Changing demographics mean that it is Vietnam’s youthful population – 72 percent of its citizens are under 35 years of age – which dominates society, despite the collective influence of the state and that of older generations raised on Confucianist principles during less privileged times.

Many of those who emigrated during and after the war, mainly to the US, Australia, Canada and France, have now returned. Known as Viet Kieu, they were once seen as privileged and the elite, but today they are generally accepted.

Hmong woman and child in Vietnam. Photo: ShutterstockHmong woman and child enjoying a rural Vietnamese lifestyle. Photo: Shutterstock

Vietnamese society

Although the country is now technically united, there are plenty of divisions that are clear to see. North and south view each other with some cynicism. Northerners tend to see Ho Chi Minh City dwellers as business-orientated and keen on displaying their new wealth; southerners claim northerners are tough and lack any sense of fun. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, given that each region took entirely separate paths for so long, yet it would be too simplistic to say the north hangs on to its communist roots while the south retains capitalist dreams. Vietnam may still officially be communist, but the hammer and sickle have been all but forgotten and replaced by the dollar and dong. Want to experience this divide in culture and lifestyle for yourself? Travel the length of Vietnam on Insight Guides' extensive 16-day Very Vietnam adventure

Along with an increasing desire for Western ideals of wealth has come a desire to speak English. Older generations may speak French, Russian or even German, but today’s young people are far more likely to want to learn English; it is the language of business, after all.

Children in urban areas learn English at school and at private language schools. Their confidence with the language and easy interaction with foreigners are noticeable. Teenagers will commonly listen to English songs and watch Hollywood movies on DVD, while everyday speech and online chats are liberally sprinkled with English words and slang. Students are quite likely to approach tourists in major cities for the opportunity to practise their English skills.

But whatever language the people of Vietnam use, almost no subject is taboo (the major exception is political reform in Vietnam). So at your very first encounter with a Vietnamese, you are likely to be asked where you’re from, whether you are married, how much you earn, what car you drive, and so on, in whatever fractured English the speaker can muster. This curiosity should not be misinterpreted as nosiness. There is a genuine fascination with foreigners, especially in the less-visited areas of Vietnam.

The Vietnamese are proud of what their country has achieved. When it comes to China, there is a guarded welcome to improved relations. Trade links are strong and there is talk of economic corridors and economic zones. But old habits die hard, and old wounds still fester, with the disputed Spratly islands a particularly emotive issue.

Sex and marriage

Marriages were once seen as a form of business transaction between two families. Spouses were screened and selected by parents and other senior family members rather than by the prospective partners. These days, it is more common for couples to court each other before the wedding, though family approval is still a symbolic part of the process. Wedding rituals include the bride and her family bringing an odd number of gifts to the groom’s family. Given the tight family structure, a wedding is a huge event in any community. In order to demonstrate this, families often spend far more than they can afford to ensure everyone sees just how lavish their family’s wedding is.

Even today the wife is expected to move to the husband’s house upon marriage. This is a stressful and daunting prospect for any young bride as she is expected to please the whole family and follow the rules of the house.

The people of Vietnam still live in a very traditional country, though not necessarily a prudish one. Pre-marital sex is taboo for the older, more conservative generations, but attitudes are changing rapidly. Internet chat rooms, websites, blogs and columns in the state-run media have become forums for young people to discuss subjects like love, sex and sexual orientation. In the past few years there has been an upsurge in short stories or novels written by female writers on female sexuality.

Cham couple visiting a temple. Photo: Shutterstock

A young Cham couple visit a traditional Vietnamese temple. Photo: Shutterstock


Vietnamese people of all ages love to di choi (go out to play). This means going out to have fun, hanging out with friends at a bar or café, singing karaoke, etc. When Vietnamese di choi, it’s often a case of the more the merrier. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday or a job promotion, they will invite all their friends and partners/spouses out for a meal. Vietnamese typically drink with a meal, so local restaurants are often filled with boisterous drinkers shouting “Tram phan tram” (literally "100 percent") before downing a glass of beer or shot of ruou (rice liquor).

It’s customary for the person who extended the invitation to pick up the tab. In fact, the people of Vietnam rarely split the bill, even if it isn’t a special occasion. Friends are forever trying to grab the bill in cafés and restaurants or surreptitiously bribing the waiter in an attempt to be presented with the bill first.

Street life

Living in cramped houses filled with extended three-generation families means that life often spills onto the streets. Itinerant vendors on bicycles and on foot, streetside barbers, shoeshine boys, not to mention the constant and chaotic flow of traffic, will assail your senses. Even in quieter residential areas, families often gather in the lanes to gossip with neighbours or buy fruit from passing vendors.

With a lot more cars, motorbikes and people than ever before, Vietnam’s major cities suffer from chronic congestion, leading the government to impose restrictions on street activity. Street vendors, shopkeepers and food stalls are perpetually playing hide and seek with local police and district authorities who will confiscate goods – plastic stools, baskets, whatever – if these items are deemed to be blocking traffic or pushing pedestrians onto the road.

Customs and etiquette

Face, and not losing it, is an important part of nearly every Asian culture. In Vietnam, it is particularly crucial. People will go to all sorts of lengths to avoid causing embarrassment to others, and visitors should be particularly mindful of this. Direct criticism and raised voices are ideal ways to lose any argument. When things do go wrong, they can go wrong in spectacular fashion as the Vietnamese have a fiery temperament and public arguments occur far more frequently than in other Southeast Asian countries.

As tourist numbers increase, some values are changing. Vietnamese sometimes have no qualms about overcharging visitors, and no amount of complaining will stop this. If visitors do feel they have been ripped off, polite but firm discussions are the best way to proceed. Alternatively, travelling on an Insight Guides' tailor-made trip will ensure a private guide accompanies you in the most hectic places; browse our ready-made trip itineraries online now. In some areas, a particularly resolute approach is required. The northwestern town of Sa Pa is one such place, as here the Hmong people will follow tourists relentlessly around town in a bid to sell them souvenirs, and polite refusals often fall on deaf ears.

Other customs include never touching somebody on the head, not pointing, passing items with both hands and not touching members of the opposite sex. When eating, be sure not to leave chopsticks poking up in a rice bowl as this resembles incense sticks at a funeral, an extremely offensive sign. If you are invited to a person’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift, such as a basket of fruit – but never wrap it in black or white paper. When eating with people of Vietnam, wait until the oldest member of the party begins to eat before starting to feast. If people do constantly ask your age, they aren’t being rude – they are simply trying to ascertain how to address you, as hierarchy is an important part of Vietnamese culture.

Art students sketching in a Hanoi park. Photo: ShutterstockArt students sketching in a Hanoi park. Photo: Shutterstock


Children begin primary education aged around six and remain there for five years. After this time, students will sit a test, which determines the kind of secondary school they will attend.

At the end of grade 12, students take one more test, which they need to pass to gain their high-school diploma. Getting into university is an important first step towards almost any successful career. Most universities are state-run, though the number of private and foreign-run establishments is increasing.

Vietnam has a literacy rate of more than 90 percent, but the quality of teaching is questionable. Rote-learning and teacher-centred classrooms are the norm. In order to pass classes, many students study after school and so it is not uncommon to be walking home at night and hear a chorus of English coming from a crowded room full of students.

Competitive spirit

Once the working day is done, the people of Vietnam tend to pull on their fitness gear and head outside. Many towns and cities have open areas where locals play badminton, practise t’ai chi or join in mass aerobics. Want to get involved? Talk to our local experts today to add a class or traditional t'ai chi session to your Vietnam holiday. 

Tennis and golf are now the sports of choice for the well-heeled, but football is by the far the most popular working-class sport. Vietnamese men play (and watch) the game with great enthusiasm. In the height of summer, matches are played early in the morning as it would be too hot by the afternoon. It is not uncommon for Vietnamese men to stay up all night to watch European football matches – and then go to work the next day bleary-eyed.

Under the table

Corruption is an entrenched part of Vietnamese society. Palms are greased to skip bureaucratic hurdles, win contracts and invite preferential treatment from people in positions of authority. Even teachers frequently receive “gifts” from parents in the hope their child might receive extra attention at school. When accidents occur, traffic policemen will skip the paperwork and issue a verbal warning in return for an outright bribe.

There are occasional reports of protests and even riots from disgruntled locals, but little changes. The pro-democracy movement Bloc 8406 (so called as it was formed on 8 April 2006) has had some impact, but authorities continue to crack down hard on those who speak out of line. Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly was jailed for eight years in 2007 for supporting the group.

The government is trying to root out corruption, but it’s an uphill task given the fact that it is so deeply ingrained. In the past, Vietnamese would have blamed the war for the country’s poverty; these days, corruption is often cited as the main reason for any perceived ills.

Policeman catching up with the news. Photo: ShutterstockPoliceman catching up with the news. Photo: Shutterstock

Hill tribes

There are 54 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, the bulk of which comprise those hill tribes that inhabit the mountainous areas that extend through much of the length of the country. Each has its own language, lifestyle and heritage. Collectively referred to as the Montagnards (or mountain people) by the French, the hill tribes live in the most remote and inaccessible parts of Vietnam. Although the government has tried to reduce poverty and provide access to education and other facilities, the hill tribes have been left behind in Vietnam’s race towards modernisation.

Fully aware of the lucrative potential of tourism, the government has encouraged the hill tribes to preserve their traditional identity and heritage. Northern hill tribes such as the Hmong, Dao and Tai in particular have successfully tapped into Vietnam’s growing tourism industry, offering homestay accommodation and producing handicrafts for sale, which you can experience authentically on Insight Guides' Very Vietnam trip. The hill tribes living in the central highlands, however, do not feature on many tourist itineraries. Much of this region is sensitive, and there have been uprisings over land disputes and accusations by international human rights groups of religious oppression.

The following text identifies the major groups.   

Tribes in Vietnam's northern highlands


The Dao (pronounced “Zao”) people of Vietnam first arrived from China in the 18th century. Part of the Hmong-Dao language group, they number about 630,000 and are found all across Vietnam’s northern provinces, living in large villages or small isolated hamlets and cultivating rice using the slash-and-burn method. The Dao can also be broken up into subgroups based on customs and the women’s clothing. These include the Dao Quan Trang (White Trousers Dao), Dao Ao Dai (Long Tunic Dao), Dao Dau Troc (Shaven-Headed Dao) and Dao Do (Red Dao). The Red Dao wear a striking scarlet turban decorated with tassels or bells.

The Dao are expert artisans and highly skilled at making their own paper. For centuries they have used Chinese characters to record their genealogies, popular songs and rhymes, as well as folk tales and fables. The women plant cotton, which they weave and then dye with indigo. Dao embroidery is worked directly onto the cloth from memory, the traditional designs fixed in the weavers’ minds.


The Hmong, or Meo, who number about 800,000, are found in villages known as giao throughout the highlands of northern Vietnam. Unrest and warfare encouraged the Hmong to migrate to Vietnam from the southern Chinese kingdom of Bach Viet at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Hmong minority group has been subdivided into branches classified by women’s costume, dialect and customs. For example, the Hmong of Sa Pa are called Black Hmong because of their predominantly black clothing. The most colourful sub-group are the Flower Hmong, found in large numbers around Bac Ha in Lao Cai province, who wear bright-coloured clothes with embroidery.

Corn is the main staple of Hmong people, but rice is often grown on terraces watered with the aid of irrigation. Hemp is grown to be woven into textiles, and cotton is also cultivated in some villages. As skilled artisans, the Hmong produce a variety of items, including handwoven indigo-dyed cloth, paper, silver jewellery, leather goods, baskets and embroidery. The Hmong have no written language. Their legends, songs, folklore and proverbs have been passed down from one generation to the next through the spoken word.


Numbering around 1.2 million, the Muong people of Vietnam inhabit the mountainous parts of Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa provinces. They are most closely related to the Kinh majority. Ethnologists believe that the Muong remained in the mountains and developed independently, while the majority Kinh moved to the lowlands and became influenced by Chinese culture after the 11 BC invasion led by the Han emperor Wu Ti.


The Nung share the same language, culture and customs as the Tay (see below). Numbering about 875,000, they live in Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces in the northeast bordering China. They are known for their rich folk-art traditions, including music and poetry, as well as a variety of handicrafts. 

The Nung people are known for their rich folk-art traditions. Photo: ShutterstockThe Nung people are known for their rich folk-art traditions. Photo: Shutterstock

San Chi

There are more than 150,000 San Chi living in villages mainly in Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang and Bac Tai provinces, but they are also found in certain regions of Lao Cai, Yen Bai, Vinh Phu, Ha Bac and Quang Ninh provinces. They are of the Tay-Tai language group and arrived from China at the beginning of the 19th century. San Chi ritual dances are elaborate: boys and young girls perform traditional love songs in festivities that can last all night.


The highlands of northern Vietnam are home to the 1.5 million-strong Tay, Vietnam’s largest minority group. Tay villages are found in the provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Tai, Quang Ninh, Ha Giang and Tuyen Quang, and also in the Dien Bien Phu region. Their villages, or ban, are located in valleys near flowing water, where they build their houses, usually on stilts. A patriarchal society, the Tays cultivate a variety of crops, including rice, tobacco, spices and a variety of fruit on the steep mountainsides. Although the influence of Vietnam’s dominant Kinh culture is evident in their customs and traditions, the Tay people of Vietnam prefer to speak in their own indigenous language.


There are more than 1.3 million Tai living along the Song Hong (Red River), in the northwest of Vietnam, often together with other ethnic minorities. Their bamboo or wooden stilt houses are constructed in two distinct styles. The Black Tai build homes shaped like tortoise shells, while the White Tai construct rectangular dwellings. The women wear long, black sarongs and short tops with silver buttons. They are skilled weavers and produce beautiful embroidery using motifs of flowers, birds, animals and dragons.

A Vietnamese fisherman and his boat. Photo: ShutterstockA Vietnamese fisherman and his boat. Photo: Shutterstock

Tribes from Vietnam's southern and central highlands


The Bahnar (also spelt Ba Na), one of Vietnam’s poorest ethnic groups, live primarily in the central highland provinces of Gia Lai and Kon Tum as well as the coastal provinces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen. There are around 180,000 Bahnar people, for whom life revolves around a traditional calendar, in which 10 months are set aside for cultivation and the remaining two months for social and personal duties such as marriage, weaving, ceremonies and festivals. One of their unique traditions is the ear-piercing ceremony. When babies turn a month old, their ear lobes are pierced, signifying the official acceptance of the child as a member of the village. Those who die without ear piercings are believed to be banished to a land of monkeys headed by a black-eared goddess called Duydai. 

Jarai (Gia Rai)

The Jarai, or Gia Rai, numbering around 320,000, live in the central highland provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Dak Lak. These people of Vietnam belong to the Malay-Polynesian language group and arrived in the Tay Nguyen highlands around 2,000 years ago. They live a sedentary lifestyle in villages known as ploi, or sometimes bon. Jarai villages, with at least 50 homes, are built around a central nha rong, a communal house. The community has small matriarchal families. 

Young Jarai girls take the first step in choosing a marriage partner, making their approach through an intermediary. The promise of marriage is sealed with the exchange of bronze bracelets, with the ceremony proceeding in three steps. First, the bracelet-exchanging rite is performed in front of the two families and the intermediary. Then the young couple’s dreams are interpreted, a ritual that predicts their future prospects. Finally, the wedding ceremony is held at the home of the groom’s parents.

Rhade (Ede)

The Rhade, or Ede, found mainly in Dak Lak province in the central highlands, number more than 270,000. Like the Jarai, they belong to the Malay-Polynesian language group. They live in wooden longhouses built on stilts in villages known as buon. Each longhouse shelters a large matriarchal family under the authority of a koa sang, the most senior and respected woman. She directs community affairs, settles internal conflicts, and is also responsible for the safekeeping of all the communal heirlooms, especially the bronze gongs and ancient jars used for preparing rice beer for important festivals. The village’s autonomous organisation is run by the po pin ea, the chief who is elected to take care of its communal affairs.

The Rhade employ slash-and-burn techniques to clear the land for agriculture. Rice, the main crop, is cultivated along with sugar cane, melons, cotton and tobacco. Nearly every village has its own forge to produce and repair metal farming implements. Basketry, pottery and indigo cloth are produced by the Rhade for their own use.

Lowland minorities

Numbering around one million people, the Khmer Krom are ethnic Cambodians who live around the Mekong Delta. Reports claim that the Khmer Krom are one of the more persecuted groups, forced to speak Vietnamese. Authorities allow some limited television programmes to be broadcast in Khmer, but there are reports that those who try to privately access Cambodian channels end up in trouble. 

There are around 100,000 Cham still in Vietnam, the remnant of a once-great empire. For more on the Cham.There are some 1.7 million Ethnic Chinese (Hoa), mostly clustered in the main urban centres. 

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