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Ethnic Diversity in Vietnam – What Race are Vietnamese?

Vietnam is a South-East Asian country with a high diversity of different ethnic groups. There are 54 recognized ethnicities, speaking over 100 different languages (Eberhard et al. 2019), some with less than 1000 individuals left eft.

While many of these ethnic groups may look similar to outsiders, they have different ancestral origins and different pathways to modern-day Vietnam. The dominant ethnic group in Vietnam are the Viet (or “Kinh“), who comprise 86% of the population. The country and language are named after the Viet. They’ve ruled what is now North Vietnam throughout various Viet dynasties over the past 2000 years.

Other minority-groups are more dominant in remote highland or mountain areas, such as the H’Mmong, Cham, Tai, ethnic Chinese, and other groups. Increasingly in modern-times, as well as in the past, many individuals from diverse ethnic minorities choose to assimilate into the dominant Viet identity and culture as they migrate to the economic-hubs in urban low-land areas.

Map of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities
Map of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Source UN

Currently, the Vietnamese government’s official policy is to celebrate ethnic diversity and promote the traditional cultures of ethnic minorities. This is after a long period of official assimilation and colonization. For example, Viet rulers once offered ethnic Kinh free land and incentives to relocate and develop land where ethnic-minorities once dominated.

What are the ancient origins of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups? In this post, we review some of the entholinguistic and genetic evidence about Vietnamese people and where they come from.

Kinh: Ancestral Origins of Vietnam’s Dominant Group

The Kinh are the dominate ethno-cultural group of modern-day Vietnam. The Kinh flourished in the lowlands of Northern Vietnam along the Red River (e.g. modern Hanoi).

The Kinh came to prominence over the course of two millennial of conquest and colonization of other kingdoms and ethnic groups, especially the Cham people of central/southern Vietnam and various Khmer-kingdoms near modern-day Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia. Vietnamese history is suffused with wars and skirmishes between groups in what is now South and Central Vietnam. For instance, the image below shows the time-line of expansion of the ruling Viet elites (“Nguyễn lords”) into South Vietnam over multiple centuries.

Map of Vietnam, and the movement of Viet rulers to take over the south and Ho Chi MInh City/Saigon
Timeline of Viet expansion into now-South Vietnam (Nam = year).

Deeper in time, the origins of the Kinh are more hypothetical. Currently, scientists think that the Kinh are not an indigenous group, but arrived to Vietnam from an ancient group related to the Dong Son culture in what is now southern China (Blench 2017). In particular, the Kinh do not seem to share ancestry with the mesolithic “Hoabinhians” — the ancient inhabitants that once dominated South East Asia for tens of thousands of years.

Modern-day Kinh seem to be genetically mixed with many of the other ethnic groups in Vietnam. In particular, researchers point-out their centrality in genetic-clusterings among all other Vietnamese groups (Macholdt et al 2020).

Genetic similarity amoung different ethnic groups in Vietnam, with the dominant Kinh sitting near the centre. From Liu et al 2020. DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msaa099

This genetic mixing may be due to many centuries of inter-marriages. Most likely, it is due to the assimilation of other ethnic groups into the dominant Vietnamese culture and indentity. For instance, the high prevalence of the family-name “Nguyễn” is thought to be a result of ethnic minorities voluntarily adopting the name in order to blend in with the Kinh culture and/or to avoid persecution during the Nguyễn dynasties.

Cham People of Vietnam

The Cham people are a large and distinct ethnic group in Vietnam, especially in Central and Southern Vietnam. Throughout history, there were large Champa kingdoms, peaking in the 7th to the 10th centuries, when they rose to comparative prominence as major traders. Over millennia of warfare, the Champa eventually fell to the Viet of the North and were marginalized. Their artifacts, architecture, and religious iconography are vaguely Indian in style, and various dynasties were Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist.

There are hints of Cham’s ancient from their language: the Chams speak a variant of the “Austronesian” language family, which includes groups from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Madagascar. The language is most similar to the Aceh people of Indonesia (Thurgood 1999). It is suggested that the original Chams came from settlers from Indonesia around the time of the Sa Huynh culture. (Reinecke, 2022)

TIP: learn about the Sa Huynh Culture at the Hoi An Museum

Genetic studies confirm this Island-Asiatic origin of the Cham people — there is even evidence of connections with India. However, after their arrival, there has been “extensive interacting” with other mainland East Asian groups, with whom modern-day Cham share a lot of ancestry.

Nonetheless, the Cham and other Vietnamese ethnic minorities, such as the Ede and Giarai, form a distinct genetic cluster that is most dissimilar from the Kinh, Khmer, Thai, Chinese, and other groups. Unlike most other Vietnamese ethnic groups, including the dominant Kinh, the Cham do not show any “excess ancestry” with the Chinese Han. (Dang et al 2020).

Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien Groups in Vietnam

The Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien language groups make-up a large cluster of somewhat-related ethnic minority groups in Northern Vietnam and across southern China and SE Asia. Tai-Kadai include groups like Tay, Colao, Boy, Lachi, Nung — groups that dominate Thailand and neighbouring Laos. The Hmong-Mien language groups includes the famous H’mong, as well as the Pathen and Dao, and many other groups in China.

Tip: To witness the incredible diversity of Vietnam’s minority peoples’, visit Ha Giang and the plateaus of Dong Van, where there are >20 ethnic groups in close proximity. Read more here.

Both families are thought to have originated around 1200 BC, in what is now southern China, and possibly in northern Vietnam for the Tai-Kadai branch (Edmondson and Gregerson 2007; Sidwell 2014). The beginning of their separate migrations into South-East Asian is dated to around 500 BC.

Map of the ancient migration of Tai-Kadai language group into Vietnam
Map of the ancient migration of Tai-Kadai peoples. Source Gerner.

Multiple genetic studies reveal that the two groups show only slight differentiation from each other. Otherwise, they are genetically overlapping and have high inter-relatedness with the Kinh and Muong and Khoumu.

Sino-Tibetian Ethnic Groups in Vietnam

There are many ethnic minority peoples in Vietnam who speak a language within the Sino-Tibetan family (aka, “Chinese”). These include groups like the Cong, Sila, Hanhi, Phula, Lolo, and Lahu. Many trace their origins to neighbouring Laos. They are most prevalent in the mountainous areas of Northern Vietnam, close to the Laos and Chinese border.

The genetic profile of these groups show a distinct clustering away from the other Vietnamese groups. Some individuals are more related to Tungusic and Mongolic ethnic groups from China and Siberia, instead of Vietnamese (such as the Sila ethnic minorities), where others, such as the Phula and Lolo, are more inter-mixed with Kinh, Hmong, and Mien ethnic groups. Interestingly, the latter groups live at lower elevations than the other Sino-Tibetan speakers.

Although these people are related to and speak a Chinese-relate language, the Sino-Tibetan minorities of Vietnam do not not identify as ethnic Chinese (there are other distinct groups in Vietnam that do). Instead, these ethnic minorities are thought to have migrated out of northern China around 1000 BC (Sidwell 2014).

Ethnic Chinese in Vietnam

Across the centuries, there have been multiple waves of Chinese people who’ve laid-down roots in Vietnam. Excluding periods of Chinese invasion and occupation (e.g. the Ming–Đại Ngu War), three prominent sources of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were the Ming Loyalists, the Hoa, and refugees from Communism. There are many other lesser-known Chinesse groups who are present in the mountainous border-regions of Vietnam.

Minh Huong

In the mid-1600’s, a group of Ming Loyalists fled China following the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the rise subsequent rise of the Manchus — one of the world’s bloody periods in which nearly 25 million people died. The Ming settled in what is now South Vietnam, and became known as the Minh Huong. Under the deliberations of the ruling Vietnamese Nguyễn Lords, the Ming Chinese were actively resettled into lands formerly occupied by the defeated Cham and Khmer people, whereupon they pledged fealty to the Nguyễn Dynasty.

Hoa

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, a group of successful ethnic Chinese grew to commercial and societal prominence in Vietnam. They were known as the Hoa. They were traders and businessmen and were more insular from the surrounding Vietnamese. Many maintained ties to China, inasmuch as they faciliated trade between Vietnam and Chinese.

On a class basis, the Hoa also made-up a disproportiate share of Vietnam’s middle- and upper-class. For example, it is estimated they owned more than 70% of the privately-owned business in Saigon before the city’s fall under Reunification of North and South Vietnam (Country Data 2012). Many Hoa came to be hated as “capitalists”, had their property and businesses confiscated under Socialism, and many fled as refugees to places like the USA, Australia and Canada.

Refugees from Communism

Another important group of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were refugees who arrived starting in the late 1940’s following the retreat of the Kuomintang from mainland China and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as later during Mao’s brutal cultural revolutions. The persecution of “Rightists” such as landlords, merchants, business-owners, midde/upper-class, Western-sympathizing intellectuals, and others who were declared “capitalist vermin to be eliminated”, sought refuge in Vietnam. Prior to 1950, such people retained their Chinese citizenship and identity. Such citizenship has since been revoked by the CCP.

Hoabinhians – The Ancient Indigenous Group of Vietnam and Malaysia

The Hoabinhians were a mesolithic group of people who dominated Vietnam and the rest of South East Asia from 10,000 BC until perhaps 2000 BC. They were replaced by the ancestors of contemporary SE Asians. The name ‘Hoabinhians’ is derived from Vietnam’s Hòa Bình district, where French archaeologists studied the ancient people’s stone artifacts and cave refuse.

Many modern SE Asian peoples share a little ancestry with the the Hoabinhians, including many of the different ethnic groups in Vietnam (the Kinh being a notable exception; Liu et al 2020). Ancient genetic samples from the Hoabinh culture suggest that the Hoabinhians are most closely related to Asian ethnic minorities like the Malaysian Semang people and Thai Sakai people, and the Andaman Island peoples in India.

Citations

Blench RM. 2017. “Origins of ethnolinguistic identity in Southeast Asia”. In: Habu J, Lape PV, Olsen JW, editors. “Handbook of East and Southeast Asian Archaeology.” New York: Springer Nature. p. 733–753.

Dang Liu, Nguyen Thuy Duong, Nguyen Dang Ton, Nguyen Van Phong, Brigitte Pakendorf, Nong Van Hai, Mark Stoneking, 2020. “Extensive Ethnolinguistic Diversity in Vietnam Reflects Multiple Sources of Genetic Diversity”, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 37(9):2503-2519, DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msaa099

Eberhard DM, Simons GF, Fennig CD. 2019.”Ethnologue: languages of the World”. 22nd ed. Dallas (TX): SIL International.

Edmondson JA, Gregerson KJ. 2007. The languages of Vietnam: mosaics and expansions. Lang Linguist Compass 1(6):727–749. DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00033.x

Gerner, M. “Genetic Connections between Tai, Kadai and Austronesian Languages.” SEALS 25 Abstracts: 22. LINK

Macholdt, E, Arias, L, Duong, NT. et al. 2020 “The paternal and maternal genetic history of Vietnamese populations.” Eur J Hum Genet 28: 636–645. DOI: 10.1038/s41431-019-0557-4

Reinecke, A. 2022. “The Sa Huynh Culture and Related Cultures in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia.” In: Higham, Charles F.W. and Kim Nam C. “The Oxford Handbook of Early Southeast Asia”. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199355358.013.29

Sidwell P. 2014. “Southeast Asian mainland: linguistic history”. In: Bellwood P, editor. The “global prehistory of human migration”. Malden (MA): John Wiley & Sons. p. 259–268.

Thurgood, G. 1999. From Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects. ISBN 9780824821319.

Country Data. 2012. “Vietnam: Internal Commerce”. 2012. “Vietnam–Internal Commerce”. Mongabay.com

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