The Hani people’s colony © Jeon Haein

Tales of Vietnam’s 15 Percent, Ethnic Minorities
Vietnam is a multiethnic nation made up of 54 distinct groups. The Viet people account for the largest portion of the population at over 85 percent. The rest of the 53 ethnic minorities have unique lifestyles, each with its own language and culture, residing in rural or mountainous areas. Travel writer Jeon Hye-in who lives in Hanoi gives us an overview of the minority culture of Vietnam, including an introduction to the food, clothing, shelter, and religion of ethnic groups, as she tours the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. The last remaining piece of a puzzle to truly understand Vietnam is none other than the 15-percent ethnic population. Here are their stories.
“All mankind has made its best effort to live in a given environment.”
from “An Anthropology Report By An Alien” by Lee Kyung-deok (The book title is tentatively translated.)
In the middle of downtown Hanoi exists an unexpected space. Walking in, it feels as though you’ve just entered a secret garden filled with lush trees and chirping birds. The towering trees create a cool shade under the blazing sun, while a gentle breeze carries the smell of earth and grass. A babbling stream offers a playground for insects and frogs, and glimpses of mysterious-looking houses on the opposite side seen through the bush allure you. An urban location with a pastoral scene that can only be found deep in the mountains is where the ‘Vietnam Museum of Ethnology’ stands with a view to introduce the history and life of ethnic groups in Vietnam.

A pastoral scenery that will put your mind at ease © Jeon Haein

Ethnology is a branch of anthropology that studies the history and culture of different peoples. An ethnic group has its own culture, language, and religion within a single-race nation. Vietnam is a multiethnic nation where 54 ethnicities coexist. Most of the Vietnamese you run across while traveling in big cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang are the Viet people (also known as Kinh). They are the largest ethnic group accounting for over 85 percent of the population. The other 53 ethnicities have established their own lifestyles and practices as they settled in areas that are far from the major cities.

Outside the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology © Jeon Haein

Exhibitions inside the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology © Jeon Haein

The museum, situated in Quan Cau Giay, presents the history and various lifestyles of Vietnamese ethnic minorities. In the Architecture Garden built in the spacious backyard are the replicas of their abodes recreated by the ethnic people themselves using their traditional building techniques.

Graves for the ethnic minorities at the Architecture Garden © Jeon Haein

Nature Gives Food and Shelter
With its land estimated to be approximately 1,650km from north to south, Vietnam has diverse climates that vary across regions. Most of the 53 ethnic minorities dwell in mountain areas in northern Vietnam with a few scattered around the country. Ethnic communities basically make a living through agriculture and livestock farming. They grow crops and fruits seasonally for food supply, and on special occasions or holidays prepare a meat dish that can be shared with neighbors during a communal meal.

People who depend on nature © Jeon Haein

Such dependence on nature becomes more evident when it comes to the matter of shelter. To city dwellers, architecture is a field for experts. With ethnic communities, the same topic means a collaboration of townspeople as they build a house together, using materials collected from nature.

The traditional earth house for the Hani people, characterized by its lack of windows. © Jeon Haein

• Mushroom House by Hani People
Known for their lack of contact with the outside world even among ethnic groups, the Hani people have houses that are simple. Nicknamed ‘mushroom house,’ the earth house is topped with a thatched roof. The appearance of the houses nestled at the foot of a mountain led to the ‘mushroom’ moniker. To withstand the drastic temperature changes in the northern mountainous region of Vietnam, Hanis opted for no window in the house. Instead, a small air hole in the center of the wall takes care of the minimum sunshine and ventilation needs. The 40cm-thick mud-plastered walls protect the family from cold in winter and heat and humidity in summer. Due to the absence of windows, any smoke from the kitchen brazier goes up to the ceiling and blackens it. The Hani people use it reversely to make the earth house sturdier. The smoke functions as a natural preservative and anti-moisture shield for wooden posts and the thatched roof.

Long House by the Ede people, a type of a raised house © Jeon Haein

• Long House by Ede People
Unlike the northern mountainous region, Vietnam’s central and Central Highlands region has hot weather all year long, and local ethnic groups live in raised houses. A raised house uses stilts to lift the bottom of the house to the 1.5-story height to minimize damage from the ground heat, moisture, and insects. In addition, the space under the house often becomes a cage for livestock.
Among various shapes of raised houses, the ones by the Ede people are dubbed ‘long house’ drawing a particular attention. The Ede, who mostly reside in the Dac Lac province, is known to build a house that looks like a long boat. The wide-open layout lets the air flow throughout the house whose design is meant for large families to cohabit. The length of the house increases in proportion to the number of families sharing the space. Some units measured up to 100m in the past. Currently the houses range between 30-40m on average.

Wooden stairs shaped after the female body © Jeon Haein

In the long house, it is easy to find a carving or an object that embodies a female body. Those embellishments are used on the front stairs and pillars of the house as symbols of the matriarchal culture of Ede people. The long house is usually shared by an enlarged family with the mother being the central figure. The oldest woman is ‘khoa sang’ who has the utmost authority in the family as well as the community, and takes care of important family businesses and rules on internal controversies.

The Bana people holding party in front of Nha Rong, their common house © Jeon Haein

The Bana people holding party in front of Nha Rong, their common house © Jeon Haein

• Nha Rong Community House by Ba Na People
The Ba Na people, primarily living in the Kon Tum province of the Central Highlands region, also offer an interesting housing design. Every Ba Na community has a tall house called ‘Nha Rong.’ The huge structure measures 17m in height and the 10m-tall roof has an axe shape which represents the power and authority of the tribe. After all, a lot of manpower is needed to make such a gigantic roof. Nha Rong is a valued tradition and heritage of the Ba Na. It is also crucial in reinforcing the solidarity among community members. All major meetings and parties are held at Nha Rong. Sometimes the building serves as a venue for education.

Beautiful fabric by the ethnic minorities © Jeon Haein

Clothing, Color and Texture of People
Ethnic groups enjoy wearing their traditional costumes decorated with distinct colors and patterns. Each costume is a handicraft item that involves the process of fabric-weaving using a handloom, natural dyeing, and hand embroidery. The steps in creating the costumes may be similar, but each ethnicity has its unique design scheme that separates it from that of other groups.
The people of Flower Hmong are known for their most colorful and vivid traditional clothing in  the world. Multicolored spirals and geometric patterns are embroidered on both top and bottom dresses. These people wear headscarves of bright neon tones and put on bold accessories including metal bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. On the contrary, the Hani wear a simple black costume, only adding colors and embellishments to the sleeves, headdress, and collar panel. The Cham people make silk dresses similar to Ao Dai, the traditional dress of the Viet. The Thay people decorate their short vests with beautiful silver buttons. The Dao wears skirts and pants together, and puts on embellished headpieces on special occasions.

Quilt embroidered with geometric patterns © Jeon Haein

Fabric weaving on a handloom, as displayed at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. © Jeon Haein

Traditional clothing with different ethnic characteristics means more than just a piece of fabric that hides the body. To a minority group, it is a way of expressing their identity. Not only that, handicraft clothing has become an important source of income for ethnic women who produce their own fabric, dresses, and craft items. The marketplace where the products are sold has become a place of exchange between ethnic groups and city folks who have different supplies and demands.

A religious rite for the ethnic minorities, as reenacted at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology © Jeon Haein

Religion and Belief, To Trust and Pray
Various sorts of altars are placed in the villages of ethnic minorities. Ethnic people generally install small ancestral altars somewhere central in their residence. Sometimes their community will erect a large decorative charm in the center of their villages. The primeval forms of worshipping nature and animals including animism and totemism still remain among these groups. Some still hold ancestral worship rituals regularly.
The place of ancestral worship and rituals, as well as altars, are all familiar concepts to Koreans. Religions and beliefs are not limited to ethnic groups. Rather, the two are the spiritual legacies of mankind that embrace all races. Every society has a form of religion, and a spiritual culture based on that helps sustain the community and strengthen its solidarity. The four major religions of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are originated from the same idea as our ancient practice of praying to the gods by placing a clean bowl of water in front and bowing repeatedly. To whom, it may differ. But we all pray with the same mind, asking for the health and prosperity of our family and community.

Phuong, manager of Dao Lodge Homestay © Jeon Haein

It’s the birth of a new social space where minority groups interact and liaise with those on the opposite end of society.
New Era, Encounter with Outside World
There are winds of change blowing in the life of ethnic people. Unlike the past in which children were educated within the community and raised to lead the same type of life, more members of ethnic young generations are choosing to receive advanced education in big cities. Learning how to handle electronic devices and experiencing the city culture, they have a chance to develop linguistic skills including English and Vietnamese, on top of their native languages, which helps them gain knowledge on a wider spectrum. As a result, there are more cases where they play the role of a bridge to spread their native language and culture to the outside world. It’s the birth of a new social space where minority groups interact and liaise with those on the opposite end of society.
A story of Phuong, a Dao woman in her twenties living in northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang serves as a good testimony. Phuong, who has a daughter, works as a manager at Dao Lodge Homestay in the village of Nam Dam where her people live. Using her work experience, she has recently started her own homestay business at her place she shares with her in-laws. She’s learning English to converse easily with her customers, hoping to contribute to the local economy with her business and share the Dao tradition and culture with the outsiders. Speaking of how she met her husband through a smartphone application chatting service, she put on a big smile. Her dreams and ambitions, together with her confidence, are what can be found in today’s Generation Z.

Minority children at play © Jeon Haein

Essence of Mankind Embraces Small Variations
When we see the lifestyle in different cultural regions in films, dramas, or documentaries, we think, “Men all live similar lives.” First we get intrigued because of fresh perspectives and ways of living, but eventually we reach a conclusion that we as humans share a lot in common and that our lives resemble each other very much. The same goes for the indirect experience we have by watching Vietnam’s ethnic groups put on unique dresses, sleep in strange-looking houses, and make unfamiliar dance moves. Under the unchanging premise that we share humanity, the differences across cultures and societies may indeed be minuscule.
As beings living on a small planet called Earth in the same period in time, understanding different ethnicities can be the beginning of a beautiful journey to come out of the selfish space and meet the real world. It will allow us to promote peaceful relationships and find solutions to ensure coexistence and solidarity.
In a world across the ocean that is utterly new to us, a group of people greet a new day under the same sky and make a living in their own ways. That everybody strives for a life is a gentle pat on the back for us and a small push that helps us take a step forward. That might be the priceless gift we get from the life of ethnic groups.

© Jeon Haein

Jeon Hye-in is a travel writer with a candid perspective into people and society. With a major in Japanese and English Interpretation & Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, she has received a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Seoul National University. While working as a writer for EBS, Jeon had a chance to meet people from diverse backgrounds and share their stories. Her major works include “There’s No Bad Dog In The World,” “Quest to Build: House of Vietnam,” “World Experience: ATLAS,” “Live TV Edu Talk,” and “EBS Docuprime: Exams.” Her published works include “I Want To Live in Paris For A Month” and “Eating By Yourself In Hanoi.” (All titles are tentatively translated.) She’s been living in Hanoi for three years and works in writing and photography, trying to have a deeper connection with the Vietnamese culture and people.

Where to Stay in Hanoi: LOTTE HOTEL HANOI
LOTTE HOTEL HANOI is located in the upper floors of LOTTE CENTER HANOI, a new landmark skyscraper in the Vietnamese capital. With a breathtaking view of the entire city, the hotel features 318 rooms of sophisticated designs using traditional Vietnamese patterns. Raved by tourists from across the globe, the hotel’s restaurants offer epicurean experiences of Vietnamese specialties and premium-quality ingredients. There is also a rooftop bar famous for its panoramic view of Hanoi’s skyline.
Address 54 Lieu Giai, Ba Dinh, Hanoi
inquiry +84-24-3333-1000
August 2020 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Writer:Jeon Haein

Where to stay?

  • August 2020
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
    Writer: Jeon Haein
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