Vietnam War - A Memoir - History

Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities

Six to seven million of Vietnam’s 73 million population comprise an estimated 54 ethnic groups divided into dozens of subgroups some with a mere hundred or so members, giving Vietnam the richest and most complex ethnic make-up in the whole of southeast Asia. Ethnic minority groups with members numbering upwards of 500,000 include the Tay (Tho), Tai (Thai), Hmong (Meo or Miao), Muong (Mol) and Nung. Other large tribes (over 250,000) include the Jarai (Gia Rai) and Ede (Rhade), while groups like the Bahnar (Ba-na), and Sedang (Xo-dang) have more than 100,000 members.

The vast majority of Vietnam’s minorities live in the hilly regions of the north, down the Truong Son mountain range, and in the central highlands – all areas which saw heavy fighting in recent wars. Several groups straddle today’s international boundaries, spreading across the Indochinese peninsula and up into southern China.

Little is known about the origins of many of these people, some of whom already inhabited the area before the ancestors of the Viet arrived from southern China around four to five thousand years ago. At some point the Viet emerged as a distinct group from among the various indigenous peoples living around the Red River Delta and then gradually absorbed smaller communities until they became the dominant culture. Other groups continued to interact with the Viet people, but either chose to maintain their independence in the highlands or were forced up into the hills, off the ever-more-crowded coastal plains. Vietnamese legend accounts for this fundamental split between lowlanders and highlanders as follows: the Dragon King of the south married Au Co, a beautiful northern princess, and at first they lived in the mountains where she gave birth to a hundred strong, handsome boys. After a while, however, the Dragon King missed his watery, lowland home and decamped with half his sons, leaving fifty behind in the mountains – the ancestors of the ethnic minorities.

While the ethnic-Vietnamese and Chinese live mainly in urban centres and coastal areas, the remaining people, an estimated 10% of Vietnam’s total population, are found primarily in the high country. While several of these groupings, such as the Tay, Tai, Muong and Nung, number in the vicinity of a million people, others, like the Romam and O-du, are feared to have dwindled to as few as 100. Undoubtedly the most colourful of the hill tribes reside in the north-west, in the plush mountain territory along the Lao and Chinese borders, while many of the tribes in the Central Highlands and the south can be difficult to distinguish, at least by dress alone, from ordinary Vietnamese. The French called them Montagnards (meaning ‘highlanders’ or ‘mountain people’) and still use this term when speaking in French or English. The Vietnamese generally refer to them as moi, a derogatory term meaning ‘savages’, which unfortunately reflects all-too-common popular attitudes The present government, however, prefers to use the term ‘national minorities’. Some have lived in Vietnam for thousands of years, while others migrated into the region during the past few centuries. The areas inhabited by each group are often delimited by altitude, with later arrivals settling at higher elevations. Historically, the highland areas were allowed to remain virtually independent as long as their leaders recognised Vietnamese sovereignty and paid tribute and taxes. The 198O Constitution abolished two vast autonomous regions established for the ethnic minorities in the northern mountains in 1959. During wartime in the 1960s and early 70s, both the Communists and the USA actively recruited fighters among the Montagnards of the Central Highlands, and in fact, it was only quite recently that special restrictions were lifted on American tourists wanting to visit hill tribe areas around Dalat just in case somehow the CIA happens to be still conducting business?). Most of the individual ethnic groups share basic, similar traits in their daily lives and are often most easily identified by differences in language, physical features and traditional dress. They have a rural, agricultural lifestyle and show similarities in village architecture and traditional rituals and have a long history of intertribal warfare. Many of the tribes are semi-nomadic, cultivating crops such as ‘dry’ rice using slash-and-burn methods, which have taken a heavy toll on the environment. Because such practices destroy the ever-dwindling forests, the government has been trying to encourage them to adopt more settled agriculture often at lower altitudes, with wet (paddy) rice and cash crops such as tea coffee and cinnamon. Still, despite the allure of benefits like subsidised irrigation, better education and health care, a long history of nonconformist attitudes, coupled with a general distrust of the lowland ethnic-Vietnamese majority, keeps many away from the lowlands As is the case in other parts of Asia, the rich, inherent culture of so many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities has slowly given way to a variety of outside influences. Many tribes have been so assimilated into mainstream Vietnamese society that very few even dress in traditional garb. Most of those who do are found in the remote villages of the far north, and even there it is often only the women who do so, while the men more typically have switched over to Vietnamese or western-style clothes. While factors such as the introduction of electricity, modern medicine and education do create advantages, unfortunately, such evolution has brought about the abandonment of many age-old traditions. A more recent, and perhaps equally threatening, outside influence is the effect of tourism. With growing numbers of people travelling to see the different ethnic minorities, further exposure to lowlanders and a developing trend toward commercialism will likely worsen the situation. In some areas, such as Sapa, adorable children who used to just stare, laugh or run away at the sight of a foreigner have begun to warm up, often expecting handouts of money or candy.

Photographing hill tribe people demands patience and the utmost respect for local customs. The beauty and colour of the people and surrounding scenery provides ample opportunity, but it is important to remember that you are just visiting and that not only might your actions be interpreted as rude or offensive, but you also pave the way for future visitors. That is not to say that taking pictures is bad, but just keep in mind the various effects a camera can have. The popular weekend market in Sapa is a good example of where a crowd of camera-toting tourists can appear somewhat ovenwhelming to the local folk. While the entrepreneurial Hmong here, for example, do not generally mind being photographed (though buying some handicraft will help facilitate this), other groups in the area such as the Red Dzao tend to be far more camera-shy and have had their fair share of must get this shot photographers literally chasing them through the market. Vietnam’s minorities have substantial autonomy and, though the official national language is Vietnamese, all minority children still learn their local dialect. Taxes are supposed to be paid, but Hanoi is far away and it seems that as long as they don’t interfere with political agendas, they can live as they please. Police officers and members of the army in minority areas are often members of local tribal groups and the National Assembly in Hanoi is represented by a good number of ethnic minorities. While there may be no official discrimination system, the hill tribes, however, still remain at the bottom of the educational and economic ladder. Despite improvements in rural schooling, many minorities marry young, have children and die early. Those who live closer to urban centres and the coast fare better. The task of neatly classifying the different highland groups is not an easy one. Ethnologists typically classify the Montagnards by linguistic distinction and commonly refer to three main groups (which further splinter into vast and complex sub-groupings). The Austro-Asian family includes the Viet Muong, Mon-Khmer, Tay-Tai and Meo-Dzao language groups; the Austronesian family, related to Indonesians and Pacific Islanders, were probably the earliest inhabitants of the area but are now restricted to the central highlands, speaking Malayo-Polynesian languages; and the Sino-Tibetan family encompasses the Chinese and Tibeto-Burmese language groups, originating in southern China and at different times migrated southwards to settle throughout the Vietnamese uplands. Furthermore, within a single spoken language, there are often myriad varying dialectical variations.

Despite their different origins, languages, dialects and hugely varied traditional dress, there are a number of similarities among the highland groups that distinguish them from Viet people. Most immediately obvious is the stilt house, which protects against snakes, vermin and larger beasts as well as floods, while also providing safe stabling for domestic animals. The communal imbibing of rice wine is popular with most highland groups, as are certain rituals such as protecting a child from evil spirits by not naming it until after a certain age. Most highlanders traditionally practise swidden farming, clearing patches of forest land, farming the burnt-over fields for a few years and then leaving it fallow for a specified period while it recovers its fertility. Where the soils are particularly poor, a semi-nomadic lifestyle is adopted, shifting the village location at inter vals as necessary. If you’re interested in learning more about Vietnam’s ethnic diversity, pick up a copy of the slightly dated Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam, which is on sale in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Traditionally, Viet kings demanded tribute from the often fiercely independent ethnic minorities but otherwise left them to govern their own affairs. This relationship changed with the arrival of Catholic missionaries, who won many converts to Christianity among the peoples of the central highlands – called Montagnards rn the French. Under colonial rule, the minorities gained a certain degree of local autonomy in the late nineteenth century, but at the same time, the French expropriated their land, exerted forced labor, and imposed heavy taxes As elsewhere in Vietnam, such behaviour sparked off rebellions, notably among the Hmong in the early twentieth century.

The Northern Mountains

The French were quick to capitalize on ancient antipathies between the highland and lowland peoples. In the northwest mountains, for example, they set up a semi-autonomous Thai federation, complete with armed militias and border guards. When war broke out in 1946, groups of Thai, Hmong, and Muong in the northwest sided with the French and against the Vietnamese, even to the extent of providing battalions to fight alongside French troops. But the situation was not clear cut: some Thai actively supported the Viet Minh, while Ho Chi Minh found a safe base for his guerrilla armies among the Tay and Nung people of the northeast. Recognizing the need to secure the minorities’ allegiance, after North Vietnam won independence in 1954 Ho Chi Minh created two autonomous regions, allowing limited self-government within a “unified multi-national state”.

The Central Highlands

The minorities of the central highlands had also been split between supporting the French and Viet Minh after 1946. In the interests of preserving their independence, the ethnic peoples were often simply anti-Vietnamese, of whatever political persuasion. After partition in 1954, the anti-Vietnamese sentiment was exacerbated when President Diem started moving Viet settlers into the region, totally ignoring local land rights. Diem wanted to tie the minorities more closely into the South Vietnamese state; the immediate result, however, was that the Bahnar, Jarai, and Ede joined forces in an organized opposition movement and called a general strike in 1958. Over the next few years, this well-armed coalition developed into the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, popularly known by its French acronym, FULRO. They demanded greater autonomy for the minorities, including elected representation at the National Assembly, more local self-government, school instruction in their own language, and access to higher education. While FULRO met with some initial success, the movement was weakened after a number split off to join the Viet Cong. An estimated 10,000 or more remained, fighting first of all against the South Vietnamese and the Americans, and then against the North Vietnamese Army until 1975. After this FULRO rebels and other anti-communist minority groups, mainly Ede operated out of bases in Cambodia. The few who survived Pol Pot’s killing fields later fled to Thailand and were eventually resettled in America. During the American War, those minorities living around the Seventeenth Parallel soon found themselves on the front line. The worst fighting occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s when North Vietnamese troops were based in these remote uplands and American forces sought to rout them. Massive bombing raids were augmented by the use of defoliants and herbicides which, as well as denuding protective forest cover, destroyed crops and animals; this chemical warfare also killed an unknown number of people and caused severe long-term illnesses. In addition, villages were often subject to night raids by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers keen to “encourage” local support and replenish their food supplies. It’s estimated that over 200,000 minority people, both civilian and military, were killed as a result of the American War, out of a total population of around one million. By 1975, 85 percent of villages in the highlands had been either destroyed or abandoned, while nothing was left standing in the region closest to the Demilitarized Zone. At the end of the war, thousands of minority people were living in temporary camps, along with Viet refugees, unable to practice their traditional way of life.

Post – Reunification

After reunification things didn’t really get much better. Promises of greater autonomy, made by both sides, came to nothing; even the little self government the minorities had been granted was removed. Those groups who had opposed the North Vietnamese were kept under close observation and their leaders sent for re-education. The new government pursued a policy of forced assimilation of the minorities into the Vietnamese culture and glossed over their pre vious anti-Viet activities: all education was conducted in the Vietnamese language, traditional customs were discouraged or outlawed, and minority people were moved from their dis persed villages into permanent settlements. At the same time the govemment created New Economic Zones in the central highlands and along the Chinese border, often commandeering the best land to resettle thousands of people from the overcrowded lowlands. According to official records, 250,000 settlers were moved into the New Economic Zones each year during the 1980s. The policy resulted in food shortages among minorities unable to support themselves on the marginal lands, and the widespread degradation of overfarmed upland soils. Doi moi brought a shift in policy in the early 1990s, marked by the establishment of a central office responsible for the ethnic minorities. Minority languages are now officially recognized and can be taught in schools; scholarships enable minority people to attend institutes of higher education. and there is now greater representation of minorities at all levels of govern ment. Cash crops such as timber and fruit are being introduced as an alternative to illegal hunting, logging and opium cultivation. Other income-generating schemes are also being pro moted and health-care programmes upgraded. All this has been accompanied by moves to pre serve Vietnam’s cultural diversity, driven in part by the realization that ethnic differences have greater appeal to tourists. However, in many areas the minorities’ traditional lifestyles are fast being eroded.

With extracts from The Rough Guide to Vietnam by C Jan Dodd