Ethnic minorities and indigenous people


Vietnam is considered a multi-ethnic country, made up of 54 ethnic groups. The Kinh ethnic group makes up 85.4% of Vietnam’s population, or 78.32 million people. The remaining 53 ethnic groups make up only 14.6% of the country’s population (see Table 1).1

Although Vietnam voted in favour of UNDRIP, the government does not recognize ethnic minorities as indigenous peoples. Instead, the government uses the term “ethnic minority” to refer to everyone but the Kinh majority. The focus of the Vietnamese government is on “unity in diversity”.2

There is great diversity in Vietnam’s ethnic groups. One minority group, the Hoa (ethnic Chinese), is very well assimilated into Vietnamese culture, and are important in the Vietnamese economy.3 Because of this, they are not usually considered an “ethnic minority”.4 Others, such as the Hmong and Nung peoples, have agrarian livelihoods and remain strongly culturally connected to forests.5 Vietnam’s ethnic groups can also be grouped by language. The languages of Vietnamese peoples can be divided into eight groups: Viet – Muong, Tay – Thai, Mon – Khmer, Mong – Dao, Ka – belt, Nam duc, Han and Tang.6 96% of ethnic minorities speak their mother tongue.7

Table 1: Average population in the country and population of ethnic minorities



Population (persons)

Percentage (%)


Estimated average population (1/4/2015)




In which




















Estimation of ethnic minorities in the country (01/7/2015)




In which



















 Source: Human Rights Center for Ethnic Minorities and People in Rural Areas (HRC) 


Ethnic minorities are concentrated in the mountainous and rural regions of Vietnam8 but have also scattered throughout Vietnam due to war and migration. Ethnic minorities living in urban areas are more affluent than the same ethnic minority groups living in rural areas.9 Many communes and villages have 3-4 different ethnic groups living side by side.10 Geography plays a major part in the cultural practices of many ethnic minorities, but also negatively impacts access to infrastructure and services like health care and education.11

Figure 1. Ethnic Population in Vietnam 

Source: Survey 53 ethnic minorities in 2015, Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs 

Access to basic infrastructure in the regions where ethnic minorities primarily live is poor. 72% of ethnic minorities lack access to latrines, and more than one quarter of ethnic minority households do not have access to safe water.12 Electrification rates are high in Vietnam, but it is primarily those living in rural mountainous regions who lack access to electricity, disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities.

Despite having less access to education than the Kinh majority,13 ethnic minorities are represented as cadres and civil servants in the different levels of government, especially in provinces and cities.14 There is, however, great variance between different ethnic groups in educational levels, particularly for literacy rates. The average for the 53 ethnic groups is 79.8%, but literacy rates range from as low as 34.6% for the La Hu, while literacy for the Tho, Muong, Tay, and San Diu are at 95%.15

One barrier to education is distance. Many ethnic minority students have to travel a far distance to attend secondary school, ranging from 9km to as high as 70km.16 In addition, men and boys are more likely to be the ones who travel, because of cultural limitations.


Figure 2. Proportion of ethnic minority people who know how to read and write (2015 population)

Source: Research Center for Human Rights of Ethnic Minority and Mountainous People (HRC) 2015 

Culture, Livelihood, and Land

Although different ethnic minorities have different cultural practices, forest remains a key feature for many. Ethnic minorities such as the Mong, Thai, Red Dao, Vân Kiều, Ja Rai, Ê Đê and Ba Na peoples living in various provinces throughout Vietnam participate in community forestry. They also each have sacred forests that are used for devotions, much like the Kinh majority use temples and clan altars. Specific customary laws govern forest areas for water, where water spirits are worshipped. Different customary laws govern different forest areas for production of forest products, such as medicinal plants, firewood, and material for handicrafts.17 This type of community forest management plays a strong role in the cultural practices, as well as the livelihoods, of many ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Below is a documentary film on H’Mong people and their worshiping of forest deities in Sin Chéng Commune, Simacai District, Lao Cai Province, developed by Culture Identity and Resources Use Management (CIRUM).

(More documentation films exploring religion and customary practices of ethnic people could be found here)

Along with forest production, agriculture is another form of livelihood for many ethnic minorities.18 Both forest and agricultural practices require access to land. Yet ethnic minorities continue to struggle for land rights in order to continue their livelihoods and cultural practices. In an effort to protect livelihoods and encourage environmental protection, some communities have been allocated land by the government so that they can continue community forest management.19 However, this is not a common story.  In 2015, only 26% total forest land area was allocated to households, and of that only 2% was allocated to communities for management.20 In addition, despite the fact that the Land Law does recognize customary tenure, the land still ultimately belongs to the government, and the Civil Code does not recognize communities as a legal entity.21

Impacts of law

There is significant variation in the policies, laws and regulations related to land tenure and forests from province to province.22 This disproportionately impacts ethnic minority women. Traditionally considered keepers of indigenous knowledge and protectors of the forest, ethnic minority women, these roles are not recognized by law.23 The land registration system only recently (2014) began requiring both spouses’ names on land registration documents.24 Even for those women whose names are registered, many report that they lack the confidence to make decisions on land use.25

The Constitution of the State of Vietnam guarantees the same rights to all Vietnamese citizens, while also protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.26 Vietnam does not have a specific laws on ethnic minorities but has a ministry-level agency responsible for ethnic minority issues, namely the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs.27 However, during the period of 2011 – 2015, the State issued 180 legal documents referencing the rights and legal interests of ethnic minorities.28 There are also a number of pro-poor policies that impact ethnic minorities, such as Resolution No. 30a/2008/NQ-CP on Sustainable Poverty Reduction and Housing Support Policies for Poor Households.29 However, despite including ethnic minorities in the legal and policy framework, ethnic communities remain vulnerable, particularly to loss of the forest which forms the basis of many ethnic minorities’ cultural beliefs and practices.30 The policies on ethnic minority concerns do not address all that is necessary, due to some overlapping content. In addition, actual implementation of laws is low.31 Resources for policy implementation are not sufficient, resulting in poorly coordinated and ineffective implementation. Land development and in-migration add further pressure on the rights of ethnic minorities.32 Finally, policies need to address the specific needs of individual ethnic minority groups, rather than using the “one-size-fits-all” approach.33 Not enough policies are developed using a “bottom up” approach.34 However, in 2015, the Government of Vietnam conducted a survey of ethnic minorities for the first time, meaning that there now exists some evidence for policies for ethnic minorities.35 Indeed, an Ethnic Minority Development Plan 2016-2020 has been planned to be developed using this data.36 It is important to note, however, that despite the fact that this data now exists, there are some issues with how it was collected.37 Mainly, the sample size is small and does not adequately represent small ethnic groups.38

Although work has already been done to close the gender gap in Vietnam, this remains an issue that particularly impacts ethnic minority communities.39 More work can be done to work directly with ethnic minority women40 For example, in regards to land, work can be done to increase the confidence of ethnic minority women. In another example, to bolster accessibility of health and prenatal care,41 education and services should be provided in an accessible format and language, particularly as many ethnic minority adults do not speak Vietnamese and ethnic minority women are less likely to be literate than ethnic minority men.42















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