Vietnam is a multi-nationality country with 54 ethnic groups. The Viet (Kinh) people account for 87 per cent of the country?s total population and mainly inhabit the Red River Delta, the Central Coastal Delta, the Mekong River Delta and urban centres. The other 53 ethnic minority groups, totalling over eight million people, are scattered over mountainous regions covering two-thirds of the country?s territory spreading from the North to the South. Among ethnic minorities, the most populated are Tay, Thai, Muong, Hoa, Khmer and Nung each with a population of around 1 million while the least populated are Brau, Roman and Odu each with only several hundred people.
The Viet people succeeded in establishing a centralized monarchy in the 10th century. The Cham people once boasted a flourishing culture early in the history. The Tay, Nung, and Khmer peoples had reached high levels of development with the presence of various social strata. The Muong, H?mong, Dao, Thai peoples... gathered under the rule of local tribal leaders. Many ethnic groups divided their population into different social echelons, especially those who lived in mountainous areas.
A number of ethnic minorities had mastered some farming techniques. They cultivated rice in swamped paddy fields and terraced hill and carried out irrigation. Others went hunting, fishing, collecting and lived a semi-nomadic life. Each group has its own culture, diverse and peculiar. Beliefs and religions of Vietnamese ethnic minorities are also disparate from each other.
However, solidarity among ethnic groups has been long established on top of their differences as a result of their ages-old co-operation on the soil of Vietnam. Right in the early days of the history, mutual support and assistance in the economic life between lowland and mountainous people were formed. This solidarity had been unceasingly strengthened during wars of resistance for national sovereignty. Through joint struggle for defending and building the country and mutual assistance for co-existence and development, a great community shared by the Viet people and people of ethnic minorities had been established and continuously consolidated and developed.
Nonetheless, an evident gap in the material and moral life is still seen between river deltas and mountainous regions as well as among people of different ethnic minorities. The Vietnamese government has worked out specific policies and special treatments in order to bridge the gap by helping mountainous people improve their living conditions to catch up with lowland people while making great efforts to conserve and develop traditional cultural identities of each ethnic group. At present, programs of hunger eradication and poverty alleviation have been carried out in remote mountainous areas, providing iodized salt for tribal people and medical equipment for commune-level health care and hygienic station, fighting malaria, building schools for children of ethnic minorities, encouraging tribal people to give up their nomadic life characterised by the practice of slash-and-burn farming and settle down for sedentary cultivation. Many projects on the conservation of tribal cultures including their writing scripts have yielded sactifactory results.
The majority of the population is comprised of the Viet or Kinh (85%); people who speak the tonal Vietnamese. The minority population is made up of over 50 ethnic hill tribe people who mainly live in the central and northern mountainous areas of the country. The best-known hill tribes are the Tay, Hmong, Zao, White and Black Thai (both mainly from the north), and the Hoa. Each hill tribe has its own unique customs and dialect and some are able to speak Vietnamese.
Vietnamese, the official language, is a tonal language that can be compared to Cambodia's official language, Khmer. With aeach syllable, there are six different tones that can be used, which change the definition and it often makes it difficult for foreigners to pick up the language. There are other languages spoken as well such as Chinese, Khmer, Cham and other languages spoken by tribes inhabiting the mountainous regions. Although there are some similarities to Southeast Asian languages, such as Chinese, Vietnamese is thought to be a separate language group, although a member of the Austro-Asiatic language family.
In written form, Vietnamese uses the Roman alphabet and accent marks to show tones. This system of writing called Quoc Ngu, was created by Catholic missionaries in the 17th century to translate the scriptures. Eventually this system, particularly after World War I, replaced one using Chinese characters (chu nom), which had been the unofficial written form used for centuries.