A window into Vietnam’s ethnic minorities

A Bahnar communal house was constructed on the grounds of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in 2003. It’s built high off the ground to accommodate elephants passing underneath.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.


An early version of our Vietnam itinerary included a few days in the extreme northwest around Sapa, near where Vietnam shares borders with Laos and China. Guidebook pictures of emerald-hued, terraced rice fields set against a mountainous backdrop, and ethnic minorities in their colorful clothing were particularly enticing, as was the possibility of purchasing unusual handmade souvenirs.

I thought we’d join a guided hike and maybe participate in an overnight home-stay, sleeping in a house on stilts. But it quickly became clear that if we were going to include Angkor Wat in Cambodia on our itinerary, we’d have to eliminate something in Vietnam. Visits to Hoi An, a Japanese- and Chinese-influenced riverside town, and Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen emperors, both UNESCO world heritage sites, were also under consideration.

The pull of the mysteries of the Angkor Wat temples won out, so two or three days each in and around Sapa, Hoi An and Hue became victims of time and logistics. We would have needed at least another week to accomplish three more cities.


We were, however, able to learn more about the country’s 53 ethnic minorities by spending several hours at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. Inside, this excellent, modern facility has ample exhibit signage (in three languages), re-created scenes of tribal ceremonies and rituals, examples of everyday farming implements, baskets, musical instruments, textiles, and videos of artisans at work.

The informational plaques highlight by region where the minorities live, their approximate population, what their chief forms of income are and other distinguishing characteristics.

Meanwhile, outside, several tribal-constructed, architecturally accurate buildings made from natural materials are open to explore.

Visitors will come away with a better understanding of the minorities’ geographical heritage; how many make a living through hunting, fishing, rice farming and tending livestock, and more recently in the Central Highlands, growing coffee; the grinding economic challenges many face; and how some of the tribes prefer their remote isolation rather than mixing into greater Vietnamese society.

The construction of conical hats, made from dried palm leaves, has been practiced in Chuong village, about 20 miles from Hanoi, for many generations.

The Viet people, also known as the Kinh, comprise the majority, and account for about 87 percent of Vietnam’s total population of more than 93 million.

By comparison, that number dwarfs the roughly 12 million population for the 53 ethnic minorities, according to The Economist newspaper. The minorities are spread throughout the length and breadth of the country, though pockets of communities, such as around Sapa, exist. Spellings of the minorities’ names can also vary according to source.

Individual clans can be distinguished by the color of their garments, often intricately embroidered; the size and shape of their headgear; and their elaborate handcrafted jewelry. Many also retain their own language, cultural and religious practices.

Some of the groups are also further divided. For example, Hmong subgroups include Red Hmong, White Hmong, Green Hmong, Flower Hmong and Black Hmong, the last of whom chiefly wear clothing dyed a deep indigo.

The Hmong might be the most recognizable of the group names to Americans, because men from the Hmong villages were among those who fought alongside U.S. and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War.

Among the displays sure to draw visitors’ attention: a bright red wedding dress, belonging to a woman from the Hoa minority (ethnic Chinese), and a life-size buffalo cart, used by the Cham in the plains and coastal regions of south and central Vietnam at rice harvest time, and to fill other transportation needs.

Outside, even more eye-catching is the Bahnar communal house, called a “rong,” on stilts, with its sloped roof towering more than 60 feet. Forty-two villagers from Kon Rbang in the Central Highlands built it in 2003. Each roof “top” has a pattern that differs among villages. This one was fairly plain, with a horizontal red diamond pattern, and what might be a horn-shaped motif at either end.

It’s said that some rongs are built so far off the ground as to accommodate elephants walking underneath.

The height of the Bahnar house’s steep entrance steps carved into thick logs was enough to put me off an attempted climb. OK, I wimped out.

Women enter an Ede longhouse by stairs on the right. The men use the left staircase.

Fortunately, the Ede longhouse, also on stilts, had only five steps, which led to a wide platform. If I lost my balance and fell off, chances of hurting myself were less.

I climbed the “women’s” steps, designated with two little round “breasts” and a crescent near the top. The men’s steps to the left have no defining decoration.

The length of an Ede house indicates a family’s wealth. New sections are added as the clan’s daughters marry, as is the matrilineal custom.

Inside, various compartmentalized spaces are used for sleeping, kitchens (one for family use, one for guests), storage and community functions. One could only hope that the people doing the daily cooking in a structure composed of wood and bamboo with a straw roof would be eternally vigilant.

The horizontal beam stretched east to west near the ceiling features two carved elephants, another indication of the family’s wealth, as it would be expensive to own large mammals.

The design of this longhouse, roughly 138 feet in length, is based on one from the Ky village in Dal Lak province in the Central Highlands. Its inhabitants would have been the matrilineal line of an extended family, the brochure from the museum explains. Its length also would be an indication of the family’s wealth, with a new section added as the daughters marry and their husbands take up residence.

The Ede number around 183,000, 11th overall among minority strength, according to Vietnamese Embassy statistics.

Also of interest outside is a tomb of the Gia Rai people, surrounded by a fence with sexually explicit male and female wooden carvings — symbols of fertility — straddling it. I was going to post a picture of this, but after a closer look at my photo, the figures veered too close to an R rating (or above) and I didn’t want to offend anyone. There are plenty of images on the web, if readers are interested.

Again, the Gia Rai observe the matrilineal custom, with men being buried at their mother’s tomb or “mourning house.” The figures are meant to be companions into the afterlife. The overall structure, also from the Central Highlands, looks more like a small wooden house than what Westerners would call a tomb.

Guided tours in English, French and Vietnamese are available at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.

The museum is in Hanoi’s suburbs, away from the Old Quarter and other attractions, but it’s well worth making the effort to visit.

Quick reference: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Closed during the annual Tet celebrations. Exhibit information in Vietnamese, English and French. Admission: Adults, 40,000 Vietnamese dong (about $1.75). A small cafe, bookstore and museum shop are also on the grounds. Nguyen van Huyen Road, Cau Giay district. Taxi from the Old Quarter takes about 20 minutes and costs about 120,000 VN dong (about $4.50). www.vme.org.vn.

Travel tip: Taxis form a line outside the museum and drivers were eager to have our business. Our hotel had given us the names of three reputable companies, so we found one of those taxis (Mai Linh, with bright green livery, or a white vehicle with logo and info in green) and negotiated a price comparable to how much the trip out had cost. As an added precaution, we had the driver write down the price he said so that there would be no misunderstanding later.


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