Majority Rule, Minority Rights?:
Challenges to Vietnam's Northern Minority Groups
Michael S. Tiefel
(Source: Schliesinger, Hill Tribes of Vietnam)


Vietnam's national minorities comprise approximately thirteen percent of the country's total population. This segment of the population includes 54 different ethnic minority groups, including the Tay, Thai, Khmer, Hmong, Muong, Hoa and numerous smaller groups. For many years, these hilltribes lived in relative obscurity; however, the situation changed during the Vietnamese war against the French (1946-1954). During this conflict, Vietnamese nationalists constructed base camps in the central highlands and northern mountains and tried to recruit minorities in their war efforts against the French. Again, during the Vietnam War (1965-1973), the highlands were exposed to outside pressures when they were extensively bombed and sprayed with chemical defoliants. National minorities were threatened once more in 1979, when the Chinese invaded Vietnam's northern frontier.

Besides threats to their physical well-being as a result of warfare, northern ethnic minorities face economic, educational and demographic challenges. After the Vietnam War, Vietnamese officials urged many national minorities to cease their practice of shifting cultivation (swidden farming) and relocate to fixed communities; this policy proved to be unenforceable. The free-market reforms (doi moi) begun in 1986 changed the nature of Vietnamese farming. Old cooperative farms were divided among individuals and families, which created problems for subsistence farmers, who could no longer receive government subsidized fertilizer in order to promote crop production. Minority groups were also disadvantaged by the lack of educational opportunities within their villages. According to a recent article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, many teachers will typically stay for a few months and then leave out of frustration; they are frustrated because the children are constantly needed to help tend the fields. Ethnic minorities continue to feel tensions from lowland farmers, who began moving into the highlands after 1975 to reduce population pressures in the Red River and Mekong deltas. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ethnic minorities now face governmental demands for their land. The discovery of precious natural resources (timber, coal, iron ore, phosphate, bauxite, tine, gold, silver and precious stones) in the mountains have resulted in new demands for these raw materials. (Hiebert 26-30)

Vietnamese national minorities face numerous problems. Unfortunately there is insufficient time to deal with the gamut of issues threatening these groups, such as health care, infrastructure development, and economic development. Therefore, this paper will focus on three problems faced by Vietnamese national minorities: population pressures, agricultural development and access to education. In particular, I will focus on national minorities in the northern mountains of Vietnam. As a background, the first section of the paper will discuss the physical situation of Vietnam and trace the development of ethnic groups in Vietnam. The second section of the paper will focus on the major obstacle to sustainable development in Vietnam: population growth. Vietnam is the twelfth most populous country in the world. By current population estimates, Vietnam will run out of suitable living space in approximately fifteen years. I will study how present population rates impact on national minorities. The third section will emphasize why a carefully conceived agricultural policy, which the Vietnamese need for economic growth, has not been adopted by minorities groups. The fourth section will appraise the education transition in Vietnam and its impact on ethnic minorities. In the fifth section, I will consider policy recommendations to solve the problem of Vietnamese minorities and population/environmental dynamics. Past governmental proposals to alleviate the problems faced by Vietnamese national minorities have been largely unsuccessful. Despite the Vietnamese national government's denials of discrimination against minority groups, many national minorities feel policies do not hold among provincial, district and village governments. Therefore, I will conclude this paper with several policy recommendations.

Vietnam's Physical Environment

Vietnam is situated in the far southeastern extremity of the Asian continent. It is bordered by the People's Republic of China to the north, Laos to the west, Cambodia to the southwest and the South China Sea to the east. The country occupies 331,688 square kilometers. From the north to the south is about 1,650 kilometers, and the country possesses 3,260 kilometers of coastline. Vietnam has a tropical climate, but this is tempered by the latitudinal differences between the lowlands and the mountains. The physical environment of Vietnam is one of contrasts. It possesses tropical lowlands, hills and forested highlands. The northern third of the country (mien Bac) is comprised of the northern mountains and the lush Red River Delta. The GSI map below clearly illustrates the contrasts between the mountainous areas and the Red River valley in the northern third of the country. Most of the ethnic groups studied in this paper live in the mountains of north Vietnam, which creates barriers to other areas of Vietnam and limitations on development. Mountains run down the central spine of the country (mien Trung). And the south (mien Nam) contains the rich, alluvial lands of the Mekong River Delta. Many Vietnamese use the imagery of two rice baskets held by a pole to describe their country, since agricultural production is concentrated in the Mekong and Red River valleys. (Library of Congress)

The Red River delta is smaller in area than the Mekong River delta in the south; it only comprises 3,000 square kilometers. However, this area is much more densely developed than the south. Floods constantly threaten lands under cultivation because the northwestern highlands rise sharply beyond the Red River, and water can quickly flow down these slopes during the rainy season. Over the centuries a system of dikes and canals has kept the river in check as well as provided irrigation for rice production. The Central Highlands cover about 51,800 square kilometers of mountain peaks and a narrow strip of lowlands along the cost of the South China Sea. The lowlands in this central region are also intensively farmed; and many inhabitants of this region depend on the sea for their dietary needs. The Mekong River and its delta dominate the South Vietnamese countryside. The Mekong delta has an area of 40,000 square kilometers, and continues to expand every year. Vietnamese officials estimate that the river deposits sixty to eighty meters of sediment into the ocean each year. The richness of the soil surrounding the Mekong River makes it one of the most important rice-production areas of the world. (Library of Congress)

GSI Topographical Map of Northern Vietnam

The most recent United Nations Human Development Reports ranks Vietnam as 122nd out of 174 countries in terms of development. The Vietnamese have a life expectancy at birth of 66.4 years, which is about 6 years off the average for countries considered high on the human development index and 1 year off the average of median human development. Vietnam has a 93.7 percent literacy rate, which exceeds the 83.25 percent average for countries with medium human development and 2 percentage points lower than countries in the high human development range. Conversely, Vietnam lags behind the real GDP per capita and adjusted real GDP per capita for countries with medium human development. The United Nations Human Development Index suggests that Vietnam has been successful in areas of social development, but lacks economic development. Such factors become exaggerated when the differences between ethnic Vietnamese and national minority groups are considered. (United Nations Development Program)

Ethnic Groups of Vietnam

Throughout its history Vietnam has been a crossroads for migration from the north to the south and from the west to the east. Anthropologist Joachim Schliesinger divides the Vietnamese into two groupings: the people of the lowlands and deltas and the people of the mountain regions. The ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh), Cham, Khmer and Hoa (Chinese) comprise the vast majority of the lowlands population. The various minority groups can be found in the northern mountain and central plateau regions of Vietnam. (Schliesinger 23) According to legend, Vietnam has always been a multiethnic country. In one creation myth, Lac Long Vuong (Lac Dragon Lord), the founder of Vietnam, married princess Au Co and had 100 children with her. Originally, the Dragon Lord, the son of Kinh Duong Vuong (Canals and Sea Lord), arose from the ocean to chase away invaders from the north as well as teach the people in the Red River delta how to cultivate rice and wear clothes. Lac Long Vuong fell in love with a daughter (perhaps a sister depending on the story) of one of the invading generals whom he soon drove away. The Dragon Lord and Au Co had a good relationship, but Au Co became homesick. She told her husband that she missed the mountain climate and wanted to move back to the north. Lac Long Vuong did not want to leave the sea, so he told her that she could leave. Sadly, the two parted ways; Au Co took 50 children with her, and the Dragon Lord kept the other 50 children. According to the story, the descendants of the Dragon Lord became the ethnic Vietnamese and the descendants of Au Co became the national minorities of Vietnam. (Ngo Vinh Long 139-40)

This creation myth suggests that all Vietnamese ethnic groups originated in the same place; however, anthropologists have discovered that the various ethnic groups arrived in waves over the past two millennia. Research has revealed the existence of Malay-Polynesian language groups in areas of central and southern Vietnam since the first millennium BC; these were the ancestors of the kingdom of Champa in southern Vietnam. Several ethnic groups split from the Chams in the seventeenth century and settled in the central highlands. The second wave of migration into Vietnam occurred during the first millennium AD These were members of the Tay-Thai language family, originally from China. These peoples, which included the Nung, San Chay and Bo Y, moved to Vietnam for various reasons. Some came because of wars and epidemics, while others wanted to escape the harsh Chinese feudal courts. The first Hmong families arrived in Vietnam during this second period of migration and continued to move into Vietnam throughout the mid-nineteenth century. The third wave of migration into Vietnam occurred between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and consisted of members of the Tibeto-Burman language group. (Schliesinger 25-26)

Vietnamese ethnic minorities live in four regions of Vietnam: the northwest, the northeast, the northern Red River delta region and the central highlands. This paper will focus on the hill tribes in the northwestern area (please see the map). The Thao-Lao language group is dominant in this area. Typically, hill tribes who speak Tay-Thai dialects occupy the highland valleys, while the Mon-Khmer speaking groups live at higher altitudes. Numerous ethnic groups, including the Muong, Tho, Chut and others, settled in the upper delta area of the Red River. The Muong are prominent in the upper delta region and their history can be traced back to the prehistoric Hoa Binh culture of Vietnam. The descendants of the Malay-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer language families settled in the central highlands of Vietnam. Despite linguistic similarities, all 54 ethnic groups should be seen as separate entities. Each minority has its own stories and traditions, customs and worldview. However, there are also shared characteristics among these ethnic minorities.

Northern Provinces of Vietnam

The first similarity is that all of these minorities depend on subsistence farming. The agricultural methods used depend on the topography. For example, high altitude farmers require slash-and-burn or swidden farming, while farmers in the foothills rely on rice cultivation. (Schliesinger 23, 42) When ethnic minority farmers use swidden farming, they use one of two methods: pioneer swiddening and cyclical swiddening. In the former method, farmers burn away virgin forests and cultivate the soil for as long as twenty years, depending on the fertility of the soil. Once an area has been exhausted the farmers migrate to another area of virgin forest and begin the process again. In the latter method, farmers allow lands to remain fallow for a certain number of years before using them again. Ethnic groups using the cyclical method are more likely to have permanent settlements because they can rotate between plots of land in a concentrated area. (Schliesinger 42-44)

The second similarity is the importance of the village for these people (the following photograph is an example of a Black Hmong house). The village represents the center of spiritual, economic and political life for minority groups. The location of the village is selected by a careful examination of physical and spiritual signs. Many ethnic minorities believe that evil spirits can only approach from one direction; therefore, they make sure that doorways are situated away from the path of these spirits. Villages must also be situated near sources of clean water and close to fields, because the people do not have the means to haul water and crops over long stretches of rugged terrain. Finally, many villages have a communal house. The communal house operates like a city hall and community center. It is a place for the members of the village to meet and decide important matters, the location of social gatherings and the symbolic welcome center for the village. The physical organization of the village suggests that Vietnamese ethnic minorities depend on communal living for their survival.


(Source: Schliesinger, Hill Tribes of Vietnam)

A third similarity is that ethnic minorities owe their primary allegiance to their village because they usually have no contact with higher political entities. A traditional village consists of a village council selected from the male members of the community. Household heads in the village support the village council. Together these two groups perpetuate the customs and rituals of the village as well as consider important political decisions. The village council is also responsible for distributing justice fairly. Even when disagreements develop between villages, the Vietnamese national government rarely intervenes. The councils and headmen of the two villages settle such problems. (Schliesinger 32-33)

A great variety of ethnicities exist in the northern mountains of Vietnam. According to national minorities researcher A. Terry Rambo, this area is home to 31 of the 54 recognized minority groups in Vietnam. The Kinh (Vietnamese) make up the majority of the inhabitants with 2.5 million people. The Tay follow with 1 million people, then comes the Thai (600,000), Nung (600,000), Hmong (530,000), Muong (460,000) and Dzao (440,000). In this region there is also much overlap between ethnic groups. Most towns and villages have more than 10 ethnic groups present, and only 3 percent of all villages are monocultural. Typically, it is only at the hamlet level (a subdivision of the village) that one observes a separation of ethnic groups. (Rambo 6, 9)

Demographic Transition

Population growth will be one of the major challenges to a sustainable environment in Vietnam over the next fifteen years. Currently, Vietnamese growth rates average approximately 2 percent per year and will not decline significantly until early in the next century. In the northern mountain region, population growth presents an even greater problem for ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities have not followed family planning programs as carefully as the ethnic Vietnamese of the lowlands have. This means that the minority population will double by the year 2015 if nothing is done to counteract this population growth. (Rambo 26)

Figure 1

Figure 1 depicts Vietnam's growth rate from 1955 to 2025. As represented by the chart, Vietnam's population increased at a rate above 1.5 percent from 1960 through 1975. The growth rate declined slightly after 1975 and is expected to continue to decline until the year 2020 when it will begin to level. A quick reading of the chart would suggest that Vietnam began its demographic transition approximately 20 years ago; however, such a reading would prove to be inaccurate. If the estimates provided by the World Resources Database prove correct, then Vietnam will not begin to experience a demographic transition until the beginning of the twenty-first century. The slight drop after 1975 can most likely be attributed to the consequences of thirty years of warfare in the country. The Vietnamese fought an eight year conflict against the French military between 1946 and 1954. That war ended after Vietnamese nationalists defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. Two years later the United States took over from the French and began to support the state of South Vietnam under the Ngo Dinh Diem regime; conflict between the North and South quickly followed. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese suffered far greater casualties than during the war against the French. The reason for this stems from the nature of the war; it was essentially a civil war with superpower support. Vietnamese people witnessed a sharp decline in the population as North and South Vietnamese killed each other, and as the American military supported an attrition policy. The result was that by 1975, the Vietnamese had lost a generation through direct (as soldiers) or indirect (civilian casualties) causes related to the war. Since the 1980s, the Vietnamese government has encouraged an annual growth rate of 2 percent and hopes to achieve a growth rate of lower than 2 percent by the turn of the century.

Population Growth Rate of Vietnam (Source: World Resources Database)
Growth Rate
The data presented in Table 1 indicates that Vietnam will successfully control population growth over the long-run as long as current population growth estimates hold constant. Two main factors will most likely contribute to this demographic transition. First, the Vietnamese people are generally well educated. Vietnam boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. With adult literacy averaging 94 percent, government efforts to educate the public about family planning practices will be successful. Second, the promise of a higher standard of living due to free market reforms will encourage the Vietnamese people to begin families at a later age and have fewer children. Such estimates must be tempered by a consideration of ethnic minorities. The minorities in the northern mountain region of Vietnam likely will not undergo a demographic transition for another generation. According to A. Terry Rambo, this region has lagged behind the rest of Vietnam in the implementation of a serious family planning program with the result that the minority population is skewed towards the younger age cohorts. Despite the use of birth control, population will continue to grow at a disparate pace than that of the population as a whole. (Rambo 26)

The data presented in Table 1 indicates that Vietnam will successfully control population growth over the long-run as long as current population growth estimates hold constant. Two main factors will most likely contribute to this demographic transition. First, the Vietnamese people are generally well educated. Vietnam boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. With adult literacy averaging 94 percent, government efforts to educate the public about family planning practices will be successful. Second, the promise of a higher standard of living due to free market reforms will encourage the Vietnamese people to begin families at a later age and have fewer children. Such estimates must be tempered by a consideration of ethnic minorities. The minorities in the northern mountain region of Vietnam likely will not undergo a demographic transition for another generation. According to A. Terry Rambo, this region has lagged behind the rest of Vietnam in the implementation of a serious family planning program with the result that the minority population is skewed towards the younger age cohorts. Despite the use of birth control, population will continue to grow at a disparate pace than that of the population as a whole. (Rambo 26)

Studies conducted on fertility and mortality rates in Vietnam confirm A. Terry Rambo's conclusion about ethnic minorities. Figures 2a and 2b represent age specific fertility rates (ASFR) by ethnic group in 1989. The first noticeable feature is that the Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) fertility rates closely parallels the age specific fertility rates for the entire country. This point can be attributed to the fact that the Kinh comprise the majority of the population of Vietnam, therefore this segment of the population will influence fertility rates. The Kinh fertility rates are a bit lower than the rates for the whole country, and evidence suggests two reasons for depressed fertility rates. First, the average age of first marriage of Kinh women is 23.3 years, which is older than almost all other ethnic groups in Vietnam. Second, the Kinh have successfully utilized the country's family planning program. The only group with a lower fertility rate than the Kinh is the Hoa (ethnic Chinese). The Hoa have achieved lower fertility levels for the same reasons as the Kinh. In fact, Hoa women do not marry on average until they are 28 years old. Conversely, fertility rates for other ethnic minority groups, especially the Thai, Muong and Hmong are typically higher than the national average and remain high for a longer duration. The mean age of first marriage for Thai women is 20.4 years, 21.9 years for Muong, 21.8 years for Nung and only 18.4 years for Hmong women. The fertility pattern also remains high for these women well into their thirties. The evidence suggests that minority women are married earlier than ethnic Vietnamese on average and have more children during their lifetimes. The data also reflects the idea that ethnic minority women are not using family planning programs as a means for controlling population growth. This evidence supports the viewpoint that ethnic minority groups will not undergo a population transition for at least another generation. (Estimating the Fertility and Mortality of Provinces and Ethnic Groups: Vietnam 79-84)

Figure 2a
Age Specific Fertility Rates in Vietnam
Figure 2b
(Source: Estimating The Fertility & Mortality of Provinces & Ethnic Groups: Vietnam)

The population density of Vietnam presents a greater challenge to the government and the people. Demographers estimate that Vietnam's population will exceed 82 million people by the year 2000. Vietnam currently ranks as the twelfth most populous country in the world and only second to Indonesia in Southeast Asia. The question remains: how does the country accommodate such a large population in a land area of only 330,000 square kilometers? (Hainsworth 159-60) Figure 3 depicts changes in Vietnam's population density. The chart illustrates that Vietnam's overall population density will double over the next thirty years. According to the World Resources Database, the average population density of Vietnam is 223 people per km2. Yet, this general figure does not account for local variation in population density. Within Vietnam, population density varies from 50 people per km2 in the mountains to 300-500 people per km2 in the Red River and Mekong deltas. In fact, the population in some urban areas reaches a density of 1,000 people per km2. (Hainsworth 160).

Figure 3

The Vietnamese national government has attempted to deal with overcrowding in the lowlands by relocating the Kinh population to suitable sites in the northern mountains and central highlands. In the government's opinion, such moves are quite logical. The Red River delta is home to 21.4 percent of the population, while the Mekong delta comprises 22.4 percent of the population. The government sees the highlands as an open frontier since that area comprises 89,000 square kilometers of land (27 percent of Vietnam's territory), and only has a population of six million people (Rambo 5). The problem with this relocation policy is that it does not take into account intervening factors, such as the sustainability of upland vis-à-vis lowland environments. In reality, the northern mountains are more overpopulated than the deltas despite the large gap in the ratio of persons per square kilometer between the highlands and the lowlands. Differences in agricultural productivity between the deltas and the highlands account for the overcrowding in the highlands. A. Terry Rambo comments that it seems counterintuitive to see the mountain regions as more overpopulated than the delta regions; however, we must consider the importance of environmental sustainability when considering population density in the various regions of Vietnam. (Rambo 27)

Table 2
Population Density in Vietnam (Source: World Resources Datatbase)
People/ km2
The trend towards out-migration of minorities from the northern mountain region of Vietnam provides further support to the theory that the mountain environment cannot carry a large population. Conflict has forced some minorities to the south, including the Nung and the Black Thai, who supported the French during their colonial war. Minorities also moved southward in 1979 when the Chinese and Vietnamese militaries engaged in border skirmishes in northern Vietnam. Recently, many minorities have moved southward in order to find land. This trend increased in the early 1990s, so that by 1993, approximately 200,000 ethnic minorities had left the northern mountains in search of better land. (Rambo 26) Vietnamese governmental efforts to relocate ethnic Vietnamese to the northern region will continue to have little effect on population density pressure. It will be a matter of time before the government recognizes that population density puts serious constraints on the carrying capacity of the region.
Figure 4

The Vietnamese population will continue to be overwhelmingly rural for the next twenty-five years, but an increase in population will place serious constraints on land and the environment. According to Figure 4, the Vietnamese population was 80 percent rural in 1995. By World Resources estimates, the rural population will continue to comprise 75 to 80 percent of the total population for the next ten years. The rural population will start to decline as a percentage of the total population over the first quarter of the twenty-first century. In 2010, the rural sector will likely be 72 percent of the populace, and over the next 15 years will decline to 61 percent of the population. Conversely, the urban population of Vietnam will increase as a percentage of the total population over the same time period. Although Vietnam will continue to have an agriculturally based economy, this trend in the population indicates that push-pull factors will contribute to the movement to cities. As indicated above, one of the major push factors for ethnic minorities is the search for new land. The policy to move people to less populated regions will not work because the mountain regions cannot support a larger population. Ethnic minorities have also been pushed out of their territory by numerous factors: war, population increases, and the need for arable land. As some minorities move into the lowland areas, they will encounter more competition for living space. Concurrently, Vietnamese efforts to reform their economy will draw more people to the cities, including ethnic minorities, who can find work with new industries. It appears, therefore, that the rural-urban composition of Vietnam will not solve the population density problem; however, it may encourage the government to develop cities instead of the unsustainable northern mountains region of the country.

It appears that the rise in population density will have a serious negative impact on ethnic minorities in the northern mountains of Vietnam. Since Vietnam has not undergone a demographic transition, population pressures will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. The government's response to increasing population density has been to relocate ethnic Vietnamese to less populated sections of the country; however, transmigration has placed greater stress on the ethnic populations of these areas because the mountain environment cannot sustain a larger population.

Vietnamese Agricultural Development and National Minorities

Sustainable agriculture will be another challenge to Vietnam in the next century. In 1986, the Vietnamese government began a transformation of the nation's economy from a centralized economy to a market-oriented system. This new approach, called doi moi or renovation, produces both positives and negatives for Vietnam in terms of development. On the positive side, the government hopes a market-oriented Vietnamese economy will entice new investors and businesses into the country. They think these new enterprises will encourage employment as well as boost the standard of living in Vietnam. In 1995, the real GDP of Vietnam was US$1,236 compared to US$26,977 for the United States (United Nations Development Program); this figure can be expected to grow as more industry develops in the country. On the negative side, the government is worried that doi moi will undermine the Communist ideology and the sustainability of socialism as an economic theory.

Vietnam's political elite rationalizes this new economic policy by suggesting that economic growth will help the Communist Party because it will earn the party the support of the common people (Kerkvliet 9). In reality, most people do not care about the Communist Party; and some voices of dissent have begun to gain strength throughout the country. Dissenters argue that the government should do away with its attachment to socialism, since the country is well on its way to a capitalist system. Dissenters also question the utility of a Communist Party. They recognize the gap between the political leadership's outlook and that of the general population and argue that the country should make a choice: abandon the communist system completely or reassert socialism at the expense of the economy and the people. (Kerkvliet 12) The party leadership is unlikely to reassert its power over the economy because it also benefits from the many opportunities presented by a free market economy.

(Source: Schliesinger, Hill Tribes of Vietnam)

Under the doi moi policy, the environment has been exploited as another form of capital. It will be important for the Vietnamese people to realize that the environment has both renewable and non-renewable resources. The government must take the lead in reminding people that the environment serves three important functions, some of which are not renewable. First, the environment is a consumer good (air, water, land). Second, it is a factor in production (raw materials, energy, etc.). And third, it serves as a "waste sink" for used materials. The government needs to organize policies that will keep these factors in proper balance. If it fails to construct viable environmental policies, then the overuse of non-renewable natural resources will result in uninhabitable conditions. (Huynh and Stengel 261)

Economic reforms in Vietnam also have changed the nature of agricultural production. The government began to release communal lands to families and individuals in 1986 and gave farmers more freedom over co-operative policies. The government also loosened its control over the agricultural market; before 1986, farmers could not sell their excess produce on the open market and were charged an agricultural tax as high as 40 percent of the yield. Since doi moi reforms were instituted, farm taxes have dropped to 10 percent, and farmers are allowed to sell goods on the open market. One result of these changes has been that Vietnam became a rice exporting country in 1989. (Le Thanh Nghiep 148-149) Doi moi reforms seem to be a success in terms of the profitability of agriculture; however, increased population pressures and limited land resources have constrained agricultural production. In fact, if the current population trend continues, Vietnam will double its population in thirty years. The result will be the loss of arable land in order to build villages and expand cities (Natural Resources Management 39).

The data in Figure 5 and Table 3 visually represent the agricultural dilemma faced by Vietnam. Arable land has remained constant at approximately 5,550,000 hectares over the last thirty years and is not expected to increase in the next century. Meanwhile, the amount of permanent cropland increased more sharply after 1986 due to economic changes and is expected to rise as long as population density does not infringe on arable land. Only 20-30 percent of Vietnam's land is arable, yet the majority of the population earns their living from agriculture. When one considers that the population density in Vietnam will reach almost 400 people (see Figure 3) per square kilometer by the year 2025, the result will be the loss of arable land in order to house the population. Therefore, the effects of population increases on land in production could have tremendous costs to both the economy and the people who depend on agriculture for their income. (Natural Resources Management 39)

Figure 5

The challenges to sustainable agricultural production are more acute in the northern mountain region. It is true that ethnic minorities have also benefited from the relaxation of the government's agricultural policy. For example, minorities in Vinh Phu province increased crop yields over the past eight years. However, not everyone has benefited from free market reforms. The gap between the rich and the poor in Vinh Phu province widened over the same period of time. (Rambo 15) This example highlights the benefits and drawbacks to economic reform, but in general, ethnic minorities have been more sensitive to agricultural underdevelopment because they must contend with physical constraints, environmental constraints and population constraints not seen in other parts of the country.

Table 3
Land Usage in Vietnam (Source: World Resources Database)
Irrigated Land
Arable Land
Permanent Cropland
1,000,000 ha
5,550,000 ha
470,000 ha
980,000 ha
5,550,000 ha
490,000 ha
980,000 ha
5,630,000 ha
520,000 ha
1,000,000 ha
5,700,000 ha
540,000 ha
1,650,000 ha
5,910,000 ha
670,000 ha
1,770,000 ha
5,616,000 ha
805,000 ha
1,850,000 ha
5,280,000 ha
1,100,000 ha
There are three important physical constraints to farmers in the northern mountains: uneven terrain, uncertain rainfall patterns and poor soil. The terrain in the northern mountains is mostly inhospitable for sustained farming. Most of the region is above 200 meters with steep slopes. In fact, more than 50 percent of the northern mountains have grades of 20 degrees or more. This physical environment creates problems for farmers because they are unable to create productive paddy fields. Rainfall is also a problem because the annual total comes in sporadic downpours instead of small amounts spread out over time. Such a rainfall pattern has the tendency to wash away crops. Furthermore, the soil in the northern mountains is frequently of poor quality and vulnerable to erosion. Many minority people in the region (48% of women and 23% of men) suffer from goiter as a result of low quality soil. (Rambo 19-20)

Deforestation and mining contribute to the problem of agricultural sustainability in the northern mountains. During the 1970s, the Vietnamese regarded the northern forests as a source of wealth or "green gold" as one report claimed. Twenty years later the destruction of these forests has had a devastating effect on the environment. Deforestation has left 13.4 million hectares of territory degraded, hence the term "barren hills." In 1991 only 27 percent of the northern forests remained. The logging industry is partially responsible for the loss of forests; it destroys approximately 150,000 hectares per year. Interestingly, swidden practice farmers are mainly responsible for denuding Vietnam's northern mountains. There are almost 125,000 hectares of land under swidden cultivation each year. (Natural Resources Management 42) Deforestation has three effects on northern agriculture. First, wood used for building, cooking and heating is difficult to find. For example, Black Thai residing in the Dien Bien Phu area are forced to travel 50 kilometers in order to find suitable logs for house construction (Rambo 22). Second, deforestation has eroded topsoil from many areas in northern Vietnam, which places greater constraints on the physical environment mentioned above. Third, deforestation has caused more floods and droughts in the region (Natural Resource Management 42). Mining practices contribute to environmental degradation in the same way as deforestation. The northern mountains are rich in natural resources. For example, coal has been discovered in large quantities in the Red River basin; however, extraction methods are very inefficient. Residual pollutants enter the water system and eventually end up in paddy fields. The mines also take away land used in the production of agricultural products. (Natural Resources Development 45)

(Source: Schliesinger, Hill Tribes of Vietnam)

Finally, population density changes negatively impact agricultural development in the northern mountains. For centuries, upland farmers used traditional farming methods, primarily swidden farming as shown in the following picture. Swidden farming was acceptable when the population density was low and the country did not worry about the consequences of deforestation. Now it appears that swidden farming is not a viable option for minority farmers. The reason is that changes in population density have forced these farmers to reduce the fallow cycle of their fields. In the past, farmers could cultivate a field for one year and allow it to remain fallow for the next twenty years. Farmers of today are forced to cultivate a tract of land for three or four years and only let it remain fallow for four years. The long-term effects of this are twofold: farmers will invest more time and energy in the process, but face reduced yields due to soil depletion. (Rambo 27)

The doi moi policy has positively and negatively transformed the Vietnamese economy. The Vietnamese people are willing to take chances in order to modernize their country, but this drives towards modernization may result in the overuse of natural resources, including forests, minerals and water. In the area of agricultural production, the positive side has been increased agricultural production due to privatization of collective farms. The negative side has been environmental degradation caused by demands for forest products and the development of Vietnam's mining industry. When traditional farming methods and population density are factored into this equation, threats to Vietnam's northern environment become more severe. Ethnic minority farmers already face difficult conditions because of the physical constraints: the steep terrain, unequal precipitation patterns and soil erosion. The challenges posed by mining and deforestation will only compound their problems. Therefore, new policies need to be established to protect ethnic minority farmers and the environment, while encouraging free market reforms.

Educational Transition

During French colonial rule (1883-1945), the majority of Vietnamese children did not have access to education. A small number of qualified children entered a governmental education program. These students received a western style education with a French dominated curriculum and taught in the French language. Wealthy parents also had the option of sending their children to non-governmental village schools, where students received a traditional education. (Education in Vietnam 1)

After the French left Vietnam in 1954, the educational system underwent several transformations in the north and the south. In general, the south introduced a 12 year system, while the north utilized a 10 year system. After the country was reunified in 1975, the Vietnamese government worked on the development of a common education system for the entire country. It is only since 1989 that a common 12 year system has been used throughout the country, which employs a three tier program. Figure 6 visually shows the Vietnamese educational system. As the chart illustrates, Vietnamese children are expected to begin school at age 6 and finish primary school by age 11. Students advance to lower secondary school, where they should finish by the time they are 15 years old. Upper secondary education requires an additional 3 years to complete. If a child started school on time, then the student will complete this stage of education by age 18. (Education in Vietnam 2-3)

Figure 6

In an effort to improve education, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) implemented several changes to the educational system in 1981. The curriculum was redesigned, standardized textbooks implemented and other educational materials introduced into the classroom. MOET hoped that students would at least complete primary education. In fact, the Vietnamese national government made primary education compulsory in 1991. Interested students could continue with lower and upper secondary education, while other children could qualify for a year or more of vocational training. (Education in Vietnam 3-4) Unfortunately, the success of educational reform is tempered by two factors: the social and economic changes of doi moi and inequality between rural and urban education.

The economic reforms begun in 1986 reinvigorated the Vietnamese economy. However, the Vietnamese government was forced to cut back on social services (health care, agricultural subsidies and education). Before 1989, the national government paid for the first twelve years of school (primary through upper secondary), but the reduction in state subsidies to education has meant that families now must pay for their children's education after primary school. Additionally, children are charged nominal rates for textbooks. The result is that many parents must either find some way to pay for tuition or ignore the educational needs of their children. The second option becomes untenable as changes in the economy increase the demand for educated adults. (Education in Vietnam 4)

Vietnamese education has also been hampered in the last ten years by a reduction in tax revenues collected by the government. It seems that as g progresses, many individuals are unwilling to comply with tax laws. As a consequence of tax evasion, the government is unable to fund social service programs, improve schools, raise teacher salaries and provide scholarships for students. At present, many teachers barely make enough money to cover their cost of living expenses. Many teachers must take second jobs in order to support themselves. Like their teachers, students also have felt the impact of doi moi. In the Vietnamese countryside, agricultural privatization has encouraged parents to keep at least one child home from school to help tend the paddy field. Parents justify their action because greater productivity translates into larger profits for the family. In urban areas, teenagers, especially from poorer families, decide job opportunities outweigh school. Many drop out of school, lured by the desire for consumer goods. (Pettus 36)

Recently, efforts have been made by the Vietnamese national government and private individuals to reform the system. MOET plans to better train teachers in vocational education; teachers now receive more training and many are encouraged to visit other countries in Southeast Asia to learn computer science skills and English. Efforts outside the government have also emerged, including after school classes and non-public schools. In order to make viable incomes, teachers have introduced hoc them or extra study classes after school. Although student attendance is not mandatory, parents willingly pay for their children to attend these classes because it is here where students receive the most important information. Other individuals have formed "people-founded" schools, which are similar to U.S. charter schools. Only students with high academic marks are admitted into these schools and tuition is higher than at state run schools ($5US per month at the non-public school compared to 80 cents at a state school). Despite the higher tuition rate, parents send their children to these schools because the schools employ well trained staff and use innovative learning methods. (Pettus 37)

Figure 7

Non-public schools offer parents an alternative to public schooling; yet, as the Figure 7 shows, non-public schools only have significant enrollment numbers at the preschool and upper secondary levels. Conversely, less than 1 percent of children attend non-public schools at the primary level, while only 5 percent of children attend these schools at the lower secondary level. The trend is encouraging. More students enroll in non-public schools each year. This trend may force MOET to adopt the techniques and procedures used in non-public schools; however, change appears slow.

A demographic survey conducted by the General Statistical Office in Vietnam suggests that Vietnam has achieved an educational transition. As the following graph (Figure 8) suggests, the percentage of people with some education is level at 85 percent of the population and skewed towards the younger age cohorts. The percentage of people who actually finish primary education is also beginning to level at 80 percent as presented in Figure 9. These figures suggest improvement in the number of Vietnamese who receive an education; however, the evidence shows that after primary school the results are more disappointing. Only one fourth of those students who complete primary school graduate from secondary school. (Education in Vietnam 12)

Figure 8
Figure 9

Research also shows a continuing gap in the levels of education between urban and rural residents. In both urban and rural areas the oldest age cohorts had less education overall. Only 40 percent of urban residents over 80 years had any education and 25 percent of rural residents over 80 years. As the following figure (Figure 10) illustrates, the percentage of people with any education has gradually improved over the last fifty years and has leveled off around 90 percent. Unfortunately, improvements in the delivery of education have not narrowed the gap between urban and rural residents. In the youngest age cohort (20-24), 80.8 percent of the population living in the cities finished primary school, but only 77.5 percent of the rural students finished primary school. These appear to be quite high levels by developing country standards, although the survey data shows that urban students have better opportunities to attend school. A rural/urban educational gap continues through secondary school. The percentage of urban residents receiving any secondary education was 84.3 percent among the youngest age cohort, while only 68 percent in the countryside. Thirty-five percent of urban residents in the youngest age cohort complete a secondary education, but only 13.2 percent of the rural residents complete a secondary education degree. These figures (as presented in Table 4) suggest that Vietnamese education has improved in relative terms; however, the national government must still make improvements in order to provide all students - urban and rural - educational opportunities.

Figure 10
Figure 11

Vietnamese ethnic minorities encounter the greatest challenges to receiving educational opportunities. The lack of infrastructure, the failure to attract and retain teachers and the variety of languages and customs among minority groups prevent systematic education initiatives from being effective in minority dominated regions. One indicator of the educational deficiencies of ethnic minorities is the level of illiteracy in several northern provinces (please refer to the map of Northern Vietnam). For example, in Lai Châu province along the Lao and Chinese borders, the illiteracy rate is 51.1 percent. In Hà Tuyên province along the Chinese border, 33 percent of the residents are illiterate. And in Son La province, the illiteracy rate approaches 40 percent of the population. These examples are significant because the national illiteracy rate is approximately 15 percent. General illiteracy rates do not provide an indicator of differences in the illiteracy rates among minority groups. Therefore, a recent study on Vietnamese fertility rates examined illiteracy rates among minority women. The women were examined because they are the main target for family planning programs and social policy. According to the report, Kinh women have the lowest illiteracy rate of any ethnic group, only 15.6 percent. Conversely, Hmong women had the highest rate of illiteracy at 97.4 percent. Many ethnic minorities from the northern mountains of Vietnam had an illiteracy rate of 68 percent. These figures suggest that ethnic minorities, especially minority women, do not have any education despite the national average. (Estimating the Fertility & Mortality of Provinces & Ethnic Groups: Vietnam 75-76)

Table 4

The Vietnamese national government has recognized the limited opportunities available to ethnic minorities and has attempted to rectify this situation by building a limited number of primary and secondary boarding schools in large provincial towns for ethnic minority children. Unfortunately for many minority children, this effort has been at the expense of building schools in more remote areas, where they are needed. Like most students in Vietnam, ethnic minority students are also required to purchase their own textbooks. This policy has the tendency to repel minority students because their parents cannot afford the books. The government has addressed this problem by providing textbooks for some students at the boarding schools; however, this policy ignores the needs of the majority of ethnic minority students. As will be discussed in the following section, the Vietnamese government needs to be more proactive in its efforts to educate minority students. If nothing is done, these students will make up a permanent underclass in Vietnam and a drain on societal resources. (Asian Development Bank 69-70)

Policy Considerations

The previous three sections suggest that ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam face three challenges: (1) how to deal with population pressures, (2) how to create a healthy agricultural environment and (3) how to educate ethnic minority children. Present government policy in Vietnam has not helped ethnic minorities find solutions to these problems. In fact, the government prioritizes economic development above the environmental protection of Vietnam (Beresford 82). During the next decade, some scholars think the Vietnamese government will begin to deal with environmental issues as soon as environmental concerns affect the market. Yet, these scholars think that long-term reforms must begin at the grassroots level because such people will have more at stake in terms of reform. (Beresford 82) Vietnam's northern ethnic minorities will need to step-up and take responsibility for reform in their region if they hope to live comfortably in the next century. They can achieve long-term goals by pursuing four policy initiatives: (1) the development of multi-cultural understanding programs throughout Vietnam, (2) better education for minorities, (3) the foundation of a national minority advisory commission, and (4) support of the Vietnam Bank of Agriculture.

1. Multi-cultural Understanding

Article 5 of the 1992 Constitution of Vietnam declares equality of all nationalities living in Vietnam. According to the Constitution:

The State carries out a policy of equality, solidarity and mutual assistance among all nationalities and forbids all acts of national discrimination and division. Every nationality has the right to use its own language and system of writing, to preserve its national identity, and to promote its fine customs, habits, tradition and culture. The State carries out a policy of comprehensive development and gradually raises the material and spiritual living conditions of the national minorities.
This article suggests that national minorities have equality with ethnic Vietnamese, but in practice this is rarely the case. The lack of cultural understanding partially explains why national minorities are not given equality. Ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) tend to see ethnic minorities as barbarians because they are superstitious, resistant to change, and in some cases nomadic (as discussed in the introduction of this paper). Ethnic Vietnamese claim minorities are stupid and lack proper social skills. Such pervasive attitudes result in government policies ill-informed and ill-equipped to deal with ethnic minority problems.

The Vietnamese government must lead the movement towards multi-cultural understanding throughout the country. In other words, it should practice what its Constitution preaches. It will be a difficult task to educate lowland ethnic Vietnamese about the value of other ethnic groups and change their attitudes. However, this policy might be successful if the government institutes a multi-cultural curriculum in primary and secondary schools. Clearly, this is not a policy the government can force on the people. The government cannot mandate that ethnic Vietnamese respect ethnic minorities; it requires long-term persistence and support. In some ways the Vietnamese situation is analogous to the race question in the United States. The government can pass laws that encourage racial equality, but the people must be willing to accept equality and change the system gradually. If ethnic understanding is not given more priority, then national minorities will be left behind as Vietnam moves towards a market system and industrialization (Ngo Vinh Long 152).

2. Education

Better education of national minorities will be important if Vietnam hopes to fully develop. As mentioned in the previous section, although Vietnam's literacy rate ranks as one of the highest in the developing world, the illiteracy rate of ethnic minorities living in the northern highlands exceeds 50 percent. Before becoming an independent nation, the Vietnamese government actively encouraged the education of minorities. The Indochinese Communist Party called for unity of all nationalities (dan toc) in 1930. In order to achieve unity, the Party adopted an anti-illiteracy campaign which produced amazing results. By 1946, 80 teachers had been trained in minority languages and sent to rural locations throughout the country. The government also promoted a multi-cultural education at the time. In the 1950s, the Vietnamese government established the Tay Bac (Northwest) Autonomous Region and Viet Bac (North Viet) Autonomous Region to encourage ethnic minority participation in government. Many ethnic minorities were promoted to state and party positions, and ethnic minorities were encouraged to participate in party affairs. (Ngo Vinh Long 142)

The result of these early efforts was the development of teacher's schools in every northern district to train teachers of primary education and teacher's colleges in every province to train secondary school teachers. Unfortunately, warfare with the United States, China and Cambodia nullified the gains made by ethnic minorities in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1980s, the Vietnamese government, faced with economic hardship, lower educational subsidies to ethnic minority groups. Today, northern highland villages have high attrition rates among teachers. Teachers (usually Kinh) will stay at a village for a few months and then leave because they find mountain villages too foreign. It takes months to find a replacement teacher, so the children remain uneducated (Hiebert 26). Despite the situation, there are encouraging signs for educational policy. The Vietnamese government began to raise the percentage of the national budget devoted to education in 1991. According to 1995 figures, 10 percent of national budget is spent on education. (Ngo Vinh Long 144-147) This is not a large percentage, but it is an improvement over five years earlier.

Education is crucial for minorities for three important reasons. First, an educated ethnic minority population might better understand important issues, such as the national government's family planning program. Second, education would help create effective communication between the state and these minorities regarding rural development policy. Third, education would enable ethnic minorities to interact with other groups in the new market system. The result of renewed educational efforts would be reduced birth rates, better use of environmentally sound farming practices, and utilization of developmental policies such as reforestation. The real challenge will be to find ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic minorities who are willing to teach in these mountain villages for an extended period of time. The government needs to encourage ethnic minorities to receive teachers training and return to their home villages afterwards. Such teachers speak the language of the village and understand the customs and culture. They could communicate the importance of education to the community. The implementation of a cultural understanding program discussed previously might also encourage more ethnic Vietnamese to work with minority groups, and perhaps the government could offer incentives (larger salary and health benefits) to those interested in working with ethnic minorities.

3. Special Commission on National Minorities

A. Terry Rambo observed that "[a]ssociated with the socialist penchant for central planning is a strong tendency to ignore or devalue local knowledge" (30). He continued by noting that policymakers, who are usually from the lowlands, design policies for the northern mountains that do not fit the circumstances. These policymakers base their policies on stereotypes and their own worldviews. There is also a tendency to classify ethnic minorities too broadly or too narrowly for any useful purpose. Classifications are too broad because differences within ethnic groups are not considered and too narrow because they do not serve any useful purpose for analyzing development at the regional level. (Rambo 6-7, 30)

The solution to this problem is the development of a special commission on national minorities that would serve as a governmental advisory group. The commission would be comprised of representatives from each of the 54 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. It would serve as a forum for minority concerns and offer the central government concrete policy recommendations to best serve the interests of minority groups. The commission would also be responsible for providing feedback about government initiated programs. This would mean constant supervision of programs to determine which policies most benefit minorities groups and which policies fail to live up to their purpose. Minority commission members would be in the best position to get truthful feedback since they speak the same language, understand the customs and are familiar with their constituents. The ultimate goal is the creation of trust between the national government and minority groups with special commission members acting as intermediaries in this process.

The special commission would coordinate closely with the State Nationalities Commission in the implementation and oversight of government policy. Clearly, the council would need to prove it can credibly deal with ethnic minority issues in a constructive manner. Credibility can be achieved by monopolizing information (i.e., the creation of experts), avoiding in-fighting, and offering balanced recommendations to the government. The long-term effect of the commission would be the efficient design and implementation of programs for ethnic minorities.

4. Vietnam Bank of Agriculture

Credit became very important for Vietnamese peasants following the decentralization of agriculture in the mid-1980s. Peasant farmers rely on credit in order to buy farm implements, seed, trees, and fertilizers. The Vietnamese government created the Vietnam Bank of Agriculture in response to demands for credit. The bank has the objective of providing short to medium term loans for individual farmers, private sector businesses and public institutions. The bank is well represented in the countryside with branches in 405 districts and 210 subdistricts. Collection of loans is also impressive with a 98 percent collection rate. Unfortunately, demands for loans exceeds the amount of money the bank has available. Only 10 percent of potential borrowers receive loans, and the average size of a loan is only US$62. (Le and Sikor 41-42)

The government needs to redouble its efforts to attract public and private investment in this bank. More investments would enable the bank to offer more loans to rural farmers, including ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities could receive loans for agricultural improvement and hopefully replace the need for swidden farming. Such loans would also promote long-term settlement patterns because farmers could maintain paddy fields through fertilizers and new farming techniques for extended periods of time and limit environmental damage such as deforestation, soil erosion and crop failure.


In conclusion, one of the dangers of doi moi is a fixation on short-term gains without consideration for long-term sustainability. This attitude can have devastating consequences for Vietnam as a country and for national minorities in particular. The Vietnamese government must recognize that population growth and unsustainable agricultural practices will leave northern mountain minorities in a vulnerable position. If steps are not taken to educate these people about the dangers of high fertility rates and environmentally unsound agricultural practices, then these ethnic minorities will eventually become a burden on the state as their resources disappear. Eventually, minority problems will affect Vietnam as a whole because population density, environmental hazards and increased welfare demands will have repercussions for the entire country. The Vietnamese government bears some responsibility for ensuring a healthy future for the country; however, ethnic minorities also need to realize that they must actively participate in finding a solution. They cannot expect to benefit from inaction; they need to design grassroots movements to help ethnic communities deal with changes in the environment, education and population. Only through efforts on both sides will Vietnam adapt to its changing environment.


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