Project Recipients: Ethnic Minorities

Despite its relatively small size, Vietnam boasts a vast diversity of ethnic minorities living throughout the country, most commonly in the mountainous regions in Central and Northern Vietnam. Of the 54 ethnicities present, the ethnic majority (comprising 86% on the 1999 census) are Kinh people. The other 53 ethnic tribes are much smaller, with many maintaining their own language. The three ethnic tribes living in Quang Ngai province are the Hre, Cor and a small population of Xo-Dang living in the Tay Son district.

Tension has existed for centuries between the ethnic people and the Vietnamese people. This tension has been exploited by outside forces for many years in an effort to create uprisings by the ethnic tribes against the Vietnamese government. Ethnic tribes, which they called Montagnards, were trained by the U.S. during the American war in Vietnam to fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Since the end of that war other outside influences, some religious, have come into the mountains to foment uprisings. For these reasons communication between foreigners and the ethnic people is severely restricted, especially in the central provinces. It is an important measure of the trust the Quang Ngai provincial government has in MQI that we have been allowed to work in Hre and Cor villages, some of which present the most challenging economic conditions in the region.

The programs MQI has been implementing for the ethnic people these past five years are micro-credit programs. We hope to expand our programs to include digging wells for fresh water, in addition to building kindergarten and primary schools.

The Hre People

The Hre population of Vietnam is just above 120,000 people, mainly living in the west of Quang Ngai and the neighboring Binh Dinh province. Speaking their own language (which is taught in schools after the national Vietnamese and English (taught as the 2nd language nation-wide), Hre is part of a wide group of languages called the “Mon-Khmer Group”.

The Hre are polytheistic, believing that there are a large number of spirits. They have long tradition of wet rice cultivation, following the same techniques as is commonly found in the southern delta. Basketry and weaving were quite developed, but weaving has declined in recent decades as textile industries have been increasingly popular in the major cities. Traditionally the Hre live in raised houses (built on stilts, with floor about one metre high, walls slanting out upward, and a gabled roof).  Each village has elders who play an important role in an array of decisions, and like Vietnamese people of all ethnicities, everyone shares relatively few surnames. Dinh, Nguyen, Ha and Pham being the most popular among the Hre.
The Cor People

The Cor have a population of almost 30,000, settling in the Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces. Like the Hre, the Cor ethnic language belongs to the Mon-Khmer Group. Animists even today, the Cor believe that there is little or no separation between the physical and spiritual world, meaning that in addition to humans, there is a life-spirit in animals, plants, and rocks.  Because of its centrality as food-item, the spirit of rice is especially important. 

The Cor live mainly on slash-and-burn agriculture, growing rice, maize, cassava and other plants in the newly cleared areas. Cinnamon in particular has become a specialty of the regions in which they live, and the production of high-quality cinnamon for trade and even export has been a more recent development, bringing a significant amount of the village income.

The Cor lived in long raised houses, large enough to accommodate extended families (a more common living arrangement than with the Hre). Within each house there are individual compartments for the nuclear families within the larger group, and a communal kitchen. In recent years, interaction with the ethnic majority population has initiated the beginning of a shift to smaller homes (for the nuclear family) built on the ground.

Interestingly, in the past each lineage of the Cor had no individual family name, and all member all adopted the family name Dinh. In recent decades, it has become common to adopt the family name Ho, after that of President and national icon Ho Chi Minh.
The Xo-Dang People

With a population of about 140,000 people, most Xo-dang live in Kon Tum province, with scattered groups in the mountain areas of Quang Ngai and Quang Nam provinces. Their names are Xo-deng, and like the Cor and Hre, their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer Group.

Like the Cor, the Xo-Dang are animists and worship a variety of spirits, especially those related to whatever form of production is practiced by the village. Farming is done mainly with the traditional slash-and-burn method, though some sub-groups cultivate rice using the wet-field method. Cattle and poultry raising, hunting, picking and gathering, fishing, basketry, weaving and blacksmithing are other common occupations; a wider variety than the other two groups possibly because of the scattered nature of the population.
In some areas, Xo-dang live as multi-generation families in elongated houses, but it is becoming increasingly common for nuclear families to split off and live in their own home. Traditionally, Xo-Dang do not use a family name or surname, but each individual’s name is prefaced by a character indicating sex – A for men, Y for women (for example: A Nhong, Y Hen).
***Most of the information about the Hre, Cor, and Xo-Dang people included here comes from his The Great Family Of Ethnic Groups In Viet Nam and Vietnam-Image Of The Community Of 54 Ethnic Groups, published in Vietnam.

Mrs. Pham Thi Dao

In 2003 MQI funded a micro-credit fund in the mountainous village of Truong Ke.

In March of 2004 we returned to this village to meet some of the ethnic women who had received a loan through this fund. One of the women we met was Mrs. Pham Thi Dao. Mrs. Dao told us that just two months earlier her only surviving son had been killed by lightning and shortly after that her only surviving grandson had been killed by a poisonous snake. She does have a granddaughter, however, (who was too shy to come out for a photograph) who is young and strong. Therefore Mrs. Dao was allowed to borrow money to buy a cow.

Many, if not most, of the women who receive loans through MQI’s micro-credit programs have painful histories like Mrs. Dao. We cannot bring her loved ones back to life, but we can ease the burden in her life through her loan.