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The Vietnamese people ( or ) are an ethnic group originating from what is now northern Vietnammarker and southern Chinamarker. They are the majority ethnic group of Vietnam, comprising 86% of the population as of the 1999 census, and are officially known as Kinh to distinguish them from other ethnic groups in Vietnam. The earliest recorded name for the ancient Vietnamese people was known as the Lạc peoples.

Although geographically and linguistically labeled as Southeast Asians, long periods of interaction with their northern neighbors, the Chinese have placed them culturally closer to East Asians, or more specifically their immediate northern neighbours, the Southern Chinese and other tribes within the proximity of South China.


The ancient Vietnamese people were first known simply as the Lac or Lac Viet in recorded history and the country of Vietnammarker during that time was known as Văn Lang. Archaeological evidence of the bronze age Dong Son Culture, also known as Lac Society, suggest the ancient Vietnamese people were among the first to practice agriculture.

In 258 BC, An Dương Vương founded the kingdom of Âu Lạc in what is now northern Vietnam. In 208 BC, Chao Tuo (known as Triệu Đà in Vietnamese), a former Qin Dynasty general from China, allied with the leaders of the Yue peoples in what is now modern-day Guangdongmarker and declared himself King of Southern Yue. He defeated An Dương Vương and then combined Âu Lạc with territories in southern China and named his kingdom Nam Việt, or Southern Yue (Nam means "south"). Việt is cognate to Yue, which is the pronunciation of Yue in ancient Chinese and some modern southern Chinese dialects. The term was used in bai yue ("hundred Viet") for the various peoples in what is now southern China, including the regions of northern Vietnam.

According to a research study done by the Hopital Saint-Louis in Paris, France: "the comparison of the Vietnamese with other East Asian populations showed a close genetic relationship of the population under investigation with other Orientals," with the exception of seven unique markers. These results, along with remnants of Thai enzyme morphs, indicate a dual ethnic origin of the Vietnamese population from Chinese and Thai-Indonesian populations. According to a recent HLA study headed by laboratories at the Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipeimarker, Taiwanmarker, the Vietnamese people are classified in the same genetic cluster as the Miao (Hmong), Southern Han (Southern Chinese), Buyei and Thai, with a divergent family consisting of Thai Chinese and Singapore Chinese, Minnan (Hoklo) and Hakka.

Legend and early history

According to legend, the first Vietnamese descended from the dragon lord Lạc Long Quân and the female heavenly angel Âu Cơ. They married and had one hundred eggs, from which hatched one hundred children. Their eldest son Hùng Vương ruled as the first Vietnamese king.

The First Vietnamese

The earliest Vietnamese people are thought to have gradually moved from Indonesiamarker through the Malay Peninsula and Thailand until they settled on the edges of the Red River in the Tonkin Delta. Archaeologists follow a path of stone tools from the Early Pleistocene Age (600,000-12,000 BC), across Java, Malaysia, Thailand and north to Burma. These stone tools are thought to be the first human tools used in Southeast Asia. Archaeologists believe that at this time the Himalayas, a chain of mountains in northern Burma and China, created an icy barrier which isolated the people of Southeast Asia. During the Ice Age, (12,000-8,000 BC) the extreme northern and southern parts of the earth froze into giant glaciers and icebergs, while at the equator temperatures did not fall below freezing. Due to the formation of icebergs in the far north, the ocean levels around the equator dropped significantly. This resulted in the exposure of the shallow areas surrounding the coasts and islands of Southeast Asia which today is known as the Sunda Shelf.

It is generally thought that the exposed Sunda Shelf looked like a giant salt plain, and that perhaps people ventured out across this area to settle on other coasts or islands. Later, when the glaciers melted, the Sunda Shelf was again immersed in water. Because it is a relatively shallow body of water, it has always provided a safe area for traders and travelers in small boats to pass safely without the threat of high or choppy seas. In this way, the geography of the area has had a lot to do with the way in which cultures developed. As the map indicates, outside the Sunda Shelf are some deep ocean basins which were not often crossed until heavier and wider Chinese vessels (massive vessels from the Song Dynasty that dwarfed later European Man-of-war sailing ships) were able to traverse these deep and sometimes dangerous seas.

As the glaciers melted and the seas near these coasts rose, traders and other travelers who wanted to migrate to other areas, or perhaps to proselytize religion, used boats as transport. For the next 4 000 years, until 8 000 BC, people also moved across the mainland of Southeast Asia towards the Tonkin Delta, some stopping and settling along the way. Eventually, the descendants of these migratory peoples entered the Neolithic Age (from around 8 000-800 BC), when humans started to use simple stone tools. In the Early Neolithic Period (8000-2500 BC), those who arrived to settle along Vietnam's northern coasts were probably negritos, or short, dark curly-haired people who, according to one theory, came south from China. Remains of these people and their culture have been found in the Hoa Binh Caves along the Red River and in the Tonkin Delta. In the Middle Neolithic Period (2,500-2,000 BC), more people appeared in the area of present-day Vietnam and settled at another location called Bac Son, which is in a central area of the Tonkin Delta. These people were probably somewhat taller and lighter skinned than the negritos from Hoa Binh and were skilled in the art of basketry as well as the manufacturing and use of polished double-edged stone tools.

Earlier Vietnamese groups

Sometime after the advent of the societies found at Hoa Binh and Bac Son, another group of people developed a culture at Quynh van (Nghe-An) where an aspect of their religion was manifested in large mounds of mollusk shells which had been collected from the Red River Delta. Bodies had been buried under these piles of shells in a seated position with bent knees are the same position of many buried bodies found throughout Indonesia and the Philippines. This signifies to archaeologists that these early people had an advanced society based on fishing and that their religion was oriented toward the sea. At a location further south of the Tonkin Delta, in the central region of Vietnam's coast, remains of another culture have been found at Sa Huynh. This culture existed from about 4 000-1 000 BC. Tools, ornamental beads, and funerary jars have also been found at these archaeological sites. These jars were usually located at the water's edge and probably signified a dead person's journey out to sea. Throughout Southeast Asia, the Neolithic Period can be considered the period in which organized societies developed. During this period the Vietnamese people spread across a large area from the foothills of northern Vietnam's western cordillera “Truong Son” to the eastern coast. It is thought that they lived in small communities with groups of extended families living in a simple communal way. The growing of rice, their staple food, had developed into two distinct methods, shifting cultivation, done on a dry field, usually in upland areas, and wet rice cultivation, which involved the construction of dikes around rivers that collected water into knee-deep ponds in which the rice was grown.

Pictures of Vietnamese indigenous repelled in highlands and pejoratively called "Moï" (savage). They are now part of the 53 minorities.

Cultural and historical influences


Vietnam today is characterized by two major river deltas, the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong River Delta in the south. In prehistoric times a kingdom formed along the coasts north of the Mekong River Delta. It was composed of Malayo-Polynesian people and was highly influenced by Indian and Indonesian traders and religious people. This area developed into the kingdom of Champa which was similar to other Hindu-Buddhist civilizations which were being formed in Indonesia, Burmamarker, Thailandmarker, and Cambodiamarker.

Champa did not become an established kingdom until 192 AD after which time it became quite advanced with walled cities, books and archives, palaces, and monuments, many of which were built by slaves. Residents of Champa were able to grow two crops of rice per year with a sophisticated system of irrigation which was overseen by a water chief, someone selected to monitor the irrigation ditches and canals. While some cities in Champa remained centers of religion and trade, this kingdom was mostly made up of small territories in river valleys and on coastal plains, each with a local ruler who was seen by his subjects as a representative of the gods. The height of Cham civilization occurred during the 6th to 8th centuries. At this time, much trading occurred between the Chams and the highlanders who needed salt as well as with coastal villages in Vietnam and with China. Important trade items included elephant and rhinoceros tusks, cardamom, bee wax, aromatic woods and betel nut. However, when times were not going well in the small coastal city-states, the people turned to looting and pirating in other coastal towns of Champa and Vietnam. After centuries of these pirate raids, the Vietnamese began to fight back and eventually conquered Champa, but not before many aspects of Cham society were incorporated into the societies of Vietnam Cham society is organized in a cluster of City-States, not very different from ancient Greece, in contrast of centralized Vietnamese society influenced by China in the north.


Before the Chinese actually colonized Vietnam, groups from southern Chinamarker began to move into the Tonkin Delta in order to start new lives after being forced to leave their homelands. Thus, around the 3rd century BC, changes in China began to heavily influence the Dong Son culture which was thriving in Vietnam. One important series of changes occurred along the Yangtze River in southern China. According to historians, in 333 BC, three cultures, the Shu, the Ch'u, and the Yueh began to fight among themselves, causing the Yueh to move south in small scattered kingdoms. At the same time, the central power of northern China, the Ch'in Dynasty, began to split so that a large number of princes and members of the aristocracy also moved south to start their own small kingdoms. Cantonese "Yueh" gave the name "Viet".

The people of the Red River civilizations, also known as Lac society, began to feel the effects of these newcomers who gradually moved into their homelands. Many historians believe that it was not difficult for the Yueh to be incorporated into Lac society. However, the Au Lac lords began to fight with the Ch'in princes. While they were involved in this fighting, another group from the northwest, the Thuc (who had once been the Shu of the Yangtze River) took advantage of weakness in the area and asserted their authority. The legendary citadel of Co Loa, the remains of which can still be seen today. An Dương Vương's arrival explains the origins of the legendary Au Lac kingdom which is usually associated with the height of Dong Son culture.Vietnamese language may be representative of these inflences.

Prehistoric mythology

The movement and changing cultures of early Vietnam are explained through myths which give historians insight into what might have happened in the Dong Son era. The most well-known origin myth says the first Vietnamese people originated from the marriage of a dragon father and a fairy mother who had 100 sons. Because the dragon was a water creature and the fairy was a land creature, they decided they could no longer stay together. The fairy mother took 50 sons to the highlands, and the dragon father took 50 sons to the coast. One of the sons who went with the dragon father became the founder of the Hung Dynasty which is thought to have existed from as early as 2769 BC until 100 AD. The 50 sons who went to the coast are considered to be the people of the Lac Kingdom. According to historians and archaeologists, the Lac people were coastal people who had developed a sophisticated wet rice agricultural society from as early as 1500 BC. The Hungs, as depicted in the mythology, were mountain people who are believed to have had a reciprocal agreement with the Lac Kingdom so that the Hungs protected the Lacs from aggressive mountain groups in return for rice and other crops grown on the coastal plains of the Red River. These mythological stories, which in many cases can be matched with archaeological remains, tell of the joining of fire and water, or the earth people and the water people. The joining of these two elements has both historical and religious meaning.

Many historians believe that the original people of Vietnam came both overland and across the water bringing different cultures, languages, and types of people together in the Tonkin Delta. Some historians believe that the water god of the Dong Son people was the frog, which might explain the many frogs found on the Dong Son drums and might indicate that the first Dong Son people arrived in Vietnam by sea. Later this symbol was changed to the dragon following Chinese mythology. These origin myths were not written down by the Vietnamese people until about the 13th century AD, long after the Vietnamese had been colonized by the Chinese.

Origin myths also show how the early Vietnamese people saw themselves in terms of their environment. Since water and sun were the most important elements of nature, they were incorporated into their mythology in a way which gave the people and the elements a common origin. Much of early Vietnamese religion involved nature and human relationships with their surroundings. The early Vietnamese people compared the soil, the water, and the sun to God in animism. In these elements there was energy which benefited the people and the greater power to help or to destroy. At times this power was compared to that of a child who may cause great destruction without even realizing it. In the earliest times people believed in ghosts and spirits which were thought to dwell in every tree, stone, mountain, cloud, stream, and animal. Rocks and mountains were thought to be able to multiply. These spirits were said to be the wandering souls of the dead, the ancestors of the people who had settled nearby. This type of religion is known as an ancestor cult. Because the ancestor spirits were the medium between living people and the greater forces of nature, they had to be honored in rituals and sacrifices in order to maintain harmony between the elements, the spirits, the ancestors, and the people. Later, as the Vietnamese people were converted to Buddhism, Taoism, and then Confucianism by the Chinese, most villagers maintained these original beliefs—especially those involving ancestor cult and incorporated them into the new religions. This is an example of "creative borrowing" by a people while their own culture remains a strong underlying force.


Originally from northern Vietnam and southern China, the Vietnamese have conquered much of the land belonging to the Champa Kingdom and Khmer Empire over the centuries. They are the dominant ethnic group in most provinces of Vietnam, and constitute a significant portion of the population of Cambodiamarker.

Under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, they were the most persecuted group. Tens of thousands were murdered in regime-organized massacres. Most of the survivors fled to Vietnam.

During the sixteenth century, some Vietnamese migrated into Thailandmarker and China. In Thailand, they are mostly distributed in Isanmarker provinces such as Nakhon Phanommarker or Mukdahanmarker. In China, although somewhat more sinicized, their descendants still speak Vietnamese and form the Gin people of China.They are among the recognized minority groups in the People's Republic of China based especially in or around Guangxi Province.

When the Frenchmarker left Vietnam in 1954, some Vietnamese emigrated to France. However, there already have been ethnic Vietnamese residing and/or studying in France at least since the end of World War I. As a result of the partition of North and South Vietnam, nearly one million Vietnamese fled the North for the South to escape persecution. Meanwhile, a much smaller number of southerners joined the north.

The end of the Vietnam War prompted millions to flee the country escaping from the new Communist regime and Communists from the North. Being an international humanitarian crisis, many countries accepted Vietnamese refugees including United Statesmarker, Canadamarker, Great Britainmarker, Francemarker, West Germanymarker, and Australia. Tens of thousands had been sent to work or study in Central and Eastern Europe and later settled there after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vast majority among those from the north or those who stayed in reunified Vietnam after 1975.

See also

Notes and references

  4. Paul Mus, "Viêt Nam. Sociologie d’une guerre", Seuil, Paris, 1952.
  5. Thanh H. Vuong, "Théorie des contextes et relations internationales: départ de la première Guerre d’Indochine", dans Études Internationales, Vol. XVII, No. 3, pp, 571-597, septembre 1986
  6. Thanh H. Vuong, "colonisations du Viêt Nam et colonialisme vietnamien", dans Études Internationales, Vol. XVIII, No. 3 pp. 546-571, septembre 1987

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