Vietnam has 54 ethnic minority groups, each with different cultures, lifestyles, and traditions. The modern world, however, bridges distances and make such differences fade away. In the northern mountainous area it is no longer unusual for Kinh people to marry H’Mong, Tay, Nung or Dao people, while in the central highlands are Ede - M’Nong and J’Rai - Ba Na couples. Due to geographical or religious conditions, though, there remain communities that are still quite isolated despite the fact that they live not far away from large cities. It has long been interesting to learn about their traditions and religions, which have been maintained over generations. Many communities have been recently relocated by local authorities, making their uniqueness less distinctive but some retain their own characteristics.
On the water
Three years ago Vung Vieng, which used to be the second-largest fishing village of the seven in Halong Bay, was home to more than 60 households, whereas Cua Van, the largest village, had more than 200 households. Tourists were interested in learning about and observing their daily life on boats, from eating to earning a living from fishing. The Quang Ninh Provincial People’s Committee decided last year to relocate the villagers to the mainland but allowed them to continue working in the area for a living. In Cua Van village are houseboats kept for tourism purposes, with classrooms and cultural houses, and some fishing boats.
In central Thua Thien Hue province, for hundreds years there were communities living on Tam Giang Lagoon and the Huong (Perfume) River, under Gia Hoi Bridge. During feudal times people living in the lagoon were considered outlaws. They were known derisively as nguoi thuy dien (people living on the water). Despised and driven away, many stayed on the water and never set foot on land during their entire lives. Until recently people in these communities lived scattered on the lagoon and were uneducated and isolated from people on land. In 2009 local authorities began relocating them from the lagoon to apartment buildings in the city, arranging work and offering education. Since then the lagoon has become a place to raise and fish rather than a living space. But images of stilt houses on water and of boats with people living on them can still be seen. Visitors can rent a boat to visit Tam Giang Lagoon and set foot on a stilt house of a few square metres built from bamboo and wood. They can also buy seafood and have local people prepare and cook it. Such meals give the impression of a liberal life but it is one of uncertainty for the group.
In the mountains
Deep inside the mountainous area of north-central Nghe An province is a group of people called the Dan Lai. For more than four centuries they lived in isolation, without any communication with other groups in the area. In the early 1980s, soldiers in the border area, following some vague rumours, ‘discovered’ them and found that they were in a process of gradually disappearing in number. The people lived as though it were prehistoric times, maintaining their custom of sleeping in a sitting position around a fire, their chins resting on a piece of wood. The women even gave birth in a sitting position. After approaching them, local authorities instructed them to sleep in a bed, send their children to school, and bring their sick to clinics. Resettlement houses were built for them. Decades later, though, they still live in isolation, preserving their many customs, both good and bad. It’s not easy for visitors to meet them because access is only by canoe upstream along the Giang River, which is not easy to navigate.
Islanders with unique religion
Off the coast of Ba Ria Vung Tau province is a community in which people have shared the same faith, called Mr Tran’s Faith, for 125 years. Nowadays their Nha Lon, or Great House, (built in 1910 and finished in 1928) is a popular tourism attraction on Long Son Island.
The story began in 1900 when Le Van Huu brought some of his students and family members to the island on boats from Ha Tien in the Mekong Delta’s Kien Giang province. He never wore a shirt, which is why he was known as Mr Tran (with tran meaning naked in Vietnamese). He exploited the deserted land, built houses, and taught his children and the students about good works and good deeds. He created a community that has its own religious beliefs, but with no prayer books and not many ceremonies. People on the island live close together, taking care of the Great House. Each time they have any death anniversary or important event they gather and allocate duties, as has happened since the very beginning.
Considered a folkloric faith, Mr Tran’s Faith created unique living habits, such as the men having long hair and their faith only being learned orally. They show great hospitality and always warmly welcome visitors. Time has passed by and many changes seen, but at the Great House everything remains as it was more than a century ago.
There are many other communities like these in Vietnam, with their own unique cultural and social characteristics. Together they form a rich, diverse and attractive cultural feature of the country.