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People & Society

Vietnam’s 2009 population was 85,789,573, yielding a population density of 259 persons per sq km (April, 2009). However, most people live in cities and near the densely populated Red or Mekong deltas.

A. Principal Cities

Four of the six major cities in Vietnam are located on or very near the coast. Vietnam’s largest metropolis is the southern port of Ho Chi Minh City. The administrative capital of Hanoi, Vietnam’s next largest city, lies in the Red River Delta about 140km upriver from the Gulf of Tonkin. Hai Phong is the major northern seaport; Da Nang is an important port in central Vietnam; Hue, located near Da Nang, is the former imperial capital and an important trade center; and Can Tho is the capital city of Mekong Delta.

B. Ethnic Groups

Vietnam’s population is relatively homogeneous. As much as 87 percent of the people are ethnic Vietnamese, descendants of the people who settled in the Red River Delta thousands of years ago. Ethnic Chinese constitute the largest minority group. Other important minorities are the Khmer and the Cham. In addition, there are also numerous tribal groups. While the ethnic Vietnamese live in lowland areas scattered throughout the country, most minorities are concentrated in specific regional areas. The ethnic Chinese, also known as overseas Chinese, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who settled in Vietnam during the last 300 years. They live primarily in the cities and provincial towns and number about 1 million. The Khmer (about 900,000) and the Cham (about 80,000) are descendants of peoples who lived in central and southern Vietnam. The tribal peoples are descendants of communities who migrated into Vietnam from other parts of Asia over a period of several thousand years. They are divided into about 50 different languages and ethnic groups (including the Tho, the Tay, the Nung, the Muong, and the Jarai) and live almost exclusively in the mountains surrounding the Red River Delta and in the Central Highlands. Taken collectively, the tribal peoples represent 13 per cent of the country’s total population.

C. Languages

The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese, a member of the Austro-Asiatic language family. Linguists usually consider Vietnamese to be a distinct language group, although it has some similarities to Chinese and other languages spoken in Southeast Asia. Like Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language, but its syntax is closer to Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. Other languages spoken in Vietnam are Chinese, English, French, Khmer, Cham, and various tribal languages spoken by peoples living in the mountains.

D. Religions

Vietnam contains a rich mixture of religions, reflecting the influence of many cultures. Early Vietnamese culture included three major belief systems: Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism (Taoism). Indian and Chinese monks brought Buddhism to Vietnam early in the 1st millennium AD, and Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) were both introduced after the Chinese conquest. After the restoration of Vietnamese independence in the 10th century, the royal court initially gave official support to all three-belief systems. Eventually, however, the court recognized only Confucianism, which is more a set of social ethics than a religious faith. Buddhism and Daoism continued to be popular among the mass of the population.
Today, the majority of Vietnamese are at least nominally Mahayana Buddhists. Of this number, only a minority are serious adherents. Roman Catholicism, which French missionaries introduced in the 17th century, is a major religion, claiming almost as many followers as Daoism. Other religions include such recently established sects as Hoa Hao (a variant of Buddhism practiced in the Mekong Delta) and Cao Dai, which blend various Asian and Western religious beliefs. Theravada Buddhism is practiced by the Khmer minority. Some tribal peoples practice spirit worship.


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