• Indigenous peoples in Vietnam

    Indigenous peoples in Vietnam

The Indigenous World 2021: Vietnam

As a multi-ethnic country, Vietnam has 54 recognized ethnic groups, 53 of which are Ethnic Minority (EM) groups. These groups comprise an estimated 14.1 million people or around 14.7% of the country’s total population of about 96 million. Each EM group has its own distinct language, culture and traditions. The term “ethnic minorities” is often used interchangeably with “Indigenous Peoples” by international agencies working in Vietnam.

All EM have Vietnamese citizenship, and Vietnam’s constitution recognizes that all people have equal rights. Among EM communities, there is a higher proportion of peoples living in poverty. Multidimensional poverty rates in the Northern Mountains and Central Highlands regions, where the majority of EM live, is more than two times higher than the national average. The proportion of people without education certificates in EM groups is double that of the Kinh and Hoa (Chinese-Vietnamese) ethnic groups. In addition, the gaps in income and expenditure between the EM and Kinh and Hoa people have widened over recent years. 

Vietnam is a member of seven out of nine core international human rights instruments and continues to consider the possibility of accession to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances (CPED) and the International Convention on the Protection of all Rights of Migrant Workers and their families (ICRMW). Vietnam has not ratified ILO Convention No.169  and, although Vietnam voted in favour of the UNDRIP, it does not recognize ethnic minorities as Indigenous Peoples.

Vietnam has introduced a number of policies, laws and programmes[1], [2], [3], [4] in recent years, developed with consideration of the core international human rights instruments to which Vietnam is a party.

In April, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc approved a programme entitled “Protection and development of EM in the 2021 - 2030 period”. This programme, which targets EM with very small populations, i.e. those with populations of less than 10,000, will be implemented in 12 provinces and will address the social and health issues affecting these groups, including maternal and child health, malnutrition, child marriages, etc.[5]

In June 2020, the National Assembly adopted a landmark programme, the National Target Programme (NTP) on Social and Economic Development for Ethnic Minority Groups and Mountainous Areas for 2021-2030. This programme is the first of its kind in that it addresses various issues contributing to the low socio-economic indicators of the EM and it is expected to boost socio-economic development in these areas and drastically reduce poverty amongst the EM. The programme sets multiple targets in the socio-economic sphere, the environment and biodiversity protection, etc. Due to the limited capacity of the national budget, the programme will initially prioritize improving local livelihoods and infrastructure in dire need, housing, production land allocations and clean water for EMs. In September, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc approved the programme’s implementation plan.[6]

In addition to the NTP, the government took a number of decisions in 2020 that are of immediate relevance to EMs.

In December, the government introduced a priority regime of admission to public education institutions for EM students, specifically mentioning EMs with small population or EMs from areas with difficult socio-economic conditions where there are few if any EM holding public offices or working as civil servants and public employees. The system will come into effect in January 2021.[7]

Also in December, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc approved an extension of the government project “Strengthening international cooperation to support socio-economic development in ethnic minority areas” to 2025. The project, initiated in 2013, aims to boost support and investments in EM areas and exchange of experiences with other countries, promote cooperation and exchange of experiences with international organizations, overseas collectives and individuals and thus contribute to the successful and effective implementation of the NTP.[8]

In December, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued a guideline on the Regular organization of festivals, exchanges, cultural, sports and tourism events in EM areas and nationally for the period 2021-2030. In the true spirit of a highly centralized state, the guideline details the frequency, structure, award structure and awards, as well as processes around organizing festivals. The overall aim of the guideline is to assist local authorities with the preparation and organization of events, ensuring “appropriate scale and frequency, to avoid spread of ostentation and waste and, at the same time, encourage people. To ensure that ethnic minorities preserve and promote traditional cultural values ​​in the process of national integration and development”.[9]

COVID-19 in Vietnam

The first COVID-19 case in Vietnam was recorded on 23 January 2020. In March and August 2020, the country experienced a second and third wave of COVID-19. As of the end of 2020, there had been 1,445 cases recorded and 35 deaths.[10] According to the report of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs (CEMA), there were only 5 EM people who tested positive with COVID-19, and all of them recovered.

The pandemic and, particularly social distancing policies, have had a major impact on the livelihoods and well-being of EM people.

On the one hand, the negative impact was due to the inadequate healthcare infrastructure available in areas inhabited by EM, most of them living in mountainous areas far from hospitals and clinics. Health facilities that are accessible to them often do not have the necessary equipment to treat COVID-19. Moreover, there has also been an evident lack of access to correct information about the virus, either because of limited access to the Internet or due to an absence of information in some EM languages, or because of the widespread dissemination of inaccurate information.

However, the most profound effect of the pandemic on EMs was not that of the disease itself but of the measures implemented to prevent its spread. Due to movement restrictions, EM could not access their usual markets and hence could not sell their produce. This, in turn, resulted in EMs being unable to gain a return on their investments or pay off loans and, consequently, not only being unable to buy necessary supplies for the next crop but also risking falling into further debt.

In addition, many migrant workers, mostly men, who lost their jobs in cities and abroad moved back, often without any savings, to their home communities. These people, who in normal circumstances are seen as a source of income for their families, have been turned by the pandemic and by the government measures adopted in response to it, into an additional burden for households that were already in a precarious situation, often due to a scarcity of farmland (which is the most common reason for migrants to leave their home communities). Given that most of the domestic work is on the women’s shoulders, this also meant a further burden for EM women in these households. On some occasions, migrant workers found themselves stranded in cities without any funds or income, unable to return to their home communities. The loss of income due to COVID-19-related restrictions on movement has resulted in many people falling into poverty and, as a result, there has been an increase in the number of people falling victim to human trafficking.[11] The pandemic has also badly affected the practice of labour exchange which, in some cases, resulted in a reduction in agricultural production.

Finally, in the periods of lockdowns, impoverished EM children were not only absent from school but, due to the lack of mobile Internet devices, were unable to access online schooling.[12]

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Government of Vietnam has implemented various measures to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on the population. Among others, the government has subsidized a reduction in electricity prices for workers whose contracts were terminated or who were forced to take unpaid leave, as well as for poor households and those on the brink of poverty.[13]

Unfortunately, the government support was not designed to address all the complexities of the EM situation. For example, the government's VND 62,000 billion (approx. USD 2.6 billion) package was not made available to migrant workers who returned home to their native communities.

Only a small proportion of migrant workers received any assistance and this mostly came in the form of food assistance from foreign agencies and local social assistance groups.[14] For example, in Ha Giang province in northern Vietnam, with funding and cooperation from the Government of Japan and the Multilateral Trust Fund, the UN Development Fund provided support to 1,200 poor EM households whose livelihoods had been severely affected by COVID-19. In addition, 600 members of the linen cooperatives in the same province were supported financially since those cooperatives were forced to close because of the virus. Through this support, people had funding for essential needs as well as to recover their livelihoods, such as purchasing seedlings, cattle and similar, and personal protective equipment for pandemic prevention.[15] In Lao Cai province, also in northern Vietnam, UN Women and the Lao Cai Women's Union organized a programme entitled “Giving multi-purpose monetary assistance to EM women affected by COVID-19”. The programme offers financial support so that those affected by the pandemic can buy food, essential items and invest in their livelihoods for recovery.[16]

However, most of the support received by EMs was directed at supporting the daily food needs of those affected and did not address the issue of recovery from the mid- to long-term effects of the pandemic.


Lương Thị Trường is the director of the Vietnamese NGO Centre for Sustainable Development in Mountainous Areas (CSDM) and Coordinator of Vietnam Indigenous Knowledge Network (VTIK). She belongs to the Thai ethnic minority in Vietnam.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Open Development Vietnam. “Decision No. 1557/QD-TTg approving a number of MDG indicators for ethnic minorities associated with the SDGs after 2015.” 10 September 2015. https://data.vietnam.opendevelopmentmekong.net/en/dataset/decision-no-1557-qd-ttg-approving-a-number-of-mdg-indicators-for-ethnic-minorities-associated-with- Government of Vietnam. “The National Action Plan for the implementation of the 2030 sustainable development agenda.” 10 May 2017. https://vietnam.un.org/index.php/en/4123-national-action-plan-implementation-2030-sustainable-development-agenda#:~:text=The%20National%20Action%20Plan%20to,were%20approved%20at%20the%20Summit


[3] Ủy ban Dân tộc. “Quyết định Ban hành Chương trình hành động thực hiện Kế hoạch phát triển kinh tế - xã hội vùng đồng bào dân tộc thiểu số và miền núi giai đoạn 2021-2025.” 21 August 2020. http://csdl.ubdt.gov.vn/noidung/vanban/Pages/chi-tiet-vbpq.aspx?ItemId=20174

[4] The Parliament of Vietnam. “Resolution 88/2019/QH14 on approving Master Plan on Socio-economic development of Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous areas 2021-2030.” 2019. https://data.vietnam.opendevelopmentmekong.net/en/dataset/resolution-88-2019-qh14-on-approving-master-plan-on-socio-economic-development-of-ethnic-minorities/resource/806057e1-14a1-4883-af3b-ad69d0cd87a7

[5] There are 16 EMs with a population of less than 10,000 people, of which 05 have under 1,000 people, with a total of 74,359 people, accounting for 0.08% of the national population, equivalent to 0.55% of the EM population. Nguyên, Phương. “Nâng cao chất lượng dân số của các dân tộc thiểu số rất ít người.” Mặt trận, 12 July 2020. http://tapchimattran.vn/dai-doan-ket/nang-cao-chat-luong-dan-so-cua-cac-dan-toc-thieu-so-rat-it-nguoi-36171.html

[6] Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs. “Thủ tướng Chính phủ Nguyễn Xuân Phúc ký Quyết định ban hành kế hoạch triển khai Chương trình mục tiêu quốc gia phát triển KT-XH vùng đồng bào DTTS và miền núi giai đoạn 2021-2030.” 17 September 2020. http://cema.gov.vn/phat-trien-kinh-te-xa-hoi-vung-dong-bao-dan-toc-thieu-so-va-mien-nui.htm

[7] Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs. “Quy định mới về chế độ cử tuyển đối với học sinh, sinh viên dân tộc thiểu số.” 15 December 2020. http://cema.gov.vn/tin-tuc/tin-tuc-su-kien/y-te-giao-duc/quy-dinh-moi-ve-che-do-cu-tuyen-doi-voi-hoc-sinh-sinh-vien-dan-toc-thieu-so.htm

[8] Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs. “Kéo dài hỗ trợ phát triển KT - XH vùng đồng bào dân tộc thiểu số đến năm 2025.” 22 December 2020. http://www.cema.gov.vn/tin-tuc/tin-tuc-su-kien/chu-truong-chinh-sach/keo-dai-ho-tro-phat-trien-kt-xh-vung-dong-bao-dan-toc-thieu-so-den-nam-2025.htm

[9] Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs. “Tổ chức định kỳ ngày hội VHTTDL vùng đồng bào dân tộc thiểu số.” 21 December 2020. http://www.cema.gov.vn/tin-tuc/tin-tuc-su-kien/van-hoa-van-nghe-the-thao/to-chuc-dinh-ky-ngay-hoi-vhttdl-vung-dong-bao-dan-toc-thieu-so.htm

[10] Google. “COVID-19 Map.” 2021. https://news.google.com/covid19/map?hl=vi&mid=%2Fm%2F01crd5&gl=VN&ceid=VN%3Avi

[11] Vu Thanh Long, iSEE, Vietnam Pioneer Network. “BÁO CÁO CHUYÊN ĐỀ.” 2020. http://isee.org.vn/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Tac-dong-Covid-toi-mot-so-cong-dong-dan-toc-thieu-so.pdf

[12] Vu Thanh Long, iSEE, Vietnam Pioneer Network. “BÁO CÁO CHUYÊN ĐỀ.” 2020. http://isee.org.vn/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Tac-dong-Covid-toi-mot-so-cong-dong-dan-toc-thieu-so.pdf

[13] THƯ VIỆN PHÁP LUẬT. “QUY ĐỊNH VỀ VIỆC THỰC HIỆN CÁC CHÍNH SÁCH HỖ TRỢ NGƯỜI DÂN GẶP KHÓ KHĂN DO ĐẠI DỊCH COVID-19.” 24 April 2020. https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/lao-dong-tien-luong/Quyet-dinh-15-2020-QD-TTg-ho-tro-nguoi-dan-gap-kho-khan-do-dich-COVID19-441047.aspx; BÁO ĐIỆN TỬ. “Mở rộng đối tượng được hỗ trợ do ảnh hưởng của COVID-19.” 19 October 2020. http://baochinhphu.vn/Chi-dao-quyet-dinh-cua-Chinh-phu-Thu-tuong-Chinh-phu/Mo-rong-doi-tuong-duoc-ho-tro-do-anh-huong-cua-COVID19/411244.vgp; BỘ LAO ĐỘNG. “Chính phủ ban hành Nghị quyết số 154/NQ-CP sửa đổi, bổ sung một số biện pháp hỗ trợ người dân gặp khó khăn do đại dịch COVID-19.” 21 October 2020. http://www.molisa.gov.vn/Pages/tintuc/chitiet.aspx?tintucID=223218; Ministry of Health Portal. “Chỉ thị số 15/CT-TTg của Thủ tướng Chính phủ : Về quyết liệt thực hiện đợt cao điểm phòng, chống dịch COVID-19.” 27 March 2020. https://moh.gov.vn/web/dich-benh/cac-van-ban-chi-dao-cua-dang-nha-nuoc/-/asset_publisher/zRev3D15XCJB/content/chi-thi-so-15-ct-ttg-cua-thu-tuong-chinh-phu-ve-quyet-liet-thuc-hien-ot-cao-iem-phong-chong-dich-covid-19; Ministry of Health Portal. “Thủ tướng Chính phủ vừa ban hành Chỉ thị số 16/CT-TTg ngày 31/3/2020 về thực hiện các biện pháp cấp bách phòng, chống dịch COVID-19.” 31 March 2020. https://moh.gov.vn/web/dich-benh/cac-van-ban-chi-dao-cua-dang-nha-nuoc/-/asset_publisher/zRev3D15XCJB/content/thu-tuong-chinh-phu-vua-ban-hanh-chi-thi-so-16-ct-ttg-ngay-31-3-2020-ve-thuc-hien-cac-bien-phap-cap-bach-phong-chong-dich-covid-19

[14] Vu Thanh Long, iSEE, Vietnam Pioneer Network.“BÁO CÁO CHUYÊN ĐỀ.” 2020. http://isee.org.vn/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Tac-dong-Covid-toi-mot-so-cong-dong-dan-toc-thieu-so.pdf

[15] Tạp chí điện tử Bảo hiểm Xã hội. “UNDP hỗ trợ người dân tộc thiểu số nghèo bị ảnh hưởng bởi Covid-19 tại Hà Giang.” 23 December 2020. http://baobaohiemxahoi.vn/vi/tin-chi-tiet-undp-ho-tro-nguoi-dan-toc-thieu-so-ngheo-bi-anh-huong-boi-covid19-tai-ha-giang-5d8bd00f.aspx

[16] Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs. “Hỗ trợ tiền cho phụ nữ dân tộc thiểu số bị ảnh hưởng bởi đại dịch Covid-19.” 4 December 2020. http://www.cema.gov.vn/phong-chong-dich-covid-19/thong-tin-tuyen-truyen/ho-tro-tien-cho-phu-nu-dan-toc-thieu-so-bi-anh-huong-boi-dai-dich-covid-19.htm



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