Vietnam is a multi-ethnic state composed of fifty-four officially recognized ethnic groups. It is unique among Southeast Asian countries, but similar to China, in that its ethnic minorities constitute only a relatively small fraction of the national population but occupy a vast part of the national territory, giving them a strategic importance greatly disproportionate to their numbers. The Vietnamese minorities, even those in the Central Highlands, also primarily occupy sensitive borders. The minorities are thus an extremely important component of Vietnamese society and ethnic relations are a matter of intense concern to the ruling Communist Party and the state.
Vietnam’s ethnic minorities make up only 14 per cent of the national population. The lowland Vietnamese, who are officially designated as Kinh, form the vast majority … almost 66 million [in 1999] …
All of Vietnam’s ethnic groups live in the uplands with the exception of the Kinh, Hoa (ethnic Chinese), Khmer (Cambodians), and Cham [who speak Austronesian languages apparently most closely related that spoken in Aceh, Indonesia]….
From a political standpoint, perhaps the most significant distinction between groups is whether they have tribal or peasant forms of social organization. Shifting cultivators, … who are often collectively referred to by the French term ‘montagnards’, and the H’Mong and Dao of the northern mountains, display a tribal form of organization. Tribal society is relatively egalitarian and highly individualistic with leadership based on personal achievement rather than holding of a formal status. The Muong, Tay and Thai of the northern uplands were formerly organized as rank-stratified chiefdoms with people divided into nobles and commoners. Today, like the Cham and Khmer of the south they are peasant societies, as are the Kinh. Their social organization is hierarchical with centralized and institutionalized leadership. Of course, since 1954, all these groups have been integrated into the Vietnamese nation-state and their traditional forms of socio-political organizations largely supplanted by state administrative organs. But, at the local level, behaviour is still strongly shaped by traditional cultural institutions and values. These patterns have strongly influenced the extent to which different ethnic groups have been integrated into the socialist nation-state. Peasant societies were readily integrated into the nation-state by a simple substitution of administrative elites in which communist cadre took the place of traditional mandarins or local nobility. Integration of tribally organized groups has proved to be more difficult, reflecting the fact that leadership of such societies is charismatic rather than based on ascribed status or bureaucratic position, making it difficult for the state to either co-opt tribal leaders or replace them with their own cadre. Pan-tribal associations such as clans also provide ready-made channels of communication among different communities within the ethnic group and facilitate organization of separatist movements that are very difficult for state security organs to penetrate. Thus it is among tribal societies that separatist tendencies remain most evident. [emphasis added]
SOURCE: “Vietnam,” by A. Terry Rambo [really!], in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 108-112