Chinese and Romanized Vietnamese writing

There are around 750,000 Chinese in Vietnam (2019). They make up less than one percent of Vietnam’s population. These numbers do not always reflect the full extent of Chinese presence. Partially assimilated Chinese are often not counted as Chinese. There are many levels and degrees of mixed blood. Around 1 million Chinese were counted in Vietnam (2 percent of the population) in the 2000s. In the 1990s it was estimated that there were about one million Chinese in Vietnam (two percent of the population). There used to be more but many were forced to leave. Many of the so-called Boat People that fled Vietnam during a much-publicized exodus between 1975 and 1980 were Chinese Vietnamese (See Boat People). [Source: Wikipedia]

Vietnam's ethnic Chinese still constitute Vietnam's largest minority group even though there are less of them than there once were. They live in all parts of Vietnam from north to south, in both urban centers and rural regions but are concentrated mostly on the south and in urban areas. There were 862,371 of them in 1999 according to the census taken that year. Ho Chi Minh City alone is estimated to have about half a million Cantonese-speaking ethnic Chinese residents.

The Chinese in Vietnam are called the Hoa or Han. A few Hoa live in small settlements in the northern highlands near the Chinese frontier, where they are also known as Ngai. Traditionally, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Chinese have retained a distinctive cultural identity, but in 1955 North Vietnam and China agreed that the Hoa should be integrated gradually into Vietnamese society and should have Vietnamese citizenship conferred on them.

Some Chinese Vietnamese are married to Viets and are well assimilated. Others have married other Chinese and remain distinctly Chinese. Some socialize in associations based on which areas of China they originated from. The area they originally come from also determines which dialect or language they speak. Many Chinese have traditionally lived together on places like Cholon in Saigon. The China are known for being superstitious and their religious practices often incorporate elements of Taosim. Buddhism, Confucianism and animism. [Source: Culture Shock! Vietnam by Claire Ellis, 1995]

History of Chinese in Vietnam

The Chinese did well in the French colonial period in the 19th and early 20th century. French laws discouraged participation in commerce by the native population but encouraged Chinese participation. There was a substantial increase in the Hoa population. The country's limited foreign and domestic trade were already in the hands of Chinese when the French arrived. The French chose to promote the Chinese role in commerce and to import Chinese labor to develop road and railroad systems, mining, and industry. French colonial policy that lifted the traditional ban on rice exports at the end of the nineteenth century also attracted new waves of Chinese merchants and shopkeepers seeking to take advantage of the new export market. Vietnam's growing economy attracted even more Chinese thereafter, especially to the South. Already deeply involved in the rice trade, the Chinese expanded their interests to include ricemilling and established a virtual monopoly. [Source: Library of Congress]

Chinese junk

In 1970, Chinese Vietnamese made up 5.3 percent of the population of South Vietnam and controlled 70 to 80 percent of the commerce. In mid-1975 the combined Hoa communities of the North and South numbered approximately 1.3 million, and all but 200,000 resided in the South, most of them in the Saigon metropolitan area.

Restrictions on economic activity following reunification of the north and south in 1975 and the subsequent but unrelated general deterioration in Vietnamese-Chinese relations, which led to war in 1979, negatively impacted the Chinese-Vietnamese community. After the Vietnam War, the Chinese were targets and many fled or were driven out. Beginning in 1975, the Hoa bore the brunt of socialist transformation in the South, especially after the communist government decided in early 1978 to abolish private trade. This, combined with external tensions stemming from Vietnam's dispute with Cambodia and China in 1978 and 1979 caused an exodus of about 250,000 Hoa, of whom 170,000 fled overland into China from the North and the remainder fled by boat from the South. Many "boat people" left when the government closed down private businesses in 1978. An estimated 450,000 ethnic Chinese left Vietnam. Many were officially encouraged and assisted and some were expelled across the land border with China. The 1989 census counted 962,000 Chinese, barely changed from the 949,000 recorded in the 1979 census.

Influence of Chinese in Vietnam

As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Chinese minority wields great influence and have long been important in the Vietnamese economy. They have traditionally been active in rice trading, milling, real estate, and banking in the south and shop keeping, stevedoring, and mining in the north.

Before 1975 the northern Hoa were mainly rice farmers, fishermen, and coal miners, except for those residing in cities and provincial towns. In the South they were dominant in commerce and manufacturing. According to an official source, at the end of 1974 the Hoa controlled more than 80 percent of the food, textile, chemical, metallurgy, engineering, and electrical industries, 100 percent of wholesale trade, more than 50 percent of retail trade, and 90 percent of export-import trade. [Source: Library of Congress]

Dominance over the economy enabled the Hoa to "manipulate prices" of rice and other scarce goods. This particular source further observed that the Hoa community constituted "a state within a state," inasmuch as they had built "a closed world based on blood relations, strict internal discipline, and a network of sects, each with its own chief, to avoid the indigenous administration's direct interference." It was noted by Hanoi in 1983 that as many as 60 percent of "the former bourgeoisie" of the south were of Chinese origin.

In addition to be influential in business, the Hoa have traditionally practiced various occupations including agriculture, handicrafts, trading, fishing, and salt-making. Hoa farmers have a long tradition of cultivating submerged fields. They also worked as laborers, teachers, cadres, and other professionals.

Assimilation of Chinese in Vietnam

Chinese medicine shop in Southeast Asia

At one time, assimilation was easy for Chinese in Vietnam, where people speak a language somewhat related to Chinese, practice some Buddhism, follow Confucianism, and have many Chinese influences in their culture. Many Chinese intermarried with Vietnamese, took Vietnamese names and spoke Vietnamese at home.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ In Vietnam, it was once axiomatic that Chinese found low barriers to assimilation, since Vietnam had been deeply influenced by Sinitic culture, adopting Chinese characters, Mahayana Buddhism, and for a time a bureaucratic structure of government in which candidates for high office were selected through an examination system modeled on that of imperial China. However, colonial rule and its political aftermath have had an impact on the position of Chinese populations in Southeast Asia. For example, in the period of French colonial rule, French regulations discouraged Vietnamese but encouraged Chinese participation in commerce. [Source: Jean DeBernardi,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Vietnam’s Chinese community has traditionally lived mostly in urban areas on the south and centered in the Cholon district of Saigon. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, they "quietly play a pivotal role in finance...Everyone relies on overseas Chinese." Many of the hardworking and enterprising Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are descendants of people originally from the southern Chinese province of Fujian.

Hoa Chinese Culture

Chinese in Vietnam have traditionally build houses usually with three rooms and live close together. The families of the same lineage always reside together. In a Hoa family, the husband is the head of the household. The right of inheritance is reserved for the sons only. The eldest son always gets the greater part of the property. Parents decide the marriage arrangement of their children, and early marriages are common. The choices of a husband or a wife are often based on the desires of the family to have equal social standing or are dictated by business considerations.

According to customs, funerals must go through several rituals. The cycle starts with informing others of the mourning process, wearing mourning clothes, wrapping the corpse, opening the road for the dead soul, burying the dead, bringing their soul to the "country of Buddha in the west", and the last rite is the completion of the mourning process. Since respect for the dead is very important, in all villages and hamlets, there are temples, pagodas, and shrines built for veneration of the dead.

Traditionally, Hoa men have adopted a dress similar to the Nung, Giay, Mong, and Dao. Hoa women's garments consist of a pair of trousers, a five-panelled vest which falls to mid-thigh, and a short sleeve shirt with five-panels.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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