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Hybrid religions

The 1976 Constitution provides the Vietnamese with a relative freedom of worship. Most of them are Buddhist, but after a millennium of Chinese occupation (2C BC-10C AD), they have also assimilated Taoism and Confucianism into their own animistic folk religion, leading to a fusion known as the Triple Religion or Tam Giao. In the 17C, the arrival of Christianity, a monotheistic religion, produced a religious revolution and Vietnam is today the second Catholic Asian country after the Philippines (10 % of the population). Small, well-established sections of the community are Muslim and Hindu (0.5 %), and in the 20C, Buddhist movements such as Cao Dai and Hoa Hao also emerged in the Mekong Delta.


Vietnam’s various religious cults have always been grafted onto ancient native beliefs, according to which the universe, or rather the heavenly, earthly and human universes are ordered by visible and invisible forces, which must be appeased by way of offerings. The heavens are governed by the Lord of the Sky, helped by the spirits of the Sun, Moon, Wind, Rain and Stars, while the earthly world is governed by the Gods of the Earth and the Hearth, assisted by the Spirits of the Ground, the Rivers and the Mountains. Today many Vietnamese still cherish and maintain a small family altar devoted to the domestic triad of the Spirits of the Hearth, the Ground and the Earth Goddess.

A certain number of animals, including mythical divinities, are also worshipped for their supernatural powers. Among them, the dragon which symbolises masculinity (yang), virtue and prosperity, and the phoenix, which symbolises femininity (yin), grace and immortality. The tortoise represents long life, and the unicorn, happiness.


Taoism was created in China in the 6C BC by a certain Lao-tzu, a mystic, scholar, and contemporary and adversary of Confucius, and this philosophy spread through Chinese-dominated Vietnam some 2000 years ago. In opposition to Confucian doctrine which preaches man’s involvement in politics and society, Taoism advocates a more metaphysical view of the world and the search for individual liberty in order to reach the Tao, a morally correct “way” or “path”. The Tao represents a harmonious orderly universe, symbolised by a cosmic force both masculine (the active yang) and feminine (the passive yin) which governs nature and guides humankind by an unspoken, motionless law or moral code. Only a person’s inner mystical intuition, as opposed to their intelligence, will enable them to attain the goal of living in perfect harmony with the environment and, by extension, with the cosmos.

A conception of existence such as this, in which contemplation and inner happiness figure so prominently, was only accessible to scholars who had chosen to forgo the earthly world and its trappings. The population at large was content to seize upon the Taoist pantheon and to worship many gods, the statues of whom are invariably placed in Buddhist pagodas or smaller shrines, den. Among those worshipped are Thien Hau Thanh Mau, Goddess of the Sea and protector of sailors, fishermen and navigators and above all, Ngoc Hoang (Jade Emperor), who reigns over the skies in company with his three ministers, Nam Tao (Southern Star) who registers births, Bac Dau (Polar Star), deaths, and the Tao Quan (Spirits of the Hearth) who report on families at each New Year.


Introduced by the Chinese in the 3C, by the 15C Confucianism had become the state philosophy in Vietnam, ousting Buddhism which had filled this role up until then. This happened as a result of the victory of King Le Loi, a rich landowner who freed his country from its Chinese yoke thanks to the well-timed advice of his spiritual guide, a highly-astute Confucian scholar and strategist. Freed from the influence of the Buddhist monks, Vietnam became a secular nation. Followers of Confucius, while not refuting the existence of heaven, place more emphasis on human tasks and consequently on education, hard work and duty.

The definition of an honest man

The teachings of Confucius, a Chinese humanist who lived in the 6C BC, advocate a social and political morality which can be applied both to the family and the nation. An honest person must, first and foremost, respect two principles of goodness and justice and six moral virtues, namely, filial piety (hence the worship of ancestors), courage, loyalty, keeping one’s word, respecting rituals and accepting an order of precedence.

Finally, to maintain harmony and social cohesion, Confucian doctrine defines five natural relationships all based on obedience and respect. Subjects must respect their monarch, children their parents, wives their husbands, youth must respect age and there must also be respect between friends. Individuals are conceived essentially as social beings and their own individual freedom comes after their duties to the community.

It was only through education, available to all, that humans could acquire these moral values and thus, an honest person was fundamentally an educated person. Pupils had to study classical texts, drawn from Chinese history – very rich in knightly exploits – in which the hero’s behaviour illustrates the right attitude to be adopted in all life’s circumstances. Nowadays parents instil these precepts of good behaviour into their children, particularly through concepts such as ancestor worship and family solidarity.


The teachings of the Buddha

What is the root of human suffering and how can we break free of it? Such was the vast question Prince Siddharta Guatama attempted to answer. After attaining supreme knowledge as a result of meditation and asceticism, he became the Buddha – “Enlightened One” or “Awakened One” – and spent the rest of his life teaching a doctrine which opens the way to salvation and thereafter, to supreme bliss (nirvana). This is based on the observation that suffering is a universal phenomenon. Desire binds man to his painful existence and he remains a prisoner of his necessarily transitory passions, leading him to be ceaselessly reborn in this earthly world. According to the doctrine of karma, to put an end to this suffering, desire must be eliminated, thus terminating the cycle of rebirth (samsara). This is possible for any human being, providing he or she give up all forms of attachment and endeavour to apply the eight-fold path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Buddhism in Vietnam

Towards the late 2C, the Mahayana Buddhist school, or path of the Greater Vehicle, spread widely first in North Vietnam, before progressing southwards along the land and sea trading routes from India and China. Buddhism reached its apex in the 11C under the Ly dynasty, which regularly employed bonzes as ministers and advisors. In exchange the monasteries grew rich from the services rendered to the State. Nowadays, the monks live off the land which is allotted to them by the State and charity.

The Buddhist pantheon

The followers of Mahayana, breaking away from the austere canons of the school of the Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana) which remained faithful to the original teachings of the Buddha, strive to respect the three virtues of goodness, compassion and generosity. They venerate the Three Buddhas of the Past (Amitabha or A Di Da), of the Present (Sakyamuni or Thich Ca) and of the Future (Maitreya or Di Lac), as well as the bodhisattvas, “enlightened beings” who have selflessly chosen to renounce or postpone nirvana in order to help others find salvation. The most popular of these is Quan Am, or Avalokiteshvara, the Goddess of Mercy, often represented as a woman in a white tunic seated on a throne in front of pagodas. Two other very popular bodhisattvas are Van Thu, or Manjushri, God of Wisdom and Intelligence, and Dia Tang, or Kshitigarbha, patron of travellers and saviour of damned souls.

The daily life of Buddhist monks

Monks are recruited by the Buddhist School of Vietnam, a state body which represents two sects. Firstly, the Dhyana school (zen or thien), a way of meditation based on asceticism and which is the most widespread in Vietnam, and secondly, the Pure Land school (Tinh Do), only found in South Vietnam and based on praying to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Past, symbol of purity.

Monasteries are open to monks and nuns alike, who live in separate buildings. They are run by a Council of Elders, made up of monks chosen by the oldest members. The latter will have had at least 40 years of monastical existence and fulfil the role of spiritual leaders. Novices are welcomed from the age of 10. Monks or nuns can be ordained as young as 13, but only take their vows at the age of 20. Ordination is not however final and it is possible to return to secular life, providing the Council of Elders gives its permission.

Daily life is governed according to a sacrosanct ritual. From 5am to 11pm, the monastery’s residents pray and meditate, study or teach holy texts, garden and carry out farm work. Monks and nuns gather together to eat lunch and dinner in a communal dining room, in silence and at separate tables. On the 1st (new moon) and the 15th day (full moon) of the lunar calendar, the community (sangha) meets under the auspices of the Council of Elders to examine any breaches in discipline. During the first three months of the Buddhist fasting period, which takes place in the rainy season (July-September), the community lives in isolation but prays and studies together. Two or three times a year, the community will embark on a pilgrimage to one of the main Buddhist sites in China or India.


Although the first Portuguese missionaries spent brief periods in North Vietnam as early as the 16C, full-scale evangelisation of the country only really set in from 1615. Portuguese Dominicans and French Jesuits, sent by the Pope, founded missions in the two rival fiefs of the kingdom of Dai Viet, the Trinh in the North and the Nguyen in the centre and the South. These energetic men and women devised the quoc-ngus which consisted of a romanised version of Vietnamese script, complete with signs to properly express the language’s six tones. Bibles and prayer books were soon printed in this new script, enabling the country’s “Sunday School” pupils to quickly assimilate the new religion. By 1685, some 800 000 Catholics could be found in Vietnam.

This success distressed the Confucian mandarins and scholars, because the converts were no longer allowed to practise certain customs, such as ancestor worship, as these were considered superstitious. The Trinh, champions of the nation’s identity, expelled the Northern Mission in 1630. Over the next two centuries, relations between Vietnam’s sovereigns and the Catholic missionaries ranged from poor to bad and some persecution of Christians took place. Eventually, in the 19C, this provided France with an ideal pretext to invade the country. After the Geneva Accords (1954) which ended France’s presence and divided the country into two states, 600 000 Christians from the North fled to the South. In 1975, when the nation was reunified, all Christian institutions, such as schools, were nationalised.

The selection of priests and bishops remains a subject of controversy with the Communist authorities and, despite a more liberal policy since 1990, diplomatic relations with the Vatican have yet to be restored. The number of candidates allowed to sit entrance exams to seminaries, organised every two years, is subject to a quota (from three to twelve by diocese), and the ordination of priests requires special author­isation from the local People’s Committee. Since 1990, a delegation from the Vatican has travelled to Hanoi every year to meet with the Government Department of Religious Affairs in order to negotiate the choice of bishops proposed by the Pope.

Protestants are a minority (1 %). Converted in 1911 by missionaries from the Churches of Good News, the 300 000 followers are mostly Highlanders from central Vietnam.

Islam and Hinduism


Introduced by Indian merchants some 2000 years ago, Hinduism spread for over a millennium along the central coasts bordering the former kingdom of Champa. Today, several thousand Cham, in a minority since the disappearance of their State in the 15C, continue to worship Shiva.


Islam began to recruit followers among the Cham and also the Khmer living in the Mekong Delta, under the impetus of Malayan and Javanese merchants who landed on the coasts of Champa in the 15C. It failed to gain ground among the rest of the population due to competition from the Europeans who had a monopoly on both sea trade and the promotion of their own faith. Today’s several million Vietnamese Muslims have a relatively liberal approach to Islam, particularly as very few of their imams either speak or read Arabic fluently and possess very few copies of the Koran. They pray once a week on Fridays, instead of five times a day and only fast for three days during Ramadan, nor do they go on pilgrimages to Mecca. What is even more striking is that they continue to venerate lingams, phallic symbols of Shiva which are kept in Hindu temples, as well as the traditional spirits of the Ground and the Mountains who protect the Earth.

Other religious movements

Cao Dai

Ngo Van Chieu, a Vietnamese official who claimed to have had “visions” from the beyond, founded this religion which draws upon a variety of Eastern and Western doctrines. A serious student, Chieu was also Taoist, a vegetarian and passionately interested in human beliefs and occult sciences. In 1925 during a séance, a spirit revealed himself to Chieu, claiming to be the Jade Emperor, also called Cao Dai (“Supreme Palace or Being”), who had come to show the Way. He was later to reveal himself in the form of an eye, symbolising the Vision of the All.

Founded on Buddhism, the Cao Dai religion describes itself as the “third manifest­ation of God come to save humanity”, after those related by prophets such as Lao-tzu, Confucius, the Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus. The Cao Dai pantheon includes personalities chosen for their humanist and moral virtues, such as Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Winston Churchill, or the great poet, Nguyen Du.

Although its dogma and rituals are of Buddhist (desire to remove humanity from the cycle of rebirth) and Taoist (use of mediums to communicate with the other world) inspiration, its priesthood is patterned after that of the Roman Catholic Church. At the Holy See at Tay Ninh, a pontifical sovereign reigns over a complex religious body, composed of dignitaries, legislators, censors, officials and mediums, all of whom parade with great pomp four times a day. The male and female priests all take vows of chastity and poverty and are vegetarian.

Although non-violent, patriotic followers of Cao Dai formed militias which supported the French and then the Americans against the Communists, and their lands were confiscated and churches closed when the country was reunified in 1975. Since 1990, temples have been reopened and the religion now has a reported 2 million followers throughout the world.

Hoa Hao Buddhism

The Hoa Hao sect was founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So, a 20 year-old bonze from a village of the same name. Miraculously cured after a stay on Mt Sam, he returned to his village after studying with the master of the Tra Son Pagoda. One stormy night he fell into a trance and had a revelation of a reformed Buddhism, based on a renewed faith and individual awareness. From then on, Huyn Phu So began to preach a path of abstemious living and renunciation, the Phat Giao Hoa Hao (“peace and kindness in the path of the Buddha”), advocating private prayer at home rather than in pagodas, considered to be useless, as were superstitions and other occult rituals. The monk’s countless miracle cures attracted many disciples, but his nationalist beliefs led him to be interned by the French. During the First Indochina War, Huynh Phu So’s Japanese-armed militia force gained control of much of the Mekong Delta, until ensuing conflict with the Viet Minh led to his execution in 1947. In the 1960’s a faction of his followers, in opposition to the Catholic president, Diem, joined forces with the Viet Cong, but this didn’t prevent the latter from outlawing the sect in 1975 after reunification. It has however survived and today numbers some 1.5 million followers.

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