The Buddha statue in Nha Trang

Growing up as a pastor’s son, I’ve always found religion and its effects to be interesting and worthy of attention, and its role in SE Asia, and Vietnam in particular, is much different compared to how Americans generally regard the practicing of religious principles. In Vietnam it plays a huge role in shaping public attitudes and culture – officially invisible but publicly obvious – and I found myself becoming more interested in the complex dance between the laws of the State and their support, or lack thereof, for various religious groups. This post is an attempt to explore and dissect these relationships and religions in a very perfunctory manner. I do not profess to be an expert, but as an interested observer, this is what I’ve discovered.

Religion in Vietnam has a long and complicated past that is directly tied to its culture and history. While the country, following in the footsteps of other states established with Marxist-Leninist ideologies, remains officially and almost militantly atheistic, signs of believers are littered everywhere, and there are at least three major religions with a significant amount of adherents, as well as several smaller groupings.

The buddhist temple main room in Da Lat.

Vietnam’s constitution explicitly guarantees the freedom of religion, but in practice this is not always strictly true – talk is cheap, but actions speak volumes. While religions are almost never officially banned outright (although some organizations are denied recognition based on current leadership or perceived political values), there is a definite tendency to discriminate against believers and the religious sites of minority peoples, including only recently eliminated restrictions on large-scale worship sessions with more than 100,000 attendees.

Religions must register and be approved by the state, which regulates them under a framework of laws that is designed to ensure the support of State ideology. However, several religions are operating unofficially and experience various levels of harassment from government employees, depending on the application of State laws in various regions (State laws are often applied sporadically and unevenly from province to province in regards to religion). Foreign missionaries are prohibited from proselytizing, but many operate under the radar in less-regulated areas.

This is what the most recent Vietnamese constitution (approved in 1992 and amended in 2001) has to say specifically regarding the freedom to worship:

Typical catholic church in town.

Article 70

Citizens have the right to freedom of belief and religion, and may practice or not practice any religion. All religions are equal before the law.

Public places of religious worship are protected by law.

No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of faith and religion or to take advantage of the latter to violate State laws and policies.

Hello, Miami!

The earliest religions found in Vietnam were Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism (often referred to as the “triple religion,” or tam giáo) and these have co-existed for centuries, complementing the Vietnamese idea of ancestor worship well. This is by far the most practiced form of religion in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese peoples, when asked what religion they practice, frequently identify as non-religious due to this unique mixture of beliefs and systems, even though many will make journeys to religious sites multiple times per year and/or engage in ancestor or national hero worship. Interestingly, almost every street in HCMC is named after a national hero, and the same street names can be found in many major urban centers across the country.

Specific numbers regarding the proportion of current religious affiliations are difficult to come by (like virtually all information regarding Vietnam, almost none of it can be trusted outright). These numbers reflect various surveys conducted from 2006 to 2011 and are estimations:

  • Buddhists (tam giáo, Mahayana, and Theraveda): roughly 50-60% of the population 
  • Roman Catholics: 8-12%
  • Protestant (many minority groups, especially in the north, have converted to Protestantism): .5-2%
  • Hoa Hao (a branch of Buddhism founded in VN in 1939): 1.5-4%
  • Cao Dai (a syncretic monotheistic religion): 1.5-3%

A temple near my house.

The rest of the population consistently self-identifies as Atheistic, regardless of ancestor worship or veneration of national heroes. Again, I must stress that these numbers vary widely according to the source, but I’ve compiled an average of the most commonly found percentages.

Of these religions, the most interesting to me is Cao Dai. I had never come across the word ‘syncretic’ before and it’s alternately hilarious and fascinating – to me, it seems like an obvious grab to have it all, which is so appropriately Vietnamese. Wikipedia describes their creation beliefs thusly:

According to the Cao Đài’s teaching of creation, before God existed, there was the Tao, the nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. Then a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born (emanationism). The universe could not yet be formed and to do so, God created yin and yang. He took control of yang and shed a part of himself, creating the Mother Buddha to preside over yin. In the presence of yin and yang, the universe was materialized. The Mother Buddha is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the Universe. Caodaiists worship not only God the father, but also the Mother Buddha. Note that God’s importance and role is higher than that of the Mother Buddha. Also, the Mother Buddha, like all buddhas, is a part of Yang, and therefore is male. Yin is the female side, and the Mother Buddha oversees Yin, but is not a part of Yin. God is symbolized by the Divine Eye, specifically the left eye because Yang is the left side and God is the master of Yang. There are 36 levels of Heaven and 72 planets harboring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to Hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.[1]

I mean, wow. That’s like the attempt of one of my high school friends to make a jukebox musical out of Meatloaf songs. Seriously impressive work, Caodaiists! I wish I knew some of you myself, I have so many questions.

Religions follow different observances in day to day life (obviously). Some of their holidays and celebrations include the following:

A typical ancestor worship altar. This is the one
maintained at my place of work. Pomelos, flowers,
incense, candles, and (missing today) cigarettes.
  • Buddhists fast for 3 days each month, celebrate Buddha’s birthday in May, and some of them are vegetarian. 
  • Catholics will celebrate Christmas, Easter and All Saints Day. 
  • Every Viet celebrates Tet, the lunar new year, which occurs anytime from late January to early February, except catholics, who practice the new year on the 1st of January. 
  • Most Viets will observe Wandering Souls Day (the 15th day of the seventh lunar month) with worship and prayers.
  • Children are celebrated at the Mid-Autumn festival, held the 15th of August (Chinese Lunar calendar).
  • To mark their solidarity with working peoples around the world, Labor Day is observed May 1st.
  • Buddhists will also celebrate Ulambana in August, honoring parents and the sanctity of marriage.
  • They will also recognize the Remembrance of Qouan-Yin in March, honoring a bodhisattva who vowed in her lifetime to help anyone who called her name.
  • Catholics will hold a mass on November 24th in remembrance of Vietnamese Martyrs.

That’s a very small overview of the complicated religious system in Vietnam. As I find more I’ll append. I hope you found this as fascinating as I did!

And, because this song ROCKS: