The 'Communal House' tradition
Communal houses are spread across Vietnam in both rural communes and urban wards, and are often referred to as ‘temples’. They combine the role of a village meeting-room and a place of worship.
A typical Vietnamese communal house resembles a pagoda and can be as richly decorated. Its function is to provide a space for local people to meet and for ceremonies to be held. The commune house is usually dedicated to one of Vietnam’s great national heroes, or a highly regarded local ancestor. The worship of great ancestors is an activity distinct from religious worship, which normally takes place in a Buddhist or Taoist pagoda, and the worship of family ancestors, which is usually conducted at home or in a pagoda on important festival days and significant family anniversaries.Inside, there is likely to be an effigy of the person(s) to whom the communal house is dedicated and an altar to worship the revered ancestor. If the commune has an annual festival, it will be based at the communal house.
Some ethnic minority groups also have communal houses – the rong houses of the Ba Na, and the longhouses of the E De peoples are obvious examples.
The communal houses of Vietnam are distinctive – in the rest of Indochina and in Thailand, ‘wats’ combine religious and secular functions on the same site. In Vietnam, the religious and secular functions are separated.