complex patchwork of belief in Vietnam
In Vietnam, little is what it appears to be on the surface.
The country’s religion is an excellent example. Ostensibly,
Vietnam is a Buddhist country – around 80% of the population
regard themselves as adherents. Pagodas are everywhere,
and Buddhist festivals are embedded in the calendar. Also
evident are temples with large effigies of obviously non-Buddhist
deities and historical figures, as well as Christian churches
and signs of other religious sects.
Visitors often correctly assume that, as
in their own country, many different religions are practiced
in Vietnam. Not so! Although in most countries people commit
themselves to a specific religion, sect or cult, in Vietnam,
people subscribe to several different canons of beliefs
The bedrock of religious practice in Vietnam is an amalgam
of several components. The major religious inheritance from
China, Confucianism, Taoism and ancestor worship, have coalesced
with ancient Vietnamese animism to form a single entity
– ‘tam giao’ – the ‘triple religion’. Each element exists
in a pure form in Vietnam, and there are sects and cults
that adhere to a single set of beliefs, but the great majority
of people who describe themselves as ‘Buddhist’ are using
it as a portmanteau word for the ‘tam giao’.
Vietnam’s major religions are described
separately in this section, but it must be noted that many
of the orthodoxies referred to have been adapted to ‘fit’
the way of life, rather than the other way round. For example,
although Mahayana Buddhism requires its followers to abstain
from eating meat, Vietnamese Buddhists (apart from monks
and other acolytes) avoid meat only on two days each month,
the full and the new moon. People arriving with a belief
that vegetarianism will be widespread in Vietnam are dismayed
to find that this is not so.
Christianity in Vietnam
Of the major religious faiths present in Vietnam, the Catholics
adhere most closely to their creed. However, many still
maintain an altar in their houses to worship the ancestors,
or use a Christian shrine for the same purpose.
The Catholic Church has been prominent in
Vietnam’s recent history. Initially, little notice was taken
of European missionaries entering Vietnam from the 16th
century onwards. However, when Christianity began to gain
a foothold, the mandarins and other authorities increasingly
saw it as a threat to Confucianism and banned the religion.
The French invaded and gave Catholicism
preferential treatment, a policy extended to suppression
of Buddhism by the Catholic-led Saigon regime after the
country was partitioned. Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist priest
from Hue, publicly burned himself to death in protest in
1963. A graphic photograph of the event had a major impact
in turning public opinion against the US presence in Vietnam.
The post-war years
After re-unification, the communist authorities followed
Marx’s dictum that religion was ‘the opiate of the people’
and introduced controls on religious expression by placing
religion under state control, confiscating land and property,
and sending priests, monks and other devotees who had been
politically active supporters of the Saigon regime for ‘re-education.
Since ‘doi moi’ opened Vietnam to the rest
of the world in 1986, restrictions have eased, land has
been returned and religious freedom has been enshrined in
the nation’s constitution. Nevertheless, although the vast
majority of the people are now free to worship more or less
what and where they like, the authorities continue to keep
a firm hold on religion and its more fervent followers,
mindful of attempts by Vietnam’s political enemies abroad
to use it to foment dissent.
From time to time, critical reports are
issued by religious and political organisations in the West,
claiming this as suppression of freedom and abuses of human
rights, an accusation vigorously denied by the Vietnamese
and by many senior Vietnamese clerics. In reality, the Vietnamese
government has recognised the destabilising potential of
‘social evils’ such as drug abuse and crime, and is encouraging
religion and religious values as a contribution towards
maintaining social cohesion at a time of rapid development.