Vietnamese Culture


Vietnam is officially declared as an state. While government policies seek to legally protect the freedom to practice any religion, the Vietnamese Communist Party and State maintain control over the organisation of religious groups. All religious institutions must register themselves to the government and are restricted from . Furthermore, it is illegal for foreigners to perform religious services without government approval.


Only 19.2% of the Vietnamese population identified with a registered religion in the 2009 national census, while 81.8% identified as non-religious. Of those that did identify with a religion in the census, 9.3% affiliated with Buddhist and 7.2% identified as Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian. A further 1.5% and 1.1% identified with Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài, respectively. These relatively new religious movements of the 20th century are and have a strong political character. There was also a minority of Vietnamese that identified as Muslim – commonly Cham Vietnamese (0.1%).


However, despite the census figures indicating otherwise, the Pew Research Centre estimates that 45.3% of Vietnamese people practise folk religions. Other organisations have published similar statistics that show roughly half the population following a religious amalgamation of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The beliefs of these faiths are often considered to complement and coincide with one another, referred to as ‘Tam Giáo’ (“triple religion” or the Three Teachings). The unique mix perhaps explains why some Vietnamese find it difficult to identify with one religion, per se, and instead classify themselves as non-religious. Many Vietnamese may also not consider their traditional worship to be a ‘religion’ necessarily, but rather a ‘philosophy’ or way of life. Folk religions are commonly based on this mixture of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism as well as local beliefs that have been intertwined and incorporated over centuries. There are also deep superstitious foundations to many Vietnamese people’s practices.


Buddhism in Vietnam

Vietnam typically follows Mahāyāna Buddhism, which differs from the earliest known formulation originating in India (known as Theravāda Buddhism). Mahāyāna Buddhism emphasises the ‘Bodhisattva’ ideal of seeking full awakening through attaining perfection in morality and knowledge whilst endeavouring to assist others on their path towards enlightenment. Central to its teaching is the acceptance that suffering underpins all existence. As a Buddhist phrase elicits: “Suffering is as inescapable as a baby’s first tears”. However, one may be liberated from this suffering by practising the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’. By the Buddhist way of thinking, the way forward is to be respectful, dutiful and moderate.


The tenets of Buddhism have had a notable effect on Vietnamese society. As the teachings seek to fundamentally provide followers a method of processing the pain inherent in life, the Buddhist worldview has offered many Vietnamese a way of understanding and dealing with the hardships and atrocities experienced in the American War.


Confucianism in Vietnam

As an influence of Chinese rule and the resulting of Vietnam, Confucianism plays a significant role in the faith and personal beliefs of some Vietnamese. This is a body of traditional practices rather than a religion. The foundations of Confucianism are derived from the teachings of Confucius, who emphasised the importance of healthy relationships. It promotes the idea that relationships between people are unequal and that everyone has defined hierarchical roles (for example, ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations between individuals and, therefore, in society as a whole. These core values are reflected in respect and a sense of duty towards others, as well as maintaining loyalty and honour for oneself and their family. A major part of daily life for Vietnamese is ancestor worship, as well as respecting their elders (filial piety).

Taoism in Vietnam

Taoism (or ‘Đạoism’ in Vietnamese) is rooted in the philosophical teachings of Laozi – a great thinker from China of the 6th century BCE. The tradition is based on the perception that the universe is a reality in which everything that exists is connected and emphasises a deep connection with nature and self-development. While it is difficult to accurately convey in English, the central tenet of Taoism is that of ‘Tao’ (‘the Way’). The essence of Tao is ‘the One’, namely the notion of unification and . A tenet of Taoism perhaps most familiar to Westerners is the concept of Yin and Yang. This explains the world as full of opposites working in , unified in how they complement one another (e.g. light and dark, high and low, etc.). Taoist beliefs related to seeking with nature, spiritual immortality and the cultivation of ‘virtues’ manifest through practices of meditation and in ‘phong thủy’ (Vietnamese for ‘feng shui’).


Folk Religions and Traditional Beliefs

The folk religions of Vietnam have been particularly suppressed over the last century in different ways. Nevertheless, traditions such as shamanism and soothsaying have revived despite government disapproval. There are many indigenous traditions common to the people of Southeast Asia that may also be practised in rural areas, such as totemism, animism, tattooing, teeth blackening and marriage rituals. Generally, folk religions and beliefs vary between regions and . Some minorities in North Vietnam practise a form of worship that honours all living things. This philosophy holds reverence for the ecosystem, believing that anything with a lifecycle (e.g. plant, animal, person) has a soul or spirit.


The traditional beliefs of Vietnam are not institutionalised or systemised. They are usually structured around the worship of ‘thần’ (spirits, gods or deities). These thần can be represented in nature or objects. They may also often be guardians or protectors of specific places, people, lineages and occupations. It is believed that thần have generative powers that can return to a person positively or negatively depending on how they are respected and worshipped.


A belief common throughout Vietnam is that people are indebted to those that bore their bloodline and that the deceased can be contacted and honoured. In this way, thần often represent ancestors. Some people believe that dishonouring one’s ancestors will result in their ancestor’s spirits interfering with their life, and so many Vietnamese people practise ancestor worship, no matter their religious orientation. For example, almost all Vietnamese households have an altar honouring previous generations where incense is burned and offerings are made. Christian Vietnamese families may worship a Catholic or Protestant saint that has particular importance to them, instead of their ancestors.

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