As a communist country, Vietnam is officially an atheist state. Even so, most Vietnamese are not atheists, but believe in a combination of three religions: Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Added to these are the customs and practice of spirit worship and ancestor veneration.
Minority religions practiced in Vietnam include Christianity, Hinduism, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao. Cao Dai and Hoa Hao are both relatively recent syncretic religions based in the south. Vietnam enjoys relative freedom of religion, though still with certain limitations.
The Three Main Religions
The combination of the three main religions in Vietnam (Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism) is referred to as Tam Giao. In China this combination of three ideologies is called 三教 (San Jiao).
As many as 85% of Vietnamese regularly visit Buddhist pagodas, but most are not purely Buddhist, but rather hold to a syncretic combination of the three religions. The ideology of Tam Giao permeates Vietnamese culture and world views.
Buddhism was introduced in Vietnam in the second century BC. At the time of the Ly Dynasty (1010-1214), it became the state religion. It subsequently lost its state-religion status, but remained as the belief of the majority of people, permeating Vietnamese culture. While most Vietnamese today would identify themselves as Buddhist, not all of them actively participate in Buddhist rituals at the pagodas.
The Buddhism practiced in Vietnam is Mahayana Buddhism, also widely practiced in China, Korea, and Japan. This is distinct from the Theravada Buddhism practiced in the countries neighboring Vietnam: Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
Theravada Buddhism is, however, commonly practiced amongst Vietnamese and ethnic Cambodians (Khmer Krom) in the Mekong delta regions.
Confucianism was founded in China by Confucius (551- 479 BC). He stressed the importance of improving one’s morals and believed that this was strategic in improving the well-being of a society.
According to Confucianism, there are five important virtues that have to be cultivated: benevolence (rén 仁), righteousness (yì 义), propriety (lǐ 礼), wisdom (zhì 智) and fidelity (xìn 信).
Strictly speaking, Confucianism is not a religion but rather a code of social behavior. There is little teaching about god, but the focus is rather on how one should conduct one’s life. Confucian values are predominant in the Vietnamese view of life and family.
Confucianism was introduced to Vietnam as early as the first century, during Chinese domination. It began to decline during the French conquest, but continues to influence the thinking and behavior of Vietnamese people.
Daoism is derived from the Chinese word ‘dao’, which means ‘way’, or ‘road’. Like Confucianism, Daoism originated in China and did not begin as a religion but as a philosophy.
Daoism was founded by Laozi between 600 and 500 BC. It is said that Confucius had the opportunity to meet Laozi and spoke highly of him.
Whereas Confucius focused on creating a harmonious society, Laozi’s focus was on the harmony between man and nature, and pursuing ‘the way’. To achieve this state of harmony, confrontations must be avoided, and virtues of simplicity, patience, and self-contentment must be practiced.
In the centuries following Laozi’s death, however, some of his followers transformed his teaching into a religion, with church and clergy. The religion now accommodates communication with deities, spirits, and the dead. Spirit veneration is widely practiced in Vietnam.
Daoism was introduced into Vietnam during the period of Chinese domination. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the government examination for recruitment of officials even consisted of essays on the ‘three religions’. This shows how all three sets of beliefs were revered.It was after the end of the Tran dynasty (1225-1440 AD) that Daoism began to turn to mysticism and polytheism.
Through the efforts of European missionaries from the 16th century onwards, Vietnam now claims about nine million Christians, more than 90% of whom are Catholic. Protestantism was first introduced to Da Nang in 1911 by a Canadian missionary and now claims about 1 million followers.
Catholicism was only introduced much later in the history of Vietnam. In the second half of the 16th century, Catholic missionaries arrived from Portugal, Spain, and France. In the 17th century, several Jesuit missionaries developed an alphabetic system for Vietnamese, using the Latin script. The best-known amongst them was Alexandre de Rhodes.
The writing system, called qu?cng?, continues to be used nationally today. Prior to this system, the Vietnamese used the N?m script, which borrowed and modified Chinese characters.
In the 1960s, during the rule of the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, Catholics were given preferential treatment, while the majority Buddhist population was discriminated against. This caused tension between Catholics and Buddhists and eventually resulted in the Buddhist uprising of 1966, causing approximately 150 deaths on each side.
Protestantism was only introduced in Vietnam in 1911 after the arrival of a Canadian missionary, Robert A. Jaffray. Soon after his arrival, a church was established in Danang. Now, it is estimated that more than half of all Protestants in Vietnam are ethnic minorities in the northwest highlands, including Hmong, Thai, and Dzao. It is estimated that 6.8% of Vietnamese are Catholic, while 1.5% are Protestant. Some sources, however, claim the figures are higher.
New Religions: Cao Dai and Hoa Hao
Cao Dai and Hoa Hao are both relatively new religions in Vietnam, concentrated mainly in the rural areas in the southern delta region. They are considered sects, but have many followers. It is estimated that 4.8% of the people of Vietnam believe in Caodaism, and 1.4% believe in Hoahaoism.
Caodaism was founded officially in 1926 by Ngô Văn Chiêu, a Vietnamese civil servant, who claimed that he had received a message from God. It is a synthesis of different beliefs including the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Victor Hugo, and so on. The Supreme Spirit reinterprets aspects of Tam Giao.
An unusual element of Caodaism is a belief in ‘priests’, divine agents who could make contact with God and convey God’s instructions to adherents. Though Caodaoism was initially condemned by Communists, now it’s tolerated and has about 6 million followers.
Hoahaoism is a reformed Buddhist sect of a 19th century Buddhist ministry known as ‘Strange Perfume from Precious Mountains’. Rather than worshipping primarily in the temples, Hoahaoism emphasizes the practice of Buddhism at home by lay people, especially the peasants, as the old slogan teaches – practicing Buddhism while farming your land.
Hoahaoism has claimed approximately two million followers in Vietnam. In its birthplace, the Mekong Delta region, more than 90 percent of the population practice it. Followers place a plain brown cloth at home as an altar and worship using flowers, fresh water and incense.
Religious Tourist Attractions
Below are a few religious sites that mainly represent the influence of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Over the years, many elements of this architecture, such as the Chinese tiled roofs, have blended well with indigenous Vietnamese features like carved wood, stucco and ceramic designs.
Temple of Literature (Hanoi)
Founded in honor of the Chinese Confucius, the Temple of Literature served as a center for higher learning and educating mandarins for over seven centuries. The temple was built in 1070, during the Ly Dynasty, and is possibly the oldest architectural complex in Hanoi.The temple was modeled on the original Temple of Confucius and consists of five courtyards. During the ??i Vi?t (Great Viet) period (1054-1400 and 1428-1804), numerous study sessions, strict exams and offering-ceremonies took place among the various pavilions and halls here.
Thien Mu Pagoda (Hue)
The Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, was built in 1601 on instructions from the first Nguyen. It is located in the city of Hue, in central Vietnam.
During the period of the Vietnam War (1955-75), the pagoda became associated with anti-government protests. At the time, the government gave Catholics preferential treatment over Buddhists. In the 1980s, the pagoda again became a focal point of protest, this time against the communist government.
Hoi An Ancient Town
Hoi An is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It was a trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries. During its glory days in the 18th century, Hoi An was considered by Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination for trading in the whole of Southeast Asia.
The town’s well-preserved buildings and streets reflect a unique melting pot of both indigenous and foreign influence. Foreign influence is mainly Chinese and Japanese, but there is also some western influence. The tourist sites in this old quarter include decorated Chinese community halls like the Cantonese Assembly Hall and Phuc Kien Assembly Hall.
Cantonese Assembly Hall
Dating from 1885, this community center was built by overseas Chinese from Guangdong (Cantonese). The main altar is dedicated to the great warrior Quan Cong, symbolizing loyalty and courage in Chinese society. Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea, the deity of Mazuism, is also revered here. Mazuism is often syncretized with Taoism and Buddism.
Phuc Kien Assembly Hall
Built around 1690, the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall was originally built as a traditional hall by Chinese merchants from Fujian province. It was later transformed into a temple for worshiping the deity Thien Hau, who is regarded as the savior of sailors. She is showcased in the main altar and flanked by attendants. Childless couples often come here to pray for offspring and leave offerings of fresh fruit.
Thien Hau Pagoda (Ho Chi Minh City)
Thien Hau Temple, also known as the Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau, was built in 1760 by the Cantonese community in the city. It is a Chinese-style temple of a Fujian sea goddess Mazu, also known as Thien Hau. She is regarded as the patroness of sailors.
Three statues of Thien Hau are placed at the altar, while on the right hand side an image of Long Mau, goddess of mothers and newborns, presides over everything. Banks of hanging incense coils fill the sanctuary ceiling, along with a carved wooden boat that reflects Thien Hau’s connection to the sea.
Jade Emperor Pagoda (Ho Chi Minh City)
The Jade Emperor Pagoda is an ornate Taoist pagoda, used for worship of the King of Heavens – the Jade Emperor, chief deity of the Taoist pantheon. It was built in 1909 by the Cantonese community. The tiled roof and wooden doors are intricately carved with various images of gods.
The syncretized faith of Taoism and Buddhism are reflected by the vibrant gilded images of Taoist deities and Buddhist divinities worshipped here. The Jade Emperor presides over the main sanctuary, and there is an enclosure filled with two rows of female figurines along with Kim Hoa, the Goddess of Mothers. Worshippers come here to burn votive incense and offer paper offerings in the incinerator.