Religions in Vietnamese Culture

The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which was adopted in 1980, proclaims that “citizens enjoy freedom of worship, and may practise or not practise a religion.” However, the Constitution also states that “no one may misuse religions to violate state laws or policies.” Despite the Constitution’s ostensible protection of the practise of the religion, the status of such was precarious in Vietnam in the late 1980s.


Throughout their history, the vast majority of Vietnamese people have associated themselves with Buddhism, a religion that began about 530 B.C. in what is now southern Nepal. is a branch that developed out of Hinduism. Gautama, a nobleman who bristled at the rigidity of Hinduism as it was being interpreted by the Brahmans, a priestly caste, is credited as being the creator of this religion. Gautama was an ascetic who practised meditation for a long time before he made the discovery that led him to nirvana. Nirvana is a state of infinite tranquilly in which one is liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Gautama was the first person to find this way. The “noble eightfold path” is the foundation of the Buddhist concept of morality and right behaviour. According to Buddhist thought, human salvation lies in the discovery of the “four noble truths”: that man is born to suffer in successive lives; that the cause of this suffering is man’s craving for earthly pleasures and possessions; that the suffering ceases upon his deliverance from this craving; and that he achieves this deliverance by following “the noble eightfold path.”

Buddhism arrived in Vietnam’s Red River Delta region from China about the second century A.D., and then made its way from India to the southern Mekong Delta region some time between the third and sixth centuries. China was the first country in which Buddhism was practised in Vietnam. The Indian style of Buddhism known as Theravada (or Hinayana) was primarily practised only in the southern delta area of Vietnam, whilst the Chinese version of Buddhism known as Mahayana became the religion of the majority of Vietnamese people. The Theravada school teaches that Gautama was the one-and-only enlightened one and the great teacher, but that he was not divine. The Mahayana school teaches that Gautama was only one of many “enlightened ones” manifesting the fundamental divine power of the universe. This is the doctrinal difference between the two: the Mahayana school teaches that Gautama was only one of many “enlightened ones” manifesting the fundamental divine power of the universe. In addition, the Mahayana school of thought maintains that laypeople are capable of achieving nirvana, while the Theravada school of thought maintains that only ordained monks and nuns are capable of doing so.

However, outside of the Buddhist clergy, there are not many Vietnamese people who are familiar with the complex cosmology of Buddhism. At the time it was introduced, the images and rituals associated with Mahayana Buddhism were what drew to them. The ceremonies of Mahayana were able to readily fit to the indigenous beliefs of the Vietnamese people, which were a synthesis of folklore, Confucian and Taoist teachings, and the “enlightened ones” of Mahayana were often revered alongside a variety of animist deities.

Buddhism was able to enjoy a degree of independence from the state before the nation was united under communism. However, this independence came under growing danger once communists took control. However, the dictatorship originally refrained from displaying overt animosity against Buddhism or any other organised religion. This decision was made for pragmatic reasons. Instead, it aimed to co-opt and manage prospective collaborators in order to differentiate them from opponents. For instance, the communist administration established a front organisation called the Patriotic Buddhist Liaison Committee only a few short months after claiming victory in the South. The mission of the committee was to spread the notion that all patriotic Buddhists had a responsibility to contribute to the construction of a new society that was, for the very first time, freed from the constraints of feudal and neo-colonialist forces. In addition to this, the committee made an effort to demonstrate that the vast majority of Buddhists, both leaders and followers, were in fact supporting the new government and the liaison committee. This tactic was an attempt to undermine the authority of influential and autonomous groups of Buddhist clergy, most notably the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Prior to 1975, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was a major critic of the Saigon government and was among the approximately twenty Buddhist sects in Vietnam that were the most outspoken in their opposition to the war.

The Communists exerted additional pressure on monks and nuns to adopt a secular lifestyle by urging them to participate in productive agricultural labour or to become actively involved in the work of the Patriotic Buddhist Liaison Committee. This was done in an effort to force monks and nuns to give up their religious practises. As a result of the important clergy leaders of the South’s reluctance to cooperate with the government, these individuals were sent to house arrest or imprisonment, their pagodas were repurposed for public use, and their properties were taken away from them. A similar comparison can be drawn between this effort and Soviet persecution of Buddhists in the North during the 1950s. In addition to this, the party did everything in its power to stop Buddhist groups from sending monks and nuns to schools that had been independent in the past. In April of 1980, the administration of the country established a national committee comprised of Buddhist organisations from all throughout the country. In November 1981, the Vietnam Buddhist Church was founded, and soon after, it became the only officially sanctioned organisation in Vietnam that was authorised to represent all Buddhist groups both within the country and outside of it. These authorizations allowed it to represent Buddhists both at home and abroad.

The observance of Buddhist ceremony and practise was significantly diminished as a direct effect of the policies of communist governments. A study conducted in 1979 on a commune in the Red River Delta that was reported to be “overwhelmingly Catholic” found that the commune’s two pagodas were “maintained and frequented regularly by the faithful (the majority of whom were old women), especially on the Buddhist feast days.” The study went on to note that pagodas had been completely eradicated in the city of Hanoi, which was located nearby. In 1987, there were sporadic reports that indicated that the practise of Buddhist ritual was still being observed in some outlying regions.

As long as the clergy and faithful conformed to official rules with utmost precision, the communist government maintained its tolerant stance toward the practise of Buddhism as well as other religions that were in existence at the time. However, the implementation of these guidelines had the effect of stifling the expansion of religious organisations. They did this by putting a cap on the number of organisations that were authorised to provide clergy training, and they also made it more difficult for potential candidates to find the time in their schedules to study, work, and take part in the endeavours of communist youth organisations. One Buddhist school was established in Hanoi in November 1981, and another was established in Ho Chi Minh City in December 1984, according to reports. These academies were purportedly established by the Vietnam Buddhist Church in an attempt to educate a new generation of monks and nuns. However, these academies functioned as a branch of the state government.


Despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does not practise ancestor worship, which is central to the Confucian cultural legacy, Roman Catholicism managed to develop a strong foothold in Vietnamese culture during the time that it was ruled by the French. The French actively promoted the spread of this religion in order to counteract the influence of Buddhism and to act as a vehicle for the further distribution of Western civilization. After the middle of the 1950s, the practise of Catholicism began to wane in the North, where communists saw it as a regressive force that stood in the way of national liberation and social development. In contrast, Catholicism flourished in the South under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, who saw it as an essential defence mechanism against the influence of the Communist Party in the North. Roman Catholics had an edge over non-Catholics in many aspects of society while Diem was in power. This included trade, the professions, education, and government. Diem was a fervent Catholic. This led to increasing levels of dissatisfaction among Buddhists, which ultimately contributed to the downfall of the Diem dictatorship and the subsequent rise to power of the military. In 1984, the population of Roman Catholics in the newly united Vietnam was estimated to be at three million. Of this amount, around one million Roman Catholics lived in the North, while the remaining two million lived in the South.

After an estimated 650,000 Catholics fled to the South, there were around 600,000 Catholics still living in the North in the year 1955. In that year, the communist regime in the North established the Liaison Committee of Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics in an effort to win over those Catholics who had chosen to remain (but were slower to embrace the regime than non-Catholics) and to “reintegrate” them into northern society. This was done in an attempt to win over those Catholics who had chosen to remain. Even though all foreign priests had either moved south or was expelled, the church was allowed to maintain its relationship with the Vatican, and regular church operations were allowed to continue, although in the shadow of a campaign of harassment. The fact that everything seemed to be operating normally was, however, deceptive. The church was denied its customary autonomy in the management of charitable organisations including schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Its customary privilege to possess property was revoked, and priests and nuns were obliged to dedicate a portion of their time to productive activity in agriculture. This was done in order to increase the monastery’s income. Officials said, despite this, that Catholics had unrestricted liberty of religion so long as they did not call into doubt the validity of the socialist idea of collectivism, refused to engage in physical work, or put the state’s internal and external security at risk.

The Vietnam Courier published an article in November 1977 stating that the church in the North had shifted from “resistance to acceptance and involvement,” but that the transition had been challenging for Catholics. In the same month, the government presented a decree on religion that reaffirmed the constitution’s position on religious freedom, but made it unmistakably clear that such freedom was conditional and depended on the compatibility of church activities with higher imperatives such as patriotism and socialism. This decree was made public during the same month. The new decree not only detailed the responsibilities and obligations that the state expected of the clergy, but it also mandated that the state exercise control over the manner in which religious services are carried out, as well as education, training, investitures, appointments, travel, and other related matters.

The new legislation, which was applicable to all religious groups in both the North and the South, unmistakably ushered in an era of increasingly active governmental interference in the business of churches. It would appear that the regime took action out of concern that the church in the North, despite having coexisted with socialism for twenty-three years, was not progressive enough to lead in the socialist transformation of the Catholic community in the South. This concern appears to have motivated the regime to take action. The Vietnam Courier made this connection between the situations in the north and the south in November of 1977. The newspaper made this observation after noting that the Catholic church in the north would have to take on the additional responsibility of assisting in the reintegration of Vietnam’s entire Catholic population into the Vietnamese national community.

In 1975, there were around 1.9 million Catholics living in the South, with 15 bishops, 3,000 regular and diocesan priests, 1,200 brothers, and 6,000 nuns making up the region’s religious leadership. It was anticipated that 400 priests and lay brothers in addition to 56,000 lay Catholics had already departed the nation in preparation for a win by the communists. At the time that communist government was imposed, the South consisted of 870 parishes spread across 15 dioceses. Ho Chi Minh City alone was home to a population of half a million Catholics who were attended to by 600 priests, 4,000 lay brothers and nuns, and 4,000 other religious figures. About 3,500 churches, attended by roughly 400 priests, 10 bishops, and 2 archbishops, provided religious services to the less than one million Catholics who lived in the Northern states.

The government said that following April 1975, Roman Catholic religious activities were rapidly stabilised, significant services were performed, and a large number of cathedrals and churches that had been damaged or destroyed during the conflict were restored. In addition, the dictatorship said that there was either no religious persecution or, in the event that there was religious persecution, that it was directed at the actions of “reactionary forces” intent on exploiting “the backwardness of a few of the faithful….” Nevertheless, the authorities took efforts to both isolate and remove the most ardent opponents of party policy, and they also attempted to get less strongly opposed sections to participate in a “renovation and reconciliation” programme that was controlled by the party. Despite this, however, a sizeable minority of Roman Catholics in both the North and the South continued to reject communist control.

The Unified Bishops’ Council of Vietnam was created in 1980 with the purpose of enlisting the assistance of “patriotic” bishops in the process of convincing obstinate members of the Catholic community to collaborate with the dictatorship. After another three years, in November 1983, a Committee for Solidarity of Patriotic Catholics was established with the intention of unifying all Catholics and channelling their energies towards the construction of socialism. This committee, which replaced the Liaison Committee of Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics, was formed at a time when the regime’s surveillance of the Catholic community had been stepped up. According to reports, this was reportedly due to the suspicion that some Catholics were involved in antistate activities. This committee has since replaced the Liaison Committee of Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics. The increased concern of the government was reflected further in the founding, in March 1985, of a Religious Affairs Committee with the purpose of better coordinating and supervising the activities of religious groups. According to reports, fresh tensions have arisen in Hanoi’s ties with the Vatican as a result of the city’s growing participation in church issues. In spite of this, it was of the utmost importance to the leaders of Vietnam in 1987 to give the impression to the general public that the Roman Catholic Church was involved in the running of the country and that members of the church made significant contributions to the socialist cause. Moreover, it was of the utmost importance to convey to the public that church members were significant contributors.

Other Different Religions

Religions that had a smaller following than Buddhism or Catholicism were regarded the same way by the administration. The only exception to this rule was those religions that the regime believed to be nothing more than superstition, which were met with its unequivocal hostility. Before 1975, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao were two religious organisations that attracted significant numbers of followers. Both organisations were established in this century in the delta of the Mekong River. The Cao Dai was the more established of the two and considered itself to be a reformed branch of Buddhism. It was most successful in the more rural parts of the southern delta region. It was a conglomeration of several doctrines that were borrowed from a variety of sources, including Christianity, Taoism, and Confucianism, and it claimed between one and two million followers. The Hoa Hao is a Buddhist sect that has more over one million adherents. It considers itself to be a reformed Theravada Buddhist sect; nevertheless, in contrast to the Cao Dai, it has maintained its particular Buddhist colouring. Its primary stronghold was in the most southern parts of the delta, and it emphasised individual prayer, simplicity, and social justice above the adoration of icons or the performance of complex rituals. Before 1975, adherents of both religions made efforts, some of which were successful, to avoid taking sides in the conflict between Hanoi and Saigon. After 1975, however, the communist administration exerted a great deal of pressure on them, along with Buddhists and Roman Catholics, to become members of the communist party.

Protestants, who lived mostly in the Montagnard groups that inhabited the South’s central highlands, numbered between 100,000 and 200,000 in the early 1980s. Their population was estimated to be in the range of 100,000. It was believed that Protestants suffered more than Catholics after 1975 due to their supposed strong relationship with American missionaries serving with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

In addition to the existence of established religions, there was also a mishmash of beliefs that did not have any kind of institutional framework but yet had a significant influence on daily life in Vietnam long into the 1980s. These beliefs, which were partially drawn from Confucianism, emphasised the values of filial piety, loyalty, family unity, and ancestor reverence; all of these were essential components of the family system in the ancient society. Taoism was yet another significant religious system that was exported from China. Taoism placed an emphasis on the significance of an individual’s connection to the natural world and the cosmos. The dictatorship disapproved of and labelled as superstitious any beliefs that had their roots in Taoism.

Even though such practises as astrology, geomancy, and sorcery are frowned upon by the government, the majority of Vietnamese people have, at some point in their lives, been influenced by them. This is true regardless of the religion they profess to follow, their level of education, or their ideology. It was thought that diviners and other experts in the occult could diagnose illnesses that were caused by supernatural forces, determine auspicious dates for personal endeavours, or foresee the future. This kept the demand high for those who practised these professions. In addition, many Vietnamese people held the belief that astrological events had a role in determining an individual’s fate. One might make the most of fortunate times and protect themselves from unfavourable times by studying their horoscope. For instance, before to getting married, it was not unheard of for a couple to seek the advice of an astrologer. He would ascertain whether or not the couple were a good fit for one another and even decide when the wedding would take place.

Animism, often known as the concept that there are both good and bad spirits in the world, predated all established religions in Vietnam and was deeply ingrained in the culture, particularly in the highlands and rural regions. These beliefs stated that all phenomena and forces in the cosmos were governed by spirits and that the souls of the dead were crucial in deciding the destiny of a person. Additionally, it was believed that the souls of the deceased had a role in determining an individual’s fate. They offered protection to the living if they were appeased, but if they were disregarded, they brought about calamity. Throughout spite of the fact that these ideas were officially labelled as “superstitious practises,” in the 1980s they continued to spread across the country, particularly in rural and highland regions, as well as in the metropolis.

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