With ancient culture and many centuries of history, costumes, rituals, traditions and spiritual practices in Vietnam are extremely rich and complex. The main religion is a branch of Buddhism called Mahayana, with many influences from Chinese culture, including Taoism and Confucianism. Besides that, there is still a strong presence of ancient folk traditions. So with a melting pot as complex and rich as this, there is definitely a lot to explore in terms of culture and religion in Vietnam!
As much arms as Vietnam has influences in its religion and culture.
While Buddhism came from India (it started around 2500 years ago with Prince Siddhartha, but only came to Vietnam in the second century BC), Confucianism and Taoism arrived in the country with Chinese immigrants, when Vietnam was a colony of China (111 BC to 938 AD).
They were all mixed in Buddhism that became the official religion during the Ly dynasty of 1010 to 1214. Confucianism brought the social order and hierarchies, the notion of loyalty and morality. In fact it is focusing a lot on obligations to others such as family, society and authorities.
In the opposite spectrum, Taoism is all about freedom from conventions and following the effortless flux of nature. It’s about the harmony between everything, simplicity and the ability to be patient and let things following their natural course. Morals are replaced by the belief that everything has a positive and a negative side, light and darkness, male and female energies. Remember that yin and yang symbol that is nowadays so cliché in stickers, t-shirts or tattoos? 🙂
Incense burning in a temple in Hanoi.
The co-existence of these three religions is called ‘tam giáo’, or the three teachings. Buddhism is the organized religion that most people in Vietnam identify with (the majority identify themselves with the folk religions but we will cover this later!). One of the particularities of Vietnamese Buddhists compared to other Asian countries Buddhism is the love for Quan Am, a female bodhisattva (a kind of saint in Buddhism, someone who dedicates his or her life to uplift the life of others). She was famous for her compassion and you will notice many statues in her honor, some of them quite huge! Another venerable figure is Thich Nhat Hanh. This Vietnamese monk brought Buddhist culture in western countries and wrote many books, making his philosophy very popular and spreading Buddha’s message of peace and love.
Monks are people too!
Other small religions that co-exist in the country are:
- Islam: especially practiced by people from the Cham ethnic group, existing also in Cambodia;
- Christianism: introduced in the 16th century by Portuguese, Spanish and French missionaries, namely the Jesuits. Ho Chi Minh has spectacular examples of Christian architecture. For instance the Cathedral of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception inspired by the Notre Dame in Paris;
- Caodaism, a recent religion, around 100 years old, based in South Vietnam. It tries to be a synthesis of many religions such as Christianism, Buddhism and Confucianism. A lot of personalities that we normally don’t link to Religion are considered saints: Victor Hugo, Joan d’Arc, Shakespeare, Pasteur and Lenin.
Last but not least, Vietnam still has very present its old folk traditions. This is the spiritual practice majority of population identify with, often mixing it with the organized religion. Besides a Buddhist temple, every village has a community house, ‘dinh’, where elders meet and spirits rest. Mediums or astrologers fill the markets, and people often consult them before taking decisions in their lives. This is still not recognized as a state religion and faced great repression under the communist governments. However, this type of animism still thrives in the imagination of Vietnamese people. They believe more in spirits (for instance the thần) than in the gods of the organized religions.
Small shrine with offerings to the spirits.
In a reportage for National Geographic, a Vietnamese man summarized quite well the spiritual practice of the country: “Most Vietnamese, the best educated and the illiterate alike, believe exactly what the emperors believed. They believe in the morality propounded by Confucius. They are in awe of vague Buddhism. Above all, they bow to the spirits. To the spirits of their ancestors and to many others, to the spirit of great men, to the spirits of the sky and the fields, of the trees and of the animals, to the spirits good and evil and changeable in between.”
Hope this article helped you clarify a bit the complex and rich culture and religion in Vietnam. Go explore the many temples, shrines, pagodas to learn more about what Vietnamese people believe!
If you need a bus from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh, where you can start exploring visiting the “Vietnamese Notre Dame” or the main Caodaism temple nearby in Tây Ninh, check Camboticket website for the best tickets options!