The 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 simultaneously.
The triple religion
The bedrock of religious practice in Vietnam is an amalgam of several components. The major religious inheritance 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 eating meat, Vietnamese Buddhists (apart 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 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 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.
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 as a contribution towards maintaining social cohesion at a time of rapid development.