Vietnam is a country which has a rich and wide variety of religions. These
include religions based on popular beliefs, religions brought to Vietnam from
the outside, and several indigenous religious groups..
As with other countries, the Vietnamese have several popular beliefs, such as
animism and theism. The most widespread popular belief among the Vietnamese is
the belief in ancestor-worship.
In regard to the major world religions, Vietnam is a multi-religious state,
with more than 20 million believers, and more than 30,000 places of worship.
Buddhism is the largest of the major world religions in Vietnam, with about ten
million followers. It was the earliest foreign religion to be introduced in
Vietnam, arriving from India in the second century A.D. in two ways, the
Mahayana sect via China, and the Hinayana sect via Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
During the ten-century feudal reign of Vietnam, Buddhism was considered a state
religion. At present, Vietnam has more than 20,000 pagodas dedicated to Buddha,
with a large number of other pagodas being built or restored.
second largest foreign religion in Vietnam is Catholicism, with about six
million followers. Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by Spanish,
Portuguese, and French missionaries early in the 17th century. There are now
more than 6,000 churches engaged in religious activities throughout the
country. More than 500 churches damaged during the U.S. air war against
Vietnam are being rebuilt
Protestantism came to Vietnam in 1911, and was widely spread throughout
Vietnam in 1920, but the number of Protestants in Vietnam is not very large.
Islam was introduced to Vietnam long ago, but did not flourish.
In addition to these religions originating in other parts of the world,
Vietnam has indigenous religions, such as the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, with
their holy lands in the city of Tay Ninh and the provinces of Chau Doc and An
Giang in the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese religions have never opposed or
competed with one another, but were united in a national united front, the
Vietnam Fatherland Front, peacefully coexisting in the Vietnamese community, and
contributing to the struggle against foreign aggression for national
beliefs and religions
The Vietnamese folk beliefs since the ancient time consist of belief in
fertility, worship of nature and worship of man. Human beings need to be
reproduced, crops need to be lushly green for the nourishment and development of
life, so belief in fertility came into existence.
Water-rice agriculture that depended much on natural factors ignited the
belief of worshiping nature. In Vietnam, this belief was polytheism and respect
for goddess, and worshipp of animals and plants as well. A research book
published in 1984 listed 75 goddesses, mostly matriarchal goddesses, also called
Mau (ancient people not only worshipped the Creator but also Mau Cuu
Trung which was a female Creator, as well as Mau Thuong Ngan, River
Goddess and so on). Regarding botany-worshiping beliefs, the rice plant was most
venerated, the next were the banyan-tree, the areca-tree, the mulberry tree and
the gourd. In respect of animal-worshiping beliefs, unlike nomadic culture that
worships fierce wild animals, Vietnamese tend to worship gentle species of
animals like stag, deer, frog, especially those which are easy to come by in the
riverside regions like water-birds, snakes, and crocodiles. The Vietnamese
proclaimed themselves as belonging to the Hong Bang family line and the Tien
Rong breed (Hong Bang was the name of a huge species of water-bird, Tien,
or Fairy, was deification of an egg-laying species of bird, Rong, or
Dragon, was an abstract image of snake and crocodile). The ascending dragon that
was born in the water is meaningful and special symbol of the Vietnamese nation.
Among the human-revering beliefs, the custom of worshiping ancestors is the
most popular, which nearly become one belief of the Vietnamese (also called Dao
Ong Ba in the Cochinchina). The Vietnamese choose the death-day rather than
the birthday to hold a commemorative anniversary for the deceased. Every family
worships Tho cong, or the God of Home, who takes care of the home and
blesses the family. Every village worships its Thanh hoang, the God of
the village, who protects and guides the whole village (the Vietnamese always
honour the people who rendered distinguished services for villagers or national
heroes who were born or died in the village to be their Thanh hoang). The
whole nation worships the very first kings, sharing the common ancestors’
death anniversary (the Ritual of Hung Temple). Particularly, the worship
of Tu Bat Tu, or the Four Immortal Gods, namely, God Tan Vien
(preventing flooding), God Giong (resisting and defeating foreign
invaders), God Chu Dong Tu (together with his wife growing out of poverty
to consistently build his fortune) and Goddess Lieu Hanh (heavenly
princess who left Heaven for the earth in the yearning for happiness) has been
regarded as extremely beautiful national values.
Although turning into superstition in some specific cases, folk beliefs have
lasted consistently and mixed with orthodox religions.
Therevada Buddhism might have been imported directly into Vietnam from India
through sea routes since the 2nd century A.D. Vietnamese Buddhism stays on earth
rather than ascends up to heaven, attaches to exorcism and prayers for wealth,
happiness and longevity rather than heads toward nirvana. Only when Maharayana
Buddhism approached the country from China did Vietnamese monks have the chance
to carry out in-depth study of Buddhism; however, separate schools were later
formed, such as Truc Lam Buddhist School which attaches importance to the
Buddha inside the human heart. In the Ly-Tran dynasties, Buddhism, though
having reached its peak, still embraced both Taoism and Confucianism to create a
cultural face with "the three religions existing at the same time".
Over ups and downs throughout the history, Buddhism has become absolutely
familiar to the Vietnamese; according to the 1993 stastistics, there were up to
some 3 million Buddhist believers and some other 10 millions frequently going to
the pagoda for worshipping the Buddha.
Under the Chinese domination, Confucianism had yet to gain a position in the
Vietnamese society. The official adoption of Confucianism had not been recorded
until 1070 when King Ly Thai To built Van Mieu (the Temple of
Literature) to worship Chu Cong and Khong Tu (confucius). In the
15th century, due to the need of constructing a unified nation, a centralized
administration and a social order, Confucianism took the place of Buddhism to
become a national religion under the Le dynasty. Confucianism, mostly
Song Confucianism, that took root deep into the social and political structure,
the system of education and examinations and the circle of Confucian scholars
gradually dominated social and moral life. However, Confucianism was only
accepted to Vietnam in specific factors, particularly on politics and morality,
rather than its entire system.
Taoism penetrated Vietnam at roughly the end of the 2nd century. Since the Vo
Vi (letting things take their own course) doctrine bore the thought of
resisting the Chinese rulers, it was used as a weapon against the Northern
feudalism. This religion also contained factors of magic and mystery, so it fits
human subconscience and primitive beliefs. Many Confucianists also admired
Taoism’s tendency of enjoying quietness and joyful leisure. However, Taoism
has long been regarded as an extinct religion that only left vestiges in folk
Christianity came to Vietnam in the 17th century as an intermediary of the
Western culture and colonialism. It made use of the favorable opportunity in
which feudalism was in crisis, Buddhism was depraved and Confucianism was in
deadlock to become a spiritual relief of a part of the population. However, this
religion failed to integrate into the Vietnamese culture for a long time.
Christians had to set up an altar dedicated to Jesus Christ right at their
homes. Only when the Gospel was introduced into Vietnam, Christianity was able
to gain a position. In 1993, there were 5 million Catholics and nearly half a
Foreign religions imported to Vietnam did not exterminate the local folk
beliefs, but they mixed with each other to derive specific variants for both
sides. For example, Taoism could not lower the women’s role, which was
reflected by widespread worship of Mau (Goddess). The features of
polytheism, democracy, and community are manifested by the worship of groups of
ancestors, and pairs of gods. Entering a pagoda, people can easily recognize
that not only Buddhas but also gods and even human are worshiped there. Perhaps,
only in Vietnam, there were legends that a toad dares to sue Heaven or a human
being marries a fairy. These are the prominent features of Vietnamese beliefs.