Religion in Vietnam

Fujian Assembly Hall in Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam
Fujian Assembly Hall (Phuc Kien), built around 1690 in the UNESCO-listed Hoi An Ancient Town, Central Vietnam. R.M. Nunes / Getty Images

Located in the easternmost part of mainland southeast Asia, Vietnam is home to 95.5 million people. Though the country is officially atheist—a result of its Communist history—most Vietnamese peoples’ lives are influenced by at least one major world religion. 

Fast Facts: Religion in Vietnam

  • Vietnam is officially a secular state, as a result of its Communist past, but Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and folk religion are all present.
  • Vietnamese folk religion is a mixture of world religions and indigenous faiths, but it focuses mostly on the reverence for symbols of divinity.
  • Confucianism from China had an influential impact on the sociopolitical structure of historical Vietnam and the practice of folk religion.

Dao Mau, a distinct Vietnamese folk religion, is considered to be the oldest religion in the country, but Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism came to Vietnam through China fairly early in the historical record. Though the country was colonized by France, it was the Portuguese in the 16th century that brought Christianity—specifically, Roman Catholicism—to Vietnam.

Hinduism and Islam are present in the country, though only practiced within small communities of ethnic minorities. Vietnam is home to several unique branches of religion, including Cao Dai, a type of 20th century nonviolent monotheism.

For ease of understanding, this article uses the term “Vietnam” to refer to the geographical region that has historically been home to a multitude of nations and civilizations.

Vietnamese Folk Religion

Bich Dong Pagoda in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
This Bich Dong Pagoda was built to honor the Buddha and Mau Thuong Ngan, the Goddess of the Forest. sergwsq / Getty Images

More than 73% of the population of Vietnam is associated with traditional Vietnamese folk religion, though in the spirit of true folk religions, the association influences daily spiritual experiences rather than a liturgical doctrine. 

Vietnamese folk religion dates back to human prehistory, but the state did not officially recognize folk religions until the early 20th century. Aspects of the traditional beliefs are closely associated with Confucianism, as a result of a thousand years of Chinese control over Vietnam.

Elements of Vietnamese folk religion vary depending on the region, but typically include reverence for natural deities and ancestral spirits and hierarchical sociopolitical and personal relations for the purpose of maintaining harmony. There is also strong emphasis on traditions and rituals, though, like most folk religions, there is no singular sacred doctrine or text.

Folk religion in Vietnam features aspects of Christianity, Buddhism, and Shintoism, particularly in the veneration of heavenly beings, gods and goddesses, ancestral spirits, legendary cultural heroes, emperors and political leaders, and even deities of surrounding kingdoms, like the Khmer empire of Cambodia and the Cham in what became southern Vietnam.

The focal point of Vietnamese folk religion is the observation of and respect for divinity, with little emphasis on the origins of the divine. Practice of folk religion is typically done in temples where deities are enshrined.

Many of these temples, particularly in northern Vietnam were destroyed in the mid-20th century, between the end of the dynastic period in 1945 and the early 1980s. The spread of Communism in Vietnam also spread an anti-religious sentiment that led to cultural dismantling of religious beliefs in Vietnam and, later, the physical destruction of religious temples and institutions. The Vietnam War also severely damaged remaining temples and religious structures.

The end of the Vietnam War sparked a revival in Vietnamese folk religion in an attempt to reclaim a national pride and unified identity. 

Dao Mau

One of the oldest recognized folk religions of Vietnam, Dao Mau, is the ethnically-based worship of the "mother goddess". Known as Mau, the mother goddess can be personified as a singular entity, in the form of Mother Earth, for example, or a multitude of goddesses that also relate to healing and fertility. The worship of female goddesses in Vietnam can be traced back to prehistory.

The Communist government of Vietnam outlawed many of the practices of Dao Mau, and the practices remained illegal until the end of the 20th century. 

Confucianism and the Chinese Impact

Dating back to the ancient world, China and Vietnam historically have had close, though rarely peaceful, relations. China exerted its imperial strength over Vietnam for a thousand years before Vietnam fought for and won independence from China in 939 A.D. Though this independence movement came relatively early in the historical record, China had been in Vietnam long enough for a cultural exchange, particularly of Confucian values. 

Beautiful Entrance At The Temple Of Literature (Van Mieu) Hanoi
The Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) Hanoi. Degist / Getty Images

In contrast to its Buddhist neighbors in southeast Asia, Vietnam’s sociopolitical system resembled a pyramid, with the emperor at the top, much like China. While the emperor in China was considered to be divine, the emperor of Vietnam was, at most, a liaison between the natural and supernatural world.

China’s most influential contribution to Vietnam was the highly structured sociopolitical hierarchy that stems from Confucianism. Social harmony was maintained by strict adherence to prescribed relations, and upward mobility and political advantage was possible through honorable scholastic achievement and hard work, though in practice this applied mostly to the elite and rarely to the lower class.

The centuries-old division between the upper and lower classes of Vietnam ultimately lead to the crisis in the mid to late 20th century. However, the physically exhausting work of rice cultivation built strong bonds amongst the peasantry that was also fueled by Confucian values. 

Christianity

Though the state maintains its secularism, about 6.2 million Vietnamese, around 7%, identify as Catholics, and 1.4 million, or just under 2%, identify as Protestant. 

Vietnamese Christians Mark Christmas
Pilgrims and locals take part in the procession of Baby Jesus led by Bishop Joseph Nguyen Nang during the Christmas Midnight Mass on the site of Phat Diem Cathedral on December 24, 2018 in Kim Son District, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam. Linh Pham / Getty Images

As the first group of Europeans to reach southeast Asia in search for spices, the Portuguese brought with them Roman Catholicism and a desire to convert indigenous people. By the 18th century, the French had invaded Vietnam from the south, hoping to infiltrate and dominate trade routes between Vietnam and China.

The French didn’t realize, however, that the geographical proximity to China did not guarantee established trade routes between the countries. In fact, Vietnam had kept Chinese involvement at arms-length for centuries.

However, the French did maintain a colony in Vietnam, even with the limited trade opportunity with China, and they attempted, with some success, to overhaul Vietnamese traditional beliefs and practices with French culture. However, French colonization was never able to eliminate indigenous languages and beliefs. 

It is important to note that the divine, saintly status afforded to many mythical Vietnamese heroes does include both Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo, an indicator that French culture influenced at least a minor aspect of folk religion in Vietnam.

Buddhism

More than 12.2% of Vietnamese people associate with Buddhism in modern Vietnam. As in most countries in southeast Asia, it arrived via trade routes between China and India. The strong Confucian traditions that created the Vietnamese sociopolitical system changed the forms in which Buddhism was understood and experienced in Vietnam.

Panorama of Buu Long Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. A beautiful buddhist temple hidden away in Ho Chi Minh City at Vietnam
Panorama of Buu Long Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. A beautiful buddhist temple hidden away in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Mongkol Chuewong / Getty Images

While Buddhism tended to lead to chaos in surrounding countries, according to the Chinese historical record, the Vietnamese placed emphasis on the practice of rites and rituals as a form of spirituality to maintain systematic order. 

Caodaism

A relatively new, monotheistic belief, Caodaism was established in southern Vietnam in 1926. Caodaists follow strict ethical practices in order to leave the cycle of reincarnation to join God in heaven. 

Caodaists are vegetarian or vegan, and they practice nonviolence. Like other religious institutions during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Caodaist temples were seized by the state and converted into factories. About 4.8% of modern Vietnamese identify as Caodaist.

The Cao Dai Faithful in Cao Dai Holy See Temple At Morning Prayer
Group of people praying in a monastery, Cao Dai Monastery - Cao Dai Holy See Temple -Tay Ninh, Vietnam. Pham Le Huong Son / Getty Images

Hinduism

Like Buddhism, Hinduism entered Vietnam via trade routes, specifically from India. Hinduism thrived in the Champa kingdom, located in what is now southern Vietnam. The Champa kingdom began to shrink as early as the 12th century, though it wasn’t officially annexed into Vietnam until the 19th century.

Ethnically Cham people still live in parts of southern Vietnam, and they make up the majority of the 1.5% of Vietnamese that practice Hinduism.

Sources

  • Farid, Shaikh. “Caodaism: A Syncretistic Religion of Vietnam.” The CDR Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, June 2006, pp. 53–57.
  • Hue-Tam, Ho Tai. “Religion in Vietnam.” Asia Society, Aug. 2008.
  • Keith, Charles. Catholic Vietnam: a Church from Empire to Nation. University of California Press, 2012.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.
  • “The World Factbook: Vietnam.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018.
  • “Vietnam International Religious Freedom Report 2007.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 2007.