The atheist Communist government is more tolerant of religion these days than it once was. Buddhism is Vietnam's most popular religion, followed by Taoism, with more than 10 million believers among the 80 million population. Vietnam has a Confucianist tradition but Confucian has traditionally not been regarded as a religion although it does embrace ideas about ancestor worship. There are also a significant number of Catholics and people with traditional animist beliefs, and a few Protestants. Proselytizing is frowned upon by the government and missionaries and evangelical groups have not made as much headway in Vietnam as they have in other places. Some have ended up in jail. There are a few Muslims. They are mostly of Arab, South Asian and Cham descent. Many of Vietnam’s Protestants are members of ethnic minorities.

Communism frowns on religion. Even so Chinese-style of ancestor worship is common in Vietnam. People also practice of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or Christianity to various degrees. Among those are considered practitioners of religion, Buddhism is the most popular religion, with 7.6 million followers. The second most popular religion is Roman Catholicism, with 6 million adherents. Other faiths, with significant numbers include Cao Dai (2 million), Hoa Hao (1 million), Protestantism (500,000), and Islam (50,000). According to the 1999 census 9.3 percent of the population were Buddhists, 6.7 percent were Catholic, 1.5 percent were Hoa Hao, 1.1 percent were Cao Dai, 0.5 percent were Protestant, 0.1 percent were Muslim and 80.8 percent were none.

Folk religions, Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship and Confucianism are strong in both religious and societal terms in Vietnam. Popular religion in Vietnam has traditionally been a mixture and merging of all these religions. Few Vietnamese regard themselves as exclusively Buddhist or Confucian or whatever. Christianity is strong among some groups. The major religious traditions in Vietnam are Buddhism (which fuses elements of Taoism and Confucianism), Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Islam, Caodaism and the Hoa Hao sect.

Vietnam formally recognizes six religions, and they are all required to register with the state. In addition to organized religions, there existed a melange of beliefs without institutional structure that nevertheless had an enduring impact on Vietnamese life well into the 1980s. These, beliefs derived partly from Confucianism, stressed the virtues of filial piety, loyalty, family solidarity, and ancestor veneration--all central to the family system of the old society. Taoism, another important system of belief introduced from China, emphasized the importance of an individual's relationship to nature and to the universe. Beliefs rooted in Taoism were condemned by the regime as superstitious. [Source: Library of Congress]

It is unusual for many Vietnamese to make an important decision without consulting a medium, astrologer or geomancer (feng shui master). Describing the spirituality of his people, a Vietnamese man told Peter White of National Geographic: "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."

The traditional Vietnamese religion includes elements of Hinduism and all three Chinese religions: Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Although Confucianism (i.e., Neo-Confucianism in its rather valueconservative form) is without doubt the most influential and deeply rooted of these influences, to say that the Vietnamese are "Confucian" is to oversimplify their social and personal realities. The most widespread feature of Vietnamese Confucianism is the cult of ancestors, practiced in individual households and clan temples. As such, it is strongly tied to folk religion. There is also a wide variety of Buddhist sects, sects belonging to the "new" religions of Cadoaism and Hoa Hao, and the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches. The number of Christian adherents in 1991 constituted an estimated 7 percent of the total population: 180,000 Protestants and five million Roman Catholics. The Catholic Church has been active in Vietnam since the seventeenth century, and since 1933 has been led mainly by Vietnamese priests. The number of Muslims is estimated at 50,000. While the Vietnamese government guarantees freedom of religion, other factors influencing (and changing) the character of social values can be observed in communist ideology and Western ideas. The latter, first introduced during the French occupation followed by the Vietnam War, has been given fresh impetus since 1986 through doi moi economic reforms.[Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality

Vietnamese Village Dinh

Every village has a “dinh” , a communal house or temple with a pond in front and a shade tree in the back, and often a Buddhist pagoda or shrine. The dihn is where village elders meet and a guardian spirit—usually associated with a Vietnamese hero—resided. Every year festivals are held to celebrate this spirit. The Communists discouraged the worship of guardian spirits and the use of dihns but they have made a comeback in recent years.

The Dinh is a combination of the temple and the community center in many Vietnamese villages. It is within the Dinh that the housewives offer prayers not said at home. It is here that they also offer food to the guardian spirit called "thanh hoang" in Vietnamese. At such times, the "thanh hoang" is asked for protection against the various natural disasters and for his good will toward the individual worshipper or the worshipper's family. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

The "thanh hoang" can be a spirit (ghost) of someone who died a violent death, an unnatural death such as murder, childbirth or failed to be buried; or a supernatural or celestial spirit without human origin. Though the villager may claim his faith as Buddhism, Confucianism, or another of the ten or so faiths in Vietnam, the animistic belief of "spirits" who can affect and control destiny is very strong. Often the courtyard of the Dinh or adjoining temple has a lotus pond with the large round green leaves floating on the water's surface. The lovely flowers of the several varieties of lotus rising above the dirty water, give color to the area. They remind the beholder that, as the beautiful flower grows in such a humble environment, so good may come from each regardless of surrounding conditions. ++

Should the village have a Buddhist temple or even a Taoist one, it will normally be the most elaborate structure in the village. As the foreigner listens in the quiet of the day, the sound of the monk's almost monotonous prayers and sermon recitations, with or without audience, will be broken from time to time with the rhythmic beat of the mo, which is a wooden instrument normally found on or near the altar, or the ringing sound of the altar gong being struck with a small wooden mallet. If the government does not have a school in the village, the chances are that an elementary school will be located near the temple and taught by someone of the religious organization of the community be it Buddhist, Roman Catholic or Protestant, except among the tribespeople villages where many have no formal schooling. ++

History of Religion in Vietnam

Vietnam has for centuries practiced the ingestion of both outside peoples and influences--either voluntarily or involuntarily. These have all influenced and modified her culture so that each concept has become, in time, part of its own tradition and folklore. Indian cast her influence largely through peaceful trade and religion. China has been more direct through the centuries. Using war, conquest, and occupation whenever possible. It is not difficult to understand why the Vietnamese, North or South, have little love for their giant northern neighbor. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

While traces of Indian culture are embedded in Vietnam, it is the impact of Chinese culture, ideas, art, religion, etc., which is most seen and realized in every phase of life in Vietnam. This is so evident that it seems "The Vietnamese threw out the baby, but kept its bath-water" when they expelled the Chinese about 1,000 A.D. Though the Chinese have been back from time to time, it has always been without an invitation. ++

While Buddhism originated in India, its major impact in Vietnam came through the Chinese with the many modifications created by the more historic Chinese cultural patterns and beliefs. Nevertheless, it forms a basic part of the Vietnamese scene, and a valid understanding of Vietnamese life and thought cannot be gained without a keen awareness of the part which religion has played and continues to play in so many ways. ++

Into the "cooking pot" of Vietnam, the various ingredients of animism, Ancestor Veneration or Worship, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islamism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, etc., have been tossed. To season and spice the dish, secular culture concepts of various origins have been added. This has bubbled and stewed through the centuries, so that few of the basic religions or religious ideas will be found identical to the original. Exception must be made for such religious ingredients as Protestantism which has been added too recently, and for the animism of the tribal people who have normally stayed aloof from the whole "show" and have suffered with their "fear-controlled religion". ++

Religion and the Vietnamese Government

Like China, Vietnam tolerates religion but only through state-authorized temples and churches. Freedom to worship has improved in Vietnam in recent years, although religion remains a thorny issue and the communist authorities retain strict control over formal religious hierarchies and related activities.

The Constitution of Vietnam, adopted in 1980, proclaims that "citizens enjoy freedom of worship, and may practice or not practice a religion" but that "no one may misuse religions to violate state laws or policies." Despite the Constitution's ostensible protection of the practice of the religion, the status of such was precarious in Vietnam in late 1987. "Abuse of religious rights" is punishable by up to three years in prison. The Constitution also says one of the goals of the state is to combat "backward life styles and superstitions." The churches and temples that allowed to exist either have government-appointed or government-approved religious figures such as priests and monks. According to some analysts the government does not object to religious worship; they are more worried about the creation of a nationwide structure that could threaten their authority.

Religions with less of a following than Buddhism or Catholicism were treated similarly by the regime, with the exception of those the regime considered merely superstitious, which incurred its outright hostility. Two religious movements that enjoyed considerable followings before 1975 were the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao. Both were founded in this century in the Mekong River Delta. Before 1975 both faiths sought, with some success, to remain neutral in the war between Hanoi and Saigon. After 1975, however, like Buddhists and Roman Catholics, they were under heavy pressure from the communist regime to join its ranks. [Source: Library of Congress]

Communism has traditionally been atheistic. After the Vietnam War the Communists restricted religious freedom. Priests, nuns and monks were sent to reeducation camps. Some of those that resisted efforts to indoctrinate them spent many years in the camps, sometimes under terrible conditions. Even so Vietnamese Marxism has elements of a religion. Ho Chi Minh has become a cult figure to some, similar to traditional heroes worshiped as powerful spirits after death.

After the atheist Communist government began easing restrictions on religious activity in the 1980s and 1990s, temples and pagodas have been restored, and people are returning to churches and other places of worship. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Vietnam seemed to have experiences something of a religious revival. Temples and churches reported large turnouts. More families began observing traditional ancestral rites.

Religious Repression in Vietnam

The government officially provides for freedom of religion and recognizes Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Protestant,Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Muslim denominations. However, non-sanctioned groups, including branches of even the recognized denominations, face harassment. Furthermore, the government insists on supervising the clergies of the sanctioned groups (by approving appointments, for example) in the interest of "national unity." [Source: Library of Congress]

According to Human Rights Watch: “The government restricts religious practices through legislation, registration requirements, and harassment and surveillance. Religious groups are required to register with the government and operate under government-controlled management boards. Despite allowing many government-affiliated churches and pagodas to hold worship services, the government bans any religious activity that it arbitrarily deems to oppose "national interests," harm national unity, cause public disorder, or "sow divisions." Local police continue to prohibit unsanctioned Buddhist Hoa Hao groups from commemorating the anniversary of the death of Hoa Hao founder Huynh Phu So. During Buddhist festivals in May and August, Da Nang police blocked access to Giac Minh and An Cu pagodas and intimidated Buddhist followers. Both pagodas are affiliated with the un-sanctioned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. [Source: Human Rights Watch World Report 2012]

According to Amnesty International: "While there is now a greater degree of religious freedom in Viet Nam than there was a decade ago, restrictions remain. The Vietnamese government still insists on control over religious institutions. Those that refuse to comply with this demand face persecution. All religious organizations have to be affiliated to the Communist Party-run Fatherland Front. Government permission is still required for: holding training seminars, meditation sessions, and general meetings; for major repairs or construction of places of worship; charitable activities; operation of religious schools' ordinations and promotions of clergy and any international activities of religious communities. Those people who are linked to religious groups that are not part of the state-sanctioned churches are frequently harassed, arrested and imprisoned. Even state-approved churches face many problems, notably a lack of clergy, due to the severe restrictions placed on the training and ordination of individuals to the priesthood in the various religions. Relations between Hanoi and The Vatican, which have long been difficult, have improved in recent years. Most recently, in an unprecedented departure, The Vatican and the Vietnamese authorities have agreed on the ordination of several bishops. [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002]

According to a human rights report, "In Vietnam, Buddhists and Christians who act independently of the officially approved temple and church are subject to arrests and harassment." Large gatherings are video taped by informers. The Japan Times reported: "Communist parties are never comfortable with divided allegiances; Vietnam's party has a history of suppressing both Buddhists and Christians. In 2001, Christian protests have sparked confrontations between the government and believers; scores have been hurt and several killed. In an attempt to stem the violence, the government granted nationwide recognition to a Protestant church, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. The religion problem is intertwined with another issue: Vietnam's ethnic minorities, who make up 15 percent of the country's population. For example, Protestantism is popular among the Hmong people because that church preaches in their native tongue. When persecuted by the government, they have fled to the central highlands from the north. Friction between local Vietnamese and resettled Hmong add to the tension. [Source: Japan Times, April 10, 2001]

Shawn W Crispin wrote in the Asia Times, “The Communist Party has been particularly tough on Vietnam's various minority religious groups, which they fear often have more political than spiritual motives. Since 2001 the government had forcibly closed more than 1,250 mostly Christian and Buddhist religious sites across the country's central highlands, where in 2001 and 2004 massive demonstrations calling for more religious and political freedom were held. At least 100 Vietnamese are currently imprisoned on charges related to their religious beliefs, according to information compiled by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Buddhists and Christians in the country's northwestern regions are still frequently forced to renounce their faith in front of local officials; and those found to break that atheistic vow sometimes lose access to public utilities or face violent reprisals. Vietnamese officials frequently justify their armed attacks on religious sites, shrines and meeting places on the grounds that holy structures violate state building codes, which in Vietnam's provinces are famously arbitrary and ill-defined. In reality, the systematic assaults are part of a long-running and clearly ongoing government campaign to stifle religious freedoms. [Source: Shawn W Crispin, Asia Times, July 6, 2006]

See Montagnards, Repression of Christians

Religion, Culture and Society in Vietnam

According to a guide written for American soldiers during the Vietnam War: "The ethnic Vietnamese by long tradition have philosophies and religious beliefs which declare man to be a part of nature. Man is subject to, and therefore subordinate to, nature so that harmony can be achieved only as man conforms to the natural world about him. By wrong thought or deed, man can disrupt nature, while by right deeds and thoughts he may create prosperity. An awareness of how these and similar concepts affect behavior and thought allows the American serviceman to be more understanding and more effective in his tour of duty in Vietnam. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

"The two historic civilizations, India and China, separated by Vietnam as a land bridge, gave their religions to the ethnic Vietnamese. While the Indians gave Hinduism and Buddhism, the Chinese reinterpreted and adapted Buddhism as they passed it along to Vietnam. Taoism and Confucianism were also planted in Vietnam earlier as a part of the Chinese conquest about a hundred years before Christ. These religions were added to the basic Animism originally there. Today, Animism remains a major influence particularly in the religions of the tribes-people of the mountains of Vietnam. Additionally, such faiths as Islam, Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the indigenous Vietnamese religions strongly affect the daily life of the individual adherent. This religiously-influenced culture molds and shapes the life of the Vietnamese much more obviously on the surface than Americans are affected by the concepts of the Judeo-Christian heritage. If Americans are to achieve the goals of understanding and friendship with the Vietnamese, they must have some comprehension of their religions and be acutely aware of the ways in which these religions affect the values and goals of the peoples. ++

"A specific illustration will emphasize the practical consequences of religious beliefs. Among the Vietnamese peasantry there seems to be little sense of urgency with regard to time. What may appear to the Americans as indolence, inertia, or laziness, may be due in large measure to an inbred passivity due to concepts of Karma, as well as to insufficient diet or disease. For while we place a premium on activity and "progress", the Vietnamese have the tradition of admiring the "passionless sage" which grants the older person a status superior to the scientist, the statesman or the warrior. ++

Every religion can be approached from two points of view. One is the view of recognized professionals or authoritative exponents of the faith. The other is the religion of the masses who profess adherence to that faith. Both will go by the same name, but there is often a vast difference between the two. There is always something lost in the transmission of the faith from its chief spokesmen to a larger membership. A Buddhist, for example, may be quite a good Buddhist in the popular sense of the term. He may attend the temple quite regularly, making his offerings, giving rice daily to the passing clergy, uttering prayers, and performing various rites and incantations. At the same time he may have little or no knowledge of the philosophical framework of Buddhist belief. ++

"In other words, he is more a Buddhist by habit and outward practice than by conviction. In many religious systems there is almost no attempt to explain to the people the meaning of what they do or see. Therefore a non-adherent cannot assume that observable practices provide an adequate understanding of the daily consequences of religious concepts. He must know something of the actual, rather than the theoretical, complex of attitudes and beliefs which lie behind the rites and rituals if they are to be evaluated realistically." ++

Religious Practices and Activities in Vietnam

In Vietnamese temples, people place flower offerings at a main altar, then they take some burning incense sticks (joss sticks) and visit different altars—bowing by bringing their closed hands to their foreheads at each one— and placing three incense sticks at each altar. If you worry about passive smoke don't go into a Chinese temple in Vietnam. Dozens of burning incense coils, maybe 50 inches long when unraveled, hang from the ceiling. Lit joss sticks are placed in urns and pieces of ignited rice paper are tossed into the air. Visitors leave burning joss sticks and offerings of fruit. Some offer plastic coins or burn fake $100 bills.

Gassho: is a form of greeting or the highest form of respect, in which hands are placed palms together, fingers pointing upward, in front of the chest. In showing respect to clergy or respected persons of high honor, the hands are placed in front of the face instead of the chest. The form lso represents unity. It is often used as a means of greeting in lieu of the American handshake. The gassho is also the position in which worshippers hold their hands while listening to sermons in the pagoda, or to the advice and counsel of a monk. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967]

Joss Stick Lighting: Worshippers normally light three joss sticks (the Cao Daist use five) in the courtyard of the house of worship, and place them in sand-filled containers or in specially prepared racks. Then moving to the center of the patio or pagoda front, they perform the gassho three times. This is quite similar to the Japanese version of clapping the hands three times from a similar location. "Money" made of golden or red crepe paper may also be burned at this time in an outdoor fire so that the ascending smoke may supply the needs of the spirits or gods. Unless specifically invited to do so, it is not proper for non-adherents of the faith to light joss sticks. ++

Worship in the Pagoda or Temple: takes place after the worshipper removes his shoes at the temple door and, if wearing one, removes his hat. He moves to a position in front of the altar, be it one of Buddha or of Spirit Veneration; and performs the gassho three times. He then kneels, and from this position lowers his forehead to the floor three times. Once these acts are completed, the worshipper stands, bows to the altar or to the Buddha statue, then moves away. This may complete the worship. Sometimes the worshipper may shake a container of numbered sticks until one or more fall away. The sticks which drop are then taken to an attendant who gives a printed answer to the worshipper for each stick, the written material supposedly giving answers to the desires of the one who has performed the service. ++

Communal Houses: The Communal House in Vietnam is often the place where memorial tables to the deceased are stored; and is the location for occasional ceremonies of the clan, tribe, or village. Like the WAT, it must be treated with both respect and care. The pagoda or temple, the Communal House, and the market place are the three locations of most importance in any community; and none of them should be disturbed without clear orders. ++

Ancestor Veneration Temples: Temples for the veneration of Great Heroes are a vital part of the Vietnamese scene. Due to the influence of Confucianism, there are a number of temples where Vietnamese go for worship and prayer to the spirits of deceased heroes. Each temple is dedicated to a number of such spirits, and in view of legendary Vietnamese history, any listing of the various Veneration Temples would be quite lengthy. As a rule, these Temples do not have Buddhas or Buddhist symbolism; but are richly ornamented in Chinese designs, and contain altars covered with items acceptable to this type of worship (incense burners, candles, pictures of the deceased etc.). ++

Spirit Houses: These little shelters, some simple and some elaborate, are to be seen all over Vietnam. They are erected by the devout for the happiness of the Spirits. These Spirits may be those of a particular location, or the Spirits of deceased relatives which must be placated lest harm come to the living. The little shelters, which remind Westerners of "birdhouses", often contain candles, Joss Sticks, toy furniture, and other useful items for the pleasure and use of the Spirits. Spirit houses reflect prevalent belief in animism and ancestor veneration, and are of vital importance to those who erect them. For the best rapport with the people, Americans are strongly advised to steer completely clear of spirit houses.

Joss Sticks

Joss sticks and incense burners are found in family altars, spirit houses, and temple courtyards and before the figures of Buddha in Vietnam. Not all joss sticks are fragrant as some are primarily for smoke and have only the faintest odor. However, the more favored joss sticks are the ones with incense which serves both as a means of veneration and as a practical deodorizer. Few homes in Vietnam are without a joss stick to be utilized for some reason, and in some seasons the burning of joss sticks seems to create distinct fire hazards. When it is remembered that joss sticks are all handmade, it does not take long to realize that this is quite an industry. Basically the joss stick is made with a thin bamboo stick, which is painted red, Part of the stick is rolled in a putty-like substance-the exact formulae are guarded by their owners. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The putty-like substance is composed of the sawdust of such materials as sandalwood and other fragrant plants mixed with water or another evaporating liquid. Normally at least three different kinds of sawdust are mixed for the best result. The ideal woods for this sawdust come from the mountain forests and from Laos. Once the sticky brown mixture is placed on 1/3 or more of the painted bamboo stick, it is placed in the drying racks in the sun. It takes about two days of sunshine to dry the mixture satisfactorily, and then these are brought indoors and placed so that several additional days of drying time is allowed. This helps to insure that all moisture has evaporated and makes a firmer better product. ++

Once completed, the joss sticks may be placed into packages along with a couple of candles for the altar, or placed loosely in larger boxes for wholesale or retail distribution. Most of the work is done by girls, who, with training and practice, can make about three thousand joss sticks a day. It is possible for a hard worker to earn perhaps the equal of a dollar for a full day's labor. ++

Joss sticks are very reasonably priced, and it is good for the common people that this is so, for few acts of devotion could be complete without the lighting of joss sticks. These may be placed in sand-filled containers either in the temple courtyard or in racks located in front or on top of an altar. Sometimes after burning joss sticks are placed in front of a Buddha statue, the ascending smoke from the burning joss stick is thought by some to have beneficial aid in pleasing that power to whom worship is made, or prayers offered. ++

It is possible to purchase spiral or circular joss sticks which will burn as long as one to three months with incense and smoke being cast off night and day. Quite often walls, the ceiling and sometimes the figures of devotion or veneration are smoked or darkened. Where the buildings do not have adequate ventilation, the spaces above the doorway level may be perpetually gray with smoke. The overwhelming fragrance of the burning joss sticks may also cloak any unpleasant odors that might detract the worshipper from his devotion, or which could offend the one to whom petitions are being made. ++

While the Chinese families of Southeast Asia use many joss sticks, it is doubtful if they use more than the Vietnamese families who may combine animism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism and sometimes even parts of the Christian acts of worship. To so many of these folk, it would be more unwise to forget, ignore or omit the acts of worship where the joss sticks are a basic element, than it would be to step in front of a speeding truck. It might miss you, but the angered "spirits" would not! ++

Fragrant Incense of Aloes Wood

For a small fee, incense may be purchased and set to burning either inside or outside the temple in the form of joss sticks. For about three dollars, one can secure spiral formed incense that will burn continually for three months or more. In the ancient writing of the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Arabs aloes is mentioned. The Arabs use it as medication for the heart and burn it mixed with camphor in worship services. In India, aloes mixed with other products is used to anoint and perfume the dead. An additional aromatic product of the aloes wood is Ky-nam. Ky-nam is composed of aloes wood full of resin-if chewed, it tastes bitter and is gummy; when burned, its resin gives its own characteristic scent. Since Ky-nam is black in color with white spots like the feathers of eagles, it is sometimes called eagle-wood. It is also used as medicine against colds, fevers and dysentery, but with the warnings that if used by pregnant women it will cause miscarriage. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The incense trees and cinnamon which grow in the forests of Vietnam have long been known and utilized. The tribal people gather cinnamon bark and trade these to the lowland Vietnamese for essential supplies. They also gather the incense wood for a similar reason as the tribespeople do not seem to use incense for worship as do the lowland worshippers. Aloes wood-used as incense-belongs to the Thy-melaeceae family of trees. The Chinese, French, Cambodians, Hebrews, Greeks, Malayans, Germans, Portuguese, Cham and English speaking people all have their own words for it. The walls and ceilings of many temples are much darkened by the smoke of burning incense. ++

Normally, the aloes incense wood is of a brownish color and makes excellent incense sticks which are often made up into small packages for easy use. Similar to the cedar in the states, aloes is sometimes made into furniture, but is very expensive by comparison. The Portuguese tell of one piece of aloes wood four feet long and two feet thick valued at 54,000 English pounds (roughly $470,000) in the 17th century. An Italian missionary in Vietnam about the same time says the King of Vietnam had a piece of aloes wood weighing about 30 pounds in his office. If made into wooden pillars, only the very rich could own such rarities. Used as incense, the smoke is supposed to please either the spirits of the departed dead or to curry the favor of the gods. ++

Burning of Votive Paper Objects in Vietnamese Temples

Among the sights to be seen in South Vietnam are the temples of ancestor worship which normally have a fire into which worshippers throw money made of tissue-like paper. History reveals that in times past, when a member of royalty died, and was buried, living persons were often buried along with him so that he might still be waited upon by servants. His personal possessions were often included in this rite. Such customs seem to have been practiced in many lands. In at least one land, the widow was also slain and cremated when the husband died, so that he might have a wife in the "next world". This custom was condemned by Confucius as being inhuman. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Feeling that such a custom might be unkind, or at least expensive, someone came up with the idea of using wooden or straw figures, representing common objects used in the persons lifetime. These figures were burned or buried with the deceased. Incidentally, such burial customs have provided archeologists with valuable information of bygone ages. According to tradition, about the first century B.C. a government official developed the idea of making votive offerings from the bark of a palm tree known as cay gio. These were used to imitate silver, gold, clothing, common objects, and could be burned as an offering during the funeral in place of valuable objects or human beings. ++

Vuong-Du, the legendary inventor of the votive paper idea, was apparently not able to sell much of his product. But then struck by a "clever" idea, he decided upon a surefire gimmick to sell his product. By agreement with his fellow-makers of votive paper, he arranged for one of his sickly companions to be put to bed and told everyone that he was seriously ill, and a few days later that he was dead. Placed in a coffin (with a previously bored air hole) the funeral proceeded toward the tomb accompanied by a great number of figurines made of votive paper.

Just as the heavy coffin was to be lowered into the tomb, the "dead" man was heard to groan and moan; then as the lid was raised, the haggard and pale "corpse" sat up and spoke to the mourners. He told them that while he had been taken to the Infernal Regions (Hell), he had been released because his family had substituted money and paper figures for his person. Apparently, the story was believed at the time, for sales boomed as many hurried to buy these votive items and burn them to the spirits of their ancestors. ++

Regardless of the truth of this legend which is recorded in a number of documents, the burning of votive paper seems to constitute one of the essential rites in homage or worship to the dead. In the courtyard or temples where worshippers may be found will be seen an open fire into which the worshipper casts votive objects including paper money as a part of their worship. Such votive paper, along with joss sticks and candles, can be purchased for a very small fee either on the sidewalk or in front of the temple, or sometimes in the temple itself. Votive paper burning in Vietnam preceded the arrival of Chinese colonists in the first centuries of the present era according to some students of culture. ++

Religion in Everyday Life in Vietnam

Many Vietnamese habits, customs, and traditions are rooted in, and conditioned by, religious beliefs. For many Vietnamese, the village encompasses their lives. They are born, grow up, marry, have children, grow old, if fortunate, and die, often without ever having left their village environment. Since religious beliefs affect every phase of Vietnamese life, and because these are quite different from Judeo-Christian beliefs, the resulting value systems determine patterns of thinking, habits, customs, and taboos quite different from those found in America. The use of religious concepts in everyday life is more evident among the Vietnamese than among Americans. Americans tend to compartmentalize religion into a limited part of the week-in many cases to less than one hour per week. Most of the Vietnamese religious beliefs affecting daily life are so complex that they do not easily lend themselves to precise statements, definitions, beliefs, or creeds which can readily be understood by Americans. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Into the "cooking pot" of Vietnam, the various ingredients of animism, Ancestor Veneration or Worship, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islamism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, etc., have been tossed. To season and spice the dish, secular culture concepts of various origins have been added. This has bubbled and stewed through the centuries, so that few of the basic religions or religious ideas will be found identical to the original. Exception must be made for such religious ingredients as Protestantism which has been added too recently, and for the animism of the tribal people who have normally stayed aloof from the whole "show" and have suffered with their "fear-controlled religion". ++

The imported religious ideas have induced permanent changes in the thought and behavior patterns of the people, and have become so deeply woven into Vietnamese daily life that Westerners tend to disbelieve their eyes, and fail to comprehend the resulting value systems. These ideas mixed with animism and ancestor veneration from South China have formulated the moral codes and standards. They have also established the various rules and systems of government, and have either promoted or hindered the growth of arts, crafts, industry and technological developments. ++

Until very recently, and in many areas is still fact, the pagoda, the wat, the shrine, the communal house, the mosque, have been the focus of village life. Birth, marriage, festivals, death, lunar occasions, etc., as well as health, posterity, travels, planting of crops, house building, are all governed by religious beliefs and ceremonies. The religious figures of the community are important personages because of either individual belief or community pressure. Social approval is essential to any Vietnamese. Many would rather die than to be held in disfavor with family or community. This would be the "sin" to many Vietnamese that creates guilt, rather than the concept held by many Americans that all men are accountable to a supreme God. ++

Ancestral altars and shrines, with pictures of deceased loved ones have traditionally dominated the front room of a house. Members of the household bow before it, light incense and pray. Altars are decorated with incense, fruit and flowers during Tet. Some Buddhist altars are situated outside in front of the house. After Tet, chicken feet are hung from the front of the house to ward off evil spirits. If the feet turn black it means a year of bad luck is ahead.

Taoism in Vietnam

Introduced into Vietnam through Chinese cultural influence and occupation, Taoism is "a way", "a road", "a law of life" which requires that man adjust to nature in order to have happiness. Its influence is one of the more powerful religious forces in Vietnam today. Lao-Tze, founder of Taoism, lived about 600 B.C. in China and the religion which he founded is just a little bit older than that founded by Buddha of India or Confucius of China. In agreement with early Chinese thought which preceded Lao-Tze, he taught that man needs to have a relaxed and natural life which could be achieved only when in harmony with nature. Such harmony would promote good will toward others, grant personal integrity, encourage sincerity and simplicity. These qualities undergird spontaneity to the degree that man would be in harmony with nature. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Taoism (Pronounced "Dah-o-ism"), therefore, is the natural mode of behavior; the best way to acquire perfection in relation to the natural world which surrounds man. Submission to the laws of nature is taught since this encourages virtues such as gentleness, peacefulness, serenity and resignation to "unchangeable fates". Because harmony with nature is deemed essential, Taoism has encouraged nature worship in its popular practice at least. The ritual of Taoism in Vietnam today seems largely to consist of religio-magical features, divining, fortune-telling, worship of the spirits of nature including the earth, and use of the horoscope, etc., to ascertain the will of nature insofar as the individual is concerned. ++

Many of the more basic beliefs of Taoism have been absorbed into other religions found in Vietnam. They still mold and form cultural patterns affecting almost all ethnic Vietnamese or Chinese living in Vietnam. These Taoist concepts are to be observed in non-western medical practices; in marital arrangements which necessitate consulting horoscopes; consultation with those wise in reading the relationship of the earth's elements, so that the proposed marriage will be happy, prosperous and fruitful; in the choosing of auspicious dates; and in the ceremonies of worship as they pertain to the Spring, the Fall, the ploughing of the ground, the planting of seed, etc. ++

The principle divinities of Taoism are the Jade Emperor, the Holy Mother (Lieu-Hanh), Lao-Tsu and Chu-Vi. The life of man is not granted that he might find pleasure, but pain as he atones for past offenses of previous existences and prepares for future lives in accord with the Cycle of Existence. Because Taoism insists on harmony with and submission to nature, its inherent drive is the repression of a willingness to exploit nature, to take risks or to gamble for distant goals if success is not obvious. To some extent, Taoism seems to discourage the willingness to engage in combat with either nature or man. Like some aspects of Buddhism, it seems to have overtones of pessimism and a negative attitude toward attempts to change drastically the life patterns. ++

While having only a limited formal organization in Vietnam today, the concepts of Taoism are in evidence in the daily life cycle of ethnic Vietnamese, whether they be dwellers of the cities or peasants tilling the rice-paddies. The cultural mold into which the Vietnamese are born and in which they are reared has been developed through more than two thousand years. While many people do not know just why certain customary acts are performed, the necessity to see that these are fulfilled is a constant pressure that few Vietnamese would be willing to ignore. ++

See Separate Articles: TAOISM ; TAOIST BELIEFS

Confucianism in Vietnam

Confucianism was introduced into Vietnam early during the Chinese rule, and has maintained much of its influence since that time. In 1072, there was a temple dedicated to Confucius and his leading 72 disciples. Located in Hanoi, this temple was called the Temple of Literature. In Saigon, at the Botanical Gardens, there is a temple dedicated to Confucius called the Temple of Souvenirs. This is the site of Confucius' birthday celebration which is solemnly honored each year. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

China left a vivid and deep impression during its more than 1,000 years of social and political domination in Vietnam. One writer had said that the Vietnamese are more bound by Chinese tradition than are the Chinese themselves. Confucian values derived from ancient China saturate Vietnamese ideas of family patterns and behavior. Confucianism gave Vietnam a highly organized hierarchial society. Yet while encouraging the improvement of the individual, it did so in order that he could better function for the community. For the individual was, and is, perceived to have little value beyond the family and society. In this sense Confucianism is anti-individualistic. ++

Like the Chinese peasants prior to Communist domination, many Vietnamese tend to accept all three of the ways--Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism--without worry of conflict. Taoism is for adjustment to the natural world, Confucianism is for the social world, while Buddhism is utilized for harmony with the universe of which man is a part and for preparing for future existences. The adoption of a new religion by the ethnic Vietnamese does not necessarily mean the abandonment of an earlier faith. Rather it is often a process of accommodation to include all concepts to increase the surety for both the present and future existences. ++

Confucianism, a generic Western term, is a Weltanschauung, i.e., a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life, but it is not an organized religion. Chinese governors introduced Confucianism to Vietnam from 939 to 1407. The doctrine of Confucius is set forth in four classical texts and in five canonical books. By rigid rules, it determines the attitude the every man in society should adopt to guide his relationships as an individual with his superiors, with his wife and friends, and with his inferiors. The philosophy suggests a moral code, which advocates the Middle Way for the worthy man’s behavior. According to Mencius, the most distinguished disciple of Confucius, man is inherently good. To preserve his goodness, he needs to check his passions. The wise man improves himself through study; he knows himself and is the master of his passions. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

There are four rules for a man to achieve self-perfection: to cultivate himself, to run his family, to rule the country, and pacify the world. The three important sets of social interaction are between king and citizen, between father and son (hieu - filial piety or responsibility), and between husband and wife. Five cardinal virtues have to be achieved in order to become a man of virtue: humanity, equity, urbanity, intelligence, and honesty. As for the woman, Confucius teaches four virtues: skill with her hands, agreeable appearance, prudence in speech, and exemplary conduct, and three submissions or obediences: to the father until she is married, to the husband after she leaves her parents’ house, and to the eldest son when her husband dies. Interestingly, the real order as seen by most Vietnamese, and also by the French, is a different one: the Vietnamese woman was inferior to her father but just about equal to her husband, provisionally superior to her minor brothers, and always superior to her sons. /*\


Confucius and Confucianism

Born in 551 B.C. as one of 11 children, and largely self-educated, Confucius became China's most noted educator and learned man. The name Confucius is a transliteration of Khong Phu Tu with Khong as the family name and Phu Tu meaning Master. While having no "bible" and no "clergy", Confucianism became a religion by its very philosophy and promotion of traditional rites. For instance, in discussing life after death, Confucius said "Respect the spirits, but stay away from them". At the same time, he promoted ancient religious rites such as the worship of heaven, the honoring of the Emperor, the commemoration of great men, etc. Likewise he taught that ancestral rites should be practiced since filial piety is the basic virtue because one should remember the origin of life. He apparently encouraged the building of temples to noted men, and thought seasonal rites should be performed to them as signs of respect and veneration. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Because the aspirations of man are universal, the teachings of Confucius have been widely accepted. He encouraged the three virtues of humanity, intelligence and courage. In the daily life patterns, he set forth the moral obligations of right relationships between ruler and minister, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, friend and friend. Confucius was perhaps one of the leading humanists of all times with his major concern being the present life. These concepts formed the basis of his writings and ethical teachings. Sometime after his death a temple was built in his memory at Chufon. Sacrifices were offered in this temple until the fall of the dynasty of Chou. Confucius was a very conservative man with a great respect for law; he was not inclined to change or progress. Basic to his teachings was the establishment of rules and regulations for the functioning of bureaucratic states. ++

His teachings were social and ethical, and without speculative questions. There was very little obvious supernatural religion in his teachings other than his claim to divine inspiration. In his doctrines, which were pragmatic and practical, there was no personal deity; no god who was responsible for the beginning of all things. He believed that there was no such thing as a First Cause, which might be called God, but that force and matter existed from all eternity. They were eternal in the sense that Christians claim eternity for God; they always existed independent of anything else. There was an encounter between these two with force acting on matter somewhat like the active masculine element on the passive feminine element which produced Heaven and Earth. Mankind also resulted from their union. Therefore man is endowed with an essentially good nature, but to preserve this he has to sharpen his wits and act in the correct manner. His reason mast not be clouded by his emotions. Heaven has endowed each person with a conscience that allows him to distinguish good from evil, and the reward of virtue is the tranquility of soul that man forever seeks. ++

His practice was to accept all the main religious rites. He seems to have rejected the idea that true life exists after death as the Christians believe, or in Nirvana as the Buddhists believe. He advocated the enjoyment of a simple life, especially family life, and harmonious social relations. Even though Confucius did not believe in a personal God, his system had its scriptures, rituals, family religion, and cult of ancestors. Confucius collected, edited, and in some cases, rewrote the classics of the Chou period (1100-481 B.C.). ++

Books attributed to Confucius were responsible for the standard of Confucian orthodoxy— these classics were: 1) The Yi Ching (Book of Changes); 2) The Shu Ching (Book of History); 3) The Shi Ching (Book of Odes); 4) The Ch’um Ch’iu (Events in the Province of Lu); 5) The Li Chi (Book of Rites and Ceremonies). Besides these classics we have: 1) The Analects (Saying of Confucius); 2) The Great Learning; 3) The Doctrine of Man (Compiled by a disciple); 4) The Works of Mencius (The great successor and disciple of Confucius). ++

Confucian Beliefs

The major principles of Confucianism are: 1) The individual is always less important than the family. Confucius said "While his parents are alive, a son should not dare to consider his wealth his own; nor to hold any of it for his private use." 2) The living person is merely the connecting link between the dead and yet unborn, so that all proposed actions must consider the welfare of these two classes more important than one's own fate. Confucius said "Although your father and mother are dead, if you propose to yourself any good work, only reflect how it will make their names illustrious, and your purpose will be fixed. So if you propose to do what is not good, only consider how it will disgrace the name of your father, and you will desist from your purpose." 3) Because devotion and veneration of ancestral spirits promote their welfare, marriages are planned by the family to insure sustained veneration. Confucius said "The ceremony of marriage was intended to be a bond of love between families of two different surnames, with a view in its retrospective character to maintaining the services in the ancestral temple; and in its prospective character, to secure the continuance of the family line." 4) Veneration rites encourage large families. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

5) Deep respect is due to elders, aged and seniors without regard to factors other than age. Confucius said "Filial piety and fraternal submission--are they not the root of all benevolent actions?" 6) The cult of ancestor worship or veneration gives the male double roles: head of the household and religious head of household for ancestor veneration. Since this rite normally is conducted only by the male descendents, boys are more desired than girls. Confucius said "Man is the representative of Heaven and is supreme over all things. Woman yields obedience to the institutions of man and helps him to carry out his principles." 7) Confucianism as a religious force is not apparent among the Montagnards who comprise approximately 5 percent of the total population. 8) Confucius thought society's reform must begin at the top. Just as leaders establish the moral climate for society, so do fathers for the family. With filial piety stressed as the highest virtue within a family, reverent obedience of son to father was implicit. Because the veneration of ancestors is an extension of filial piety, it seemed natural to Confucius that this should be endorsed. Undoubtedly popular Confucianism in Vietnam is quite different than the original teachings of the sage, but its effect on the culture and people of Vietnam is undeniable. ++

As a major emphasis in its ethical system, Confucianism regulates relations between people. It is the improper conduct of these relations that causes disorders in the social group and therefore throws man out of harmony with the universe. The cosmic world (Heaven and Earth) are in harmony, and man's aim in life is to achieve a similar harmony. Vietnamese Confucianism, though without a strong formalized organization, still vitally affects nearly all ethnic Vietnamese. This is part of the cultural environment into which the child is born. ++

Since in Confucianism death does not mean the annihilation of man (as the spirit is thought to survive the body) ancestral worship is the giving of veneration to those to whom life is owed. Confucianists believe upon death the "spirit" wanders in space as an exile. Duty requires that it be brought back to the family altar and be worshipped. Filial reverence is the primary duty of all Confucianists. On all solemn occasions the ancestral spirit is to be invoked and offered liquors, flowers and fruit, which is accompanied with prayers and incense. ++

Confucianism, Festivals and Life in Vietnam

Confucianism or Religion of Life, is vividly seen throughout Vietnam in the worship paid to ancestors, as well as in the Festivals of Spring, Autumn, Youth and to the New Year. The formal names of these are Festival of the Arrival of Spring, the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Children's Festival, and the Festival of TET. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Tet is the Festival of Renewal and Rebirth, or Meditation and Hope. With fireworks (in peace time), ringing bells, and beating tom-toms, toys and much food, Tet is a high occasion in Vietnam. Many folk visit the pagodas to worship, burn joss-sticks and sandalwood incense, with flowers, food and liquors being placed also on the family altars. It is the occasion when long life is wished to others, when happiness and hope for the abundance of offspring, such as five girls and seven boys each more handsome than the other, is extended to all. ++

The other worship occasions involve the worship of the land. Such ceremonies include the Festival of the Beginning of Plowing, and the Rice Festival, the Harvest Festival and the Festival of the First Fruits. Because the Vietnamese feel that the land has always nourished them in spite of drought, war, foods, etc., the farmer never seems to lose faith in the land as he plows, plants, harrows, weeds and irrigates it. To express his thankfulness for such response, the land is given honor in seasonal festivals which expressing hopes and efforts of the past and for the future. Such worship of the land has tended to create in the Vietnamese peasant an almost fanatical attachment to his birthplace which nourished him during life, and becomes his grave after death. It is the combination of worship of the land and ancestor veneration which creates the sight of numberless graves being scattered throughout the farming areas of Vietnam. ++

Confucianism has exercised a powerful influence in the formation of Vietnamese society, and continues to have great force at the present time. As in China prior to the communist government. the family is the basic unity of society. Thus the four fundamental principles which govern Vietnamese women as a whole constitute filial love, conjugal love, love for the home and mother love (or obedience to father until married, obedience to husband while married, obedience to eldest son when husband is dead). One Vietnamese writer says "A barren women is almost despised and families are large for the mission of Asian women in life is to bring into life as many children as possible" (Tran Van Tung, Vietnam, New York: Frederick A. Praeger; 1958). ++

Veneration of Ancestors in Vietnam

Special reverence was accorded a family's ancestors. This practice, known as the family cult or cult of the ancestors, derived from the belief that after death the spirits of the departed continued to influence the world of the living. The soul was believed to become restless and likely to exert an unfavorable influence on the living, unless it was venerated in the expected manner. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Veneration of ancestors was also regarded as a means through which an individual could assure his or her own immortality. Children were valued because they could provide for the spirits of their parents after death. Family members who remained together and venerated their forebears with strict adherence to prescribed ritual found comfort in the belief that the souls of their ancestors were receiving proper spiritual nourishment and that they were insuring their own soul's nourishment after death. *

The cult required an ancestral home or patrimony, a piece of land legally designated as a place devoted to the support of venerated ancestors. Ownership of land that could be dedicated to the support of the cult was, however, only a dream for most landless farmers. The cult also required a senior male of direct descent to oversee preparations for obligatory celebrations and offerings. *

On the anniversary of an ancestor's death, rites were performed before the family altar to the god of the house, and sacrificial offerings were made to both the god and the ancestor. The lavishness of the offering depended on the income of the family and on the rank of the deceased within the family. A representative of each family in the lineage was expected to be present, even if this meant traveling great distances. Whenever there was an occasion of family joy or sorrow, such as a wedding, an anniversary, success in an examination, a promotion, or a funeral, the ancestors were informed through sacrificial offerings. *

Ancestor Worship in Vietnam

Ancestor worship, which originated with Confucianism, holds that the soul of the dead person does disappear from sight but stays around to look after the family. Emperors and kings built imperial temples where they worshipped the late emperors whose achievements and exploits were recorded on ancestral tablets and steles. Wealthy people have their family temples for the whole family to worship their ancestors. Poor people, who have no temple of their own, set up an altar in the best part of their home to show gratitude and respect for their ancestors. Because of the war, which produced a serious shortage of dwelling places, most houses are now too small, and very few family temples or permanent ancestors’ altars can be set up. It is the responsibility of the eldest son to take care of the various anniversaries during the year. For this, he receives income from a number of rice fields or land as a hereditary state. The eldest son records the ancestor’s date of death in a family register. On the day of the anniversary, the chief of the family, properly attired, stands solemnly before the altar, with three sticks of incense in his hands, held to the level of his forehead, and says the pseudonym, the real name, and the date of death, and invites the ancestor to the feast. At the same time, he will pray to the dead to protect the members of his family. Various dishes have to be prepared for display before the altar on each ancestor’s anniversary. Nowadays, probably 70 percent of the Vietnamese are followers of ancestor worship. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

In every household, an ancestor altar is installed in the most solemn location. Vietnamese believe that the soul of a dead person, even if dead for many generations, still rests along with their descendants on earth. The dead and living persons still have spiritual communion; in everyday life, people must not forget that what they enjoy and how they feel is the same for their dead relatives. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

On the last day of every lunar year, an announcing cult, cung tien thuong, is performed to invite the dead forefathers to return home to celebrate Tet holidays with their families. During the last days before Tet, all family members visit their ancestors’ graves; they clean and decorate the graves, in the same manner that the livings clean and decorate their houses to welcome the New Year. On the anniversary of an ancestor’s death, descendants and relatives unite and prepare a feast to worship the dead people and to ask for health and happiness for themselves. From generation to generation, ancestor worshipping customs have been religiously preserved. There are some small variations between those customs among the many Vietnamese ethnic groups, but the common theme of fidelity and gratitude towards the ancestors remains. ~


Ancestor Worship and Death in Vietnam

Non-Christian ancestor worship begins at the time of death. As soon as death is a fact, the ethnic Vietnamese cover the corpse with a square piece of red cloth. Often a bit of cloth is made into the shape of a doll representing the body so that it might receive the spirit of the dead one. Then the corpse is washed, clothed in best garments, and placed on a bier in the casket. Mourning is announced with such details being spelled out by law. Usually a complicated ceremonial rite is used for burials. The grave is often dug according to geomancy. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

From the day of death, there will be a lighted candle on the ancestor altar with attempts to keep a flame there constantly; in addition food is placed there for the spirit of the dead individual. Mourning for members of the immediate family supposedly lasts for three years with yearly ceremonies on the anniversary of their deaths. When a father dies, his daughter may not marry for three years due to mourning customs. Most Orientals regard the death anniversary more important than birth dates, for who knows at birth what an individual will achieve or become. ++

While there are differences of opinion, it seems that death among the ethnic Vietnamese is believed to be part of the return to eternity. A reincarnation in some form will be decided by the sum and value of the life of the deceased as well as by the prayers said to one's spirit. On death anniversary celebrations, the first day of the year, lunar festival holidays, and all important family events such as birth and marriage, worship at family ancestor altars is performed. ++

To the average family of ethnic Vietnamese the presence of the spirits of their ancestors is vivid and is as much a part of reality as are the living. No offense by word, deed or thought should be given; rather honor must be rendered so that one's own moral and social standing is improved. One authority has pointed out that to the Vietnamese "a country is composed as much of the dead who laid its foundations as the living who perpetuate it". The ancestral veneration of Chinese culture is a link uniting the dead and the living members of the family. The social virtue of filial piety, as taught by Confucianism, is greatly esteemed and is a cohesive element in binding the family and clan into a unit. The living believe that such worship provides a channel of valuable services between the living and the dead-careful observations reveal how deeply filial piety affects the social, political and economic structures in South Vietnam and demonstrate the necessity of understanding people as human beings wherever found. ++

Ancestor Worship--Worship of Nham-Dien

Among the gifts of the Chinese to Vietnam during 1,000 years of occupation, and as the big neighbor next door, is ancestor worship Ancestor Worship is more than just the worship of "spirits" of one's deceased relatives; it is also the veneration and worship of great men, or at least the "spirits" of these great men, and many temples have been erected in which that particular personage may be worshipped. Among the recognized religions and places of veneration or worship in Vietnam are many of these temples-some quite small and simple, others large and showy. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Since rice is the major foodstuff and the staff of life to the Vietnamese, with the average consumption computed to be a bit over two pounds a day per adult, anyone aiding rice production in a notable way would become a famous man. One such individual who lived about the time of Christ was Nham-Dien, governor of Thanh-Hoa, which today is a province in North Vietnam. As rice growing seemed not to produce sufficiently for the labor expended, the farmers turned to fishing and hunting and the people suffered from insufficient diet. ++

Nham-Dien--who apparently had been either raised or educated in China--taught the Vietnamese the art of wet rice culture. So that water might be readily available, he laid out canals and divided the lands into small plots which could be flooded readily from the canals and rivers that are abundant in Vietnam. Two thousand years after Nham-Dien introduced wet rice culture to the Vietnamese, his methods are still used. Throughout the length of South Vietnam, the rice fields, divided into small plots and watered by canals that never seem to dry, are constant reminders of this long-dead governor. To the Vietnamese, who study and learn much of their material by rote, Nham-Dien is still a vibrate personality whose spirit can help those who worship him. To aid such worship, there are a number of temples-especially in his province of Thanh-Hoa-built in his memory, Because of his work with rice production, and his rules regarding marriage, Nham-Dien is considered to be among the great men of his country. ++

Ancestor Worship, Communal Houses and Festivals in Vietnam

Ancestor worship in Vietnam is often centered around communal houses. Qua Giang Communal House in Danang City is a good example of one. Divided into two parts—a forecourt and sanctum—connected by two corridors, it was built in the year of Tan Ty (1821) for the worship of Quan Thanh and forefathers of four clans Dinh, Le, Tran, and Nguyen who followed King Nguyen to go southwards in order to widen territory and establish Qua Giang Village consisting of Qua Giang, Giang Nam, Tra Kiem, An Luu, and Con Mong. Local people organize ceremonies on the 22nd day of the second lunar month and the 12th day of the seventh lunar month to memorize their ancestors. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The forecourt is erected on "Chong ruong - Gia thu" structure. Pillars are designed with ornamental pumpkins at their feet, and decorated with lotus on their body. Two rows of 5m high pillars, two pillars of each row, support the beam; and two rows of smaller posts support two secondary roofs. On rafters carved trees, flowers, animals, eight weapons, and different ornamental lines. There is a design of a carp changing to a dragon on every rafter’s end. The sanctum is divided into three sections with four lean-tos. Four 5m high pillars, eight 3m high secondary posts, and 16 small poles support rafters. The sanctum has a pantile roof, a well-matched couple of the Phoenix and Rheinart’s pheasant, two dragons looking back at each other. The four supernatural creatures are decorated on the sanctum’s front roof. ~

Binh Dong Communal House lies on the bank of Ba Tang canal in Ho Chi Minh City. The Ky Yen Festival includes: ceremony of worshipping the inventors, memorize the masters of vocational training in the hamlet; ceremony of reciting the Buddhist scriptures for long peace, ceremonies of worshipping god, tien hien, hau hien (sages of former time), who are generations reclaim virgin soil, set up the hamlet and built welfare constructions for the hamlet. Boi (tuong) singing for worshipping god. The festival is held on the 10th to the 14th day of the second lunar month. Objects of worship: Masters of vocational training in the hamlet. Characteristics: Worshiping ceremony of the ancestor of the work and long for peace ceremony. ~

Veneration of Vietnamese Heros

The evidence of ancestor worship in Vietnam is a constant reminder of Chinese religious influences. The Vietnamese do not hesitate to state that veneration is given to historical figures who made permanent contributions to Vietnamese life. These include Marshall Duyet, the Trung sisters, Nguyen Con Tru, as well as the discoverers of certain vocations, crafts and arts. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

It was Tich-Quang, governor of what is now the area around Hanoi, who introduced the Chinese culture which colors every phase of lowland Vietnamese life. His successor introduced the reading and writing of Chinese which continued as the basic tool of written communication until Alexandre De Rhodes, a Roman Catholic Priest, introduced the present Vietnamese language. It was a monk who was credited with the origin of medical arts in Vietnam in the 10th century. Upon his death, a temple was erected in his name with an official cult instituted in his memory. Even this "holy man" learned his medical arts in China! Likewise, Luong-Thi Vinh introduced mathematics about 1700 after studying in. China, he also translated Chinese mathematics books and introduced the abacus. To show gratitude, a temple was erected to honor him. ++

The brothers who introduced goldsmithry as a craft were honored after their deaths by having a temple raised in their memory. Likewise, the book Bac-Ninh-Chi gives credit for the origin of the craft of copper working to a monk, Khong-Lo, of about 1250 A.D. who also had a temple erected in his memory, as did the maker of Vietnamese coinage, one Luu-Xuan-Tin. Because of his contribution, the king, Le Thanh-Ton, erected a temple wherein his cult could be perpetuated. ++

Even the individual credited with introducing mat making to the Vietnamese has a temple in his memory. Similarly, honor and veneration is given to that "clever" ambassador who learned from the Chinese the methods of silk weaving and the methods of growing soya beans and corn. In spite of Chinese embargoes against the moving of seed out of China, the ambassador did so. There is still a temple to his memory even though this was more than 400 years ago. The facts of ancestor worship and Chinese cultural influences must be considered in evaluating the forces that have moulded culture in this part of Southeast Asia. No valid understanding of current thought and behavior patterns can be gained without awareness of the past and present Chinese influence. ++

Hinduism in Vietnam

There are not many Hindus in Vietnam—a handful of people mostly of Indian descent—however the religion has influenced Vietnam, mainly through Buddhism, and does have a long history in the country. Hinduism, like Buddhism, came from India to Southeast Asia. In contrast to the prevalent Buddhism of Vietnam, however, Hinduism came directly from India to this area without undergoing the transformation created by Chinese influences. While Hinduism is perhaps older than Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism, it was not a major influence in Southeast Asia until the early Christian Era. While several reasons for, the timing of its arrival in Southeast Asia might be given, a major cause seems to have been the cessation of gold supplies from Siberia. Moreover, the Roman Empire merchants and the Indians were unable to solve this shortage so that it was necessary for them to seek their own supply. Since the Indian legends in Sanskrit had long used the terms "suvarnadvipa" "the island of gold" and "suvarnabhumi" "lands of gold" in reference to Southeast Asia, it was quite natural that expansion of trade and commerce would be in this direction by sea routes as well as by land. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

As the merchants and tradesmen came to Southeast Asia, many of them married into the leading indigenous families and settled down for a long time in the area. The marriages opened business contacts and promoted rapport between the merchants and their customers. Because the women were subservient to their husbands, Hindu religious beliefs and customs became their religion and that of their children. As the merchant families grew in size and number, the pervasive Hindu settlement developed into a city-state in the first century A.D. The first of these Hindu city-states in Southeast Asia was Funan, with Funan located in what is now Cambodia. In Vietnam itself the first settlement of importance was Ha-tien on the gulf of Siam. ++

The most noted and important of the Hinduized Southeast Asia civilizations was that of Angkor which was a composite of Hindu Indian and indigenous influences. As such, it was a major force in Southeast Asia for some time, and its influences spread throughout much of the area either directly or through the descendents of this ancient kingdom whose major contribution to this century is the ruins at Angkor. Within Vietnam, the major importance of the foregoing is that the Champa Kingdoms originated from this blending of Indian and Southeast Asian religions, doctrines, ethics, art, literature, institutions, ideas and wisdom. Champa in her might and religious zeal constructed prodigious temples in various areas under her control. Since the Champa Empire occupied the Vietnamese coast line from north of Hue’ southwards, and was not finally eradicated until less than two hundred years ago, its influence may still be seen in Vietnamese life. While the political might of the Champa Empire was destroyed about 1471, succeeding kingdoms were built on the same concepts until the Vietnamese finally consolidated their control of the whole geographic area of Vietnam. ++

As of the 1960s, the Hindu adherents in Vietnam seem have been be the Indian merchant families found in the larger cities and some Cham people. The Champa museum in Danang reveals that the Champa people were greatly influenced by Hinduism, as are most of the Chams today, even though their Hinduism is mixed with animism, etc. A number of the daily practices of the ethnic Vietnamese families also seem to have a Hindu origin. This is especially true in the rites of healing for the sick, and in such practices as winding string about the house to ward off evil spirits. ++

Islam and Muslims in Vietnam

Islamic followers in Vietnam are primarily from the Cham ethnic minority group living in the central part of the central coast. In 2004, Radio Television Brunei reported: "For more than 28 years now, 100,000 Muslims in Vietnam have been living under the Socialist Government of Vietnam. Islam has long been established in Vietnam with a Muslim community of 100,000 out of its 80 million population. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established in 1975 following the merger of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. In the eleventh century the Islamic Cham Empire in Indochina has spread Islam in countries now known as Cambodia, Thailand as well as in parts of southern China and in Vietnam itself. However, in the seventeenth century, the Cham government lost its power and was defeated. [Source: Radio Television Brunei, January 2, 2004 \\]

"In Ho Chi Minh City itself there are about 10,000 Muslims. A majority of them work as farmers, fishermen, bus drivers as well as tailors. A number of them are also involved in restaurant and construction businesses as well as making and selling handicraft products. On average, the economic status of Muslims in Vietnam is still very low. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are eight mosques and seven suraus or prayer halls which have been built decades ago. \\

One of the mosques is Dong Yu Mosque locally known as an Indian Mosque. The mosque is frequented by many people because of its strategic location in the middle of the city. The mosque was constructed by Indian traders in 1935. However, when the war erupted in Vietnam in 1975, all the traders fled Vietnam. Presently, the mosque is administered by the locals. One of the locals who has been spending his life looking after the mosque since 1975 is 83-year-old Haji Mohammad Yusof. He is not only an imam for the mosque but also someone who will be referred to on matters relating to Islamic affairs. The fasting month of Ramadan is the time when Muslims will converge in mosques to break their fast. The expenses for breaking the fast normally come from the traders from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It is also interesting to note that mosques in Vietnam will hold daily talks on Islam before breaking of the fast throughout the fasting month of Ramadan. \\

Islam, the religion founded by the Prophet Mohammed in 612 A.D. in the Arabian deserts, is also found in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. It seems to have reached this area in two distinct waves. The first incursion was during the heyday of Arabic development when sea-faring Muslim traders carried both merchandise and their faith as they traveled and traded along the coastal areas of the sea. Evidences of their presence are still being discovered in Vietnam and elsewhere. The second wave of Islam to enter the Southeast Asia area, including Vietnam, was that created by the Indian Muslim merchants of Gujerat and Bengal. These adherents of the fiery desert prophet of Allah, like their Hindu fellow merchants, were skillful tradesmen and exponents of their faith so that Islam became a part of the religious scene, and is still interwoven in the lives of many Vietnamese. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The adherents of Islam in the Middle East blunted and stalled the drive of the Crusaders to free the Holy Lands from the "infidel" Muslims; therefore the Muslims of the Far East including Southeast Asia offered tempting targets to the Portuguese of the 14th and 15th centuries. The attempts to overwhelm the Muslim settlements and to destroy the Islamic influenced trading areas undoubtedly hastened and encouraged the amalgamation of the stern doctrines of Mohammed with the pervasive religious forces in Vietnam and other areas of Southeast Asia. This union of religious concepts and practices has so changed Islam among some of its Vietnamese adherents that it is doubtful if a Muslim from the Bible Lands would have much affinity with them. ++

To the western observer of the religious scene, it is quite obvious that the Vietnamese variety of Islam is influenced by Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and other concepts or practices quite different than those found at Mecca, Medina, Damascus or Cairo. The Islamic mosque in Saigon is quite similar to those found in other areas of the world, but most of the mosques found in Vietnam have Hindu-influenced architecture, as illustrated by the Hindu-type "onion" bulb minarets from which the Muezzin or temple crier might call the adherents to worship and prayer. ++

Within Vietnam there seem to be few, if any, ethnic Chinese or Vietnamese Muslim adherents. The faith within the country is made up basically of those who come from Muslim countries as business men or government employees, and human remnants of by-gone glory like some of the Cham. But since the Cham are found in a number of locations within Vietnam, even as they once controlled the entire coast of Vietnam northward to Canton, China, awareness of Islamic presence may help to provide understanding and a more accurate evaluation of the religious dynamics of personality revealed in the complex culture of Vietnam. Since the Cham are the people apparently most influenced by Islam in Vietnam now (the same is true also of the Cham and Hinduism).

For More Articles on Islam See: Islam and Muslim Beliefs and Practices ; Muslim Customs, Life and Sects

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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