The three most prominent strands in Vietnam’s religious tradition are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, known collectively as Tam Giao, Three Teachings, or Triple Religion. Added to this are the indigenous customs of spirit worship, ancestor veneration, and the deification of Vietnam’s patriotic heroes – all practiced widely. Cao Dai is a recent syncretic religion based in the south. Vietnam also has a large population of Christians, and a smaller section of Hindu and Muslim Cham.
In Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism has become closely linked with Confucianism, an ethical system originating in China, and Taoism, also from China. The three Sinitic teachings are known as Tam Giao. Vietnamese follow both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism claims to rely more strictly on the tenets of the Buddha, and was brought to Vietnam by traders from India. The monks wear saffron robes and chant scriptures from the Tripitika, which is a part of the Buddhist canon.
Boddhisattvas idolized by Mahayana Buddhists include Dai The Chi Bo Tat, God of Power; Thich Ca, the Historical Buddha; and Quan Am, Goddess of Mercy.
The Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BC) has been revered for centuries. His teachings outline a code of ethics that includes loyalty to the state and the family. Confucian ideas have led to complex hierarchies in Vietnamese families, extending respect, cooperation, and submission to even the most distant cousins.
Incense burning, originally a Buddhist practice, is an integral part of religious life in the Tam Giao pantheon, ancestor worship, Cao Dai temples, and even in Catholic churches.
Groups of family tombs can be seen in paddy fields everywhere. Viet religion is family-oriented and this proximity to ancestors is at once comforting and reassuring of continuity. This custom evolved from Confucianism.
Laozi, a Chinese philosopher of 6th century BC, identified Tao or The Way as the natural source of everything in the world and the guarantor of stability. Taoism focuses on following The Way to live in harmony with the universe.
Founded by Ngo Van Chieu, a Vietnamese civil servant, Cao Dai or Supreme Spirit reinterprets aspects of Tam Giao. A cornerstone of this unusual religion is a belief in “Divine Agents” who make contact with priests during seances. Patron saints include Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, and Charlie Chaplin. Initially condemned by the Communists, Cao Dai is now tolerated and has about three million followers.
Cao Dai priests wear yellow, blue, and red robes to symbolize Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and don tall, square miters bearing the Divine Eye symbol.
Cao Dai services at the Holy See are remarkably colorful, as the elaborate costumes of the worshippers blend and mingle with dragonentwined pillars.
The all-seeing Divine Eye first appeared to Ngo Van Chieu in a vision and is the iconic symbol of Cao Daism. Framed in a triangle, its image features prominently in all Cao Dai temples.
Ancestor Veneration and Spirit Worship
Practiced almost universally in Vietnam, ancestor and spirit worship effectively make up a fourth, unacknowledged strand to Tam Giao. While ancestor veneration is derived from Chinese culture, spirit worship is an indigenous Southeast Asian tradition. Buddhism and Confucianism officially disapprove of spirit worship, but have never been able to eliminate it from Viet tradition.
Ancestral tablets, based on the Confucian tradition of filial devotion, are found in most homes as well as in temple altars. The memorial tablets are complete with pictures and descriptions of the deceased, set alongside offerings of fruit, flowers, incense, tea, and even cigarettes and alcohol.
Animism is based on the belief that guardian spirits exist in stones, fields, forests, and many other inanimate items. The Vietnamese, particularly the hill tribes, make small houses in order to appease these entities, and often leave offerings at shrines.
Ghost money, often in the form of fake US dollars, is sent to ancestors in the spirit world by burning it along with other useful items made of paper, such as cars, TV sets, and houses.
Vietnam’s ethnic diversity is matched by an equally eclectic range of religions and belief systems. Chiefly through the efforts of European missionaries from the 16th century on, the country is home to about nine million Christians, of which more than 90 percent are Catholics. A more obscure religion is Hoa Hao, which is centered in the Mekong Delta. The sect is based on a puritanical interpretation of Buddhism, and was known for its militant opposition to communism during the Vietnam War. In addition, variations of Hinduism and Islam are followed by the Cham of the central coast and Mekong Delta respectively.
Cathedrals and churches, found all over Viet nam, cater to the interests of the Christian community.