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Religious freedom today

Because of government restrictions the number of members of all religious communities at first sharply declined after 1975. As the seat of Opposition forces and anti-Communist activities, churches and monastery schools were closed after the “Liberation”, pagodas were turned into public buildings, priests and bonzes were put under house arrest and “re-educated” sects were dispossessed and some of their leaders even executed. Although the constitution officially guarantees religious freedom all religious groups remain subject to observation and control by the state, and printing and distribution of their literature to censorship. Political and social engagements are forbidden now as ever, but today the regime apparently has no further objection to religious observance as such.

Since 1989 a comprehensive renaissance can be observed in all the religions. Churches, pagodas and temples of all faiths are packed to bursting point on holidays and feast days, many of the oversized cathedrals prove too small for the flood of believers even on a normal Sunday, and even seminaries and Buddhist novices are allowed again in limited numbers. Numerous cults and traditional feast days, especially in the North, are also being resurrected, and temples, shrines of tutelary spirits and places of pilgrimage are being polished up again. The fact that the portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the “Father of the Nation”, hangs in a place of honor in many temples and pagodas, disturbs nobody in the land of myriad gods and spirits; rather the opposite. At any rate it need not necessarily suggest a reference to the ruling regime.

In order of most practitioners:


Like all traditional agricultural societies, the Vietnamese believe that nature, far from being a “still life “, possesses a soul. Spirits and genies inhabit all the objects and phenomena of everyday life. Like people they can be evil or good, stupid, cheeky or comical, can be well disposed towards people or cause them harm. They can be warded oft, placated or bribed with offerings and cults. Every house, every village has its own tutelary spirits, which are worshiped in the temple of the Dinh, the community house. Should the tutelary spirits not fulfill the expectations that have been placed on them, they can be ousted and replaced by others.


Ancestor worship

Ancestor Worship

Humanity is composed more of the dead than of the living”. The Vietnamese believe not in death, but in the dead. Ancestor worship is the basis of the Vietnamese concept of religion and unites all Vietnamese no matter what their faith or philosophical conviction is. It forms the basis of all the virtues (duty and responsibility) and the foundation of family and state. The belief in the existence of ghost souls (which continue to frequent their former abodes after death and must be fed) not only connects the dead with the living, but the living with all future generations. The individual is never ,”alone”, he or she is not an independent being, but is cared for and sheltered as a link in a long and apparently endless chain of ancestors and descendants. Even at the worst times a person never needs to feel he or she is an individual, cut adrift or insecure, but finds support in his or her family, which includes the living, the dead and the as yet unborn – and ultimately the entire nation. Even the apparent ,”hero worship” of the Vietnamese has its origins here. Tran Hang Dao and Le Loi are common ancestors of, “Vietnameseness”.

For protection, help, advice and comfort, the Vietnamese look to their ancestors, who thus have a great influence on daily life. They are kept up to date and asked for advice on everything that is happening in the family with ceremonies that offer tea, wine, fruit, joss-sticks and other offerings at the altar of the ancestors. On the days of the dead and traditional feast days the relations gather before the altar, and the eldest son of the deceased, who has the duty of carrying on the family. line and worship of the ancestors, supervenes the observance of the rites.

Ho Chi Minh is the father of the present nation, and is also worshiped as such. He does not deserve to end up as an icon of pragmatic socialism, a mummy in a museum.



Confucianism is not a religion in the strict sense of the word, but a practical guide to right living and a philosophy of social organization. Confucius (in Vietnamese Khong Tu, 551-479 BC) freed ancestor worship from its animistic and magical practices and imparted to it the ethical and moral basis which first made possible the construction of a society and state on the foundations of the patriarchal family. The deeply humanistic tradition of Confucianism, which focused people’s consciousness rather on the here and now of society than on “heavenly promises” or the mystification of the individual, led early to a highly civilized and relatively egalitarian state in Vietnam. The dynastic emperors were not godlike beings as in the Indianized neighboring states of the Cham, Khmer and Laotians, and according to the model of the mandarinate neither origin nor breeding (aristocracy and feudalistic inheritance) were to determine rank and influence in society, but education and qualification, which must first be attained and certified (examinations in literature).

The by its nature conservative side of Confucianism with its upholding of unshakable values and preaching of eternal virtues (loyalty, probity, uprightness, morality and wisdom) manifested itself in ossified rituals and a dogmatic contempt, obsessed with perpetual harmony, for any kind of change or innovation. One could say without too much exaggeration that state and society in imperial Vietnam have hardly progressed since their “Golden Age” in the 15th century, merely preserving themselves in an unchanging form.
Fixated as it was on the status quo (what was once right and good must always be so), the empire’s inability to understand history as a dynamic process, and its narrow-minded abhorrence for trade, science and technology made it easy prey for Western colonialism.


The social model of Confucianism is based on strict rules, rituals and hierarchies in which the individual counts for nothing but in exchange can feel himself or herself supported by a comprehensive system of reciprocal duties and responsibilities. Every word, every gesture is part of a ritual, i.e. of “correct behavior”. There are rituals for honoring one’s parents, rituals for behavior towards close or distant relatives, strangers or friends, those older or younger, superiors or inferiors, rituals for expressing joy, anger or grief, rituals for eating and even for sleeping. Ritual emphasizes and perpetuates the unshakable order of things and the eternally constant harmony of all relationships.

The father is an example for the son as the teacher is for the pupil and the emperor for his people, and as the family is the model for the village, so the village is the model for the state – and vice versa.


Confucianism arrived in the country before the present era with the Chinese conquerors, and the Vietnamese received it with open arms as a “civilizing development” of ancestor worship on the one hand, and on the other identified it inseparably with Chinese supremacy and repression. When Buddhism came to Vietnam in the second century of the Christian era, it therefore quickly won followers as a secret “protest movement”. After independence in the 10th century the first Vietnamese imperial dynasties consequently declared Buddhism to be the state religion, but for reasons of state held fast to Confucianism as the organizing principle of the family and the nation at the same time.

Confucianism first became the unqualified ruling ideology in the 15th century under Le Loi and his successors, who while not actually forbidding Buddhism did nothing further to promote it either. As the “religion” of the imperial court, the mandarins and the nobles or upper classes, Confucianism preserved itself until well into the present century and as an everyday code of behavior and even in terms of language still determines daily life today. French colonialism abolished the bureaucratic state model, but for its own purposes generally allowed the social structure, formed by Confucian tradition and therefore easily manipulable, to remain.

Confucianism and Socialism

“A stream which is cut off from its source dries out and becomes exhausted. A tree deprived of its roots will wither. A revolutionary lacking in morality will never reach his goal.” (after Ho Chi Minh)

The collective and bureaucratic traditions of Confucianism and its principled moralism, which sees in every person no more than the sum of his or her social rights and duties, were and are paralleled in the movement whose leaders, since their victory over the colonialists, reign over the Vietnamese as the mandarins once did. Socialism by no means confused the Confucians; on the contrary, they saw in it a continuation of their traditional ideology, which had always placed obligation to society above the rights of the individual. The original Communists were almost without exception former Confucian scholars who had been familiar with social, even collective discipline and the rejection of anarchy and bourgeois individualism throughout their lives.

The functionary is an example for the cadre and the party is the model for the state. In this context, the Vietnamese, given their Confucian philosophy, were well prepared for the Communist regime. Deep roots in old traditions and forms of thought also go a long way towards explaining why the world-wide collapse of Socialism has so far forced neither Hanoi nor Peking into a radical rethink, nor led to chaos.



Even when many Vietnamese still would like to consider themselves Buddhists (or are considered as such), is Buddhism in Vietnam hardly more than a conglomeration of native ancestor and spirit worship, Taoist idol and demon worship, and Buddhist practices, and has never played a dominant role, as was the case in the neighboring south east Asian countries from Cambodia to Burma. Vietnamese Buddhism is more tangible and comprehensible for the western observer than animism, ancestor worship, Confucianism, and Taoism, and “historically supported” through valuable monuments from the past and the most current events (outer parliamentary opposition, burning ones’ self to death), so that Vietnamese Buddhism has reached a level of recognition in the west that it deserves only partially.

Buddhism appeared in Vietnam in the first centuries AD almost simultaneously by land through China, and by sea through India.

The legends of the birth and life of Siddharta Gautama (around 560-460 BC), the son of a prince from northern India who went through different states of existence up until his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, brought about a widespread popularity for his teachings. As a corrective of the sobering rationalism and for the patriarchal strictness of Confucianism, the “gentle” and “contemplative” teachings of Buddhism quickly found a following and took over a role, which could be considered to be an indirect opposition against the forced rule of the Chinese. The era after independence, from the 10th to about the end of the 14th century, was the time at which Buddhism flourished in Vietnam (while at the same time in China it was being pursued and suppressed), before, starting in the 15th century, it was sacrificed for reasons of state, and combined with elements of Confucianism, Taoism, and Spirit Worship.


Buddhism strives to overcome being, which is interpreted as sorrow, desire, suffering and pain, in order to attain Nirvana. The fate of every human being – wealth, poverty, social standing, and even gender – is the result of his actions in an earlier life. Through good deeds (merits, selflessness) everyone can influence his karma, in order to reach a higher state of being in the cycle of never ending rebirths and to ultimately attain complete enlightenment (Nirvana).

Even before the spread of Buddhism in Vietnam, the original teachings had split into two trends, the Hinayana (small vehicle) and the Mahayana (large vehicle). While the stricter and more dogmatic Hinayana (also known as Theravada, Ancient Teachings) lent toward the “pure teachings” and encouraged its followers to strive for individual enlightenment through earning merits, the “Large Vehicle” leads to enlightenment for all, and is empowered to call upon seemingly unlimited enlightened beings and manifested Buddhas, that serve as “emergency helpers” to accompany the followers on their difficult way towards enlightenment. Although both religions arrived in Vietnam almost simultaneously, it goes without saying that the pragmatic Vietnamese tended toward taking the path to enlightenment offered by the Large Vehicle, thereby enabling themselves to choose from a wide variety of gods in order o attain the support of those gods who offered the most protection and help.

Pagoda 1 One Pillar Pagoda Large Buddha



Buddha Warrior

During the Ly dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries, Buddhism, which was promoted by the emperors as the counterpole to Confucianism, flourished mentally and artistically, and attained scientific and political power for the Buddhist clergy. However, the bonzes had to forfeit their attained monopoly on education and return it to the teachers of Confucianism still during the reign of the Ly emperors, and they enriched Buddhism additionally with native and Taoist cults, and starting in the 14th and 15th centuries, even with Hindu elements from the defeated Cham culture.

During the reign of Le Thai Tho (Le loi, 1428-34) and his successors, Buddhism lost its last governmental privileges to Confucianism, even though some emperors further promoted it and gave official support. Buddhism is, still today, considered the religion of the farmers and simple folk, and above all the womens’ religion.

At the onset of the 1920’s, a revival movement was started, inspired and run by educated bonzes, who orientated themselves according to the social and charitable engagement of the Catholic church. In 1951, the General Buddhist Association was founded. During the rule of the Catholic Diem in South Vietnam, the opposition between the Buddhists and the government lead, even to the surprise of the Vietnamese, to the situation that even the traditionally apolitical monks became active in politics; Hue became the center of the opposition, which voiced their extreme position with spectacular self-inflicted burnings. Even after the fall of the Diem, the United Buddhist Church in Thich Tri Quang played an important role, several South Vietnamese governments had to concede under the pressure of the Buddhists, and in the Spring of 1966 there was a revival of protest marches, self-inflicted burnings, and hunger strikes.

Buddhist Figures of Salvation

The pantheon of Buddhist pagodas (chua) is rich and diverse, but comprehensive, as it is reserved for a limited “circle of people”. The highest rank is occupied by the Buddhas of the Three Generations (Tam The), Thich Ca, A Di Da, and Di Lac, who are also known as the Buddhas of the Past, Present and Future.

Thich Ca Mau Na, the historical Buddha Siddharta Gautama, represents the past and is presented most often as a teacher with his two favorite pupils At Nam and Ca Diep, oftentimes as a child Thich Ca Mau Cun Lang (surrounded by nine dragons) or in a resting position on his way to Nirvana.

The merciful or fasting Buddha A Di Da (the Buddha of the past) accompanies the people on their way to their purification and is most often accompanied by the likewise merciful Bo Tat (Bodhisattva) as well as Quan Am, Van Thu or Pho Hien.

Further trios consist of the three mystical bodies of Buddha (Tam Than) and the Trinity of the Three Delicacies (Tam Bao), that combine teachings, Buddha, and the congregation of monks. Bodhisattvas are beings that have already attained enlightenment, but choose to abstain from entering into Nirvana in favor of others.

The most highly favoured, without a doubt, is Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy, who is paid homage to in the most diverse manners: as the bulbous bottle containing the water of purity, with 16 or 100 arms and eyes as the sign of her energy, of sometimes with a child in her arms, that brings the promise of fertility to barren women.

Protective figures and the Group of the 10 Kings of Hell and the 18 La Han round off the picture of the figures of salvation in a Buddhist chua, in addition, statues of pagoda donators, deserving abbeys, ancestral spirits, heroes, and other non-Buddhist deities. Above all, Taoist deities have their permanent place in the pagodas, unsurpassed by the Jade Emperor Ngac Hoang and his apprentices. In the Chinese pagodas and celebration halls (Hai Quan), Thien Hau, the Heavenly Goddess and Patron of the Sailors, and Quan Cong, the Chinese General of the Three Kingdoms with helpers and magic horse, should not be missing.
The Legend of Quan Am

Thi Kinh, a newly married woman, saw a hair on the chin of her sleeping husband and wanted to remove it with a knife. Suddenly, the man awoke, and called together house and home, because he thought that she wanted to kill him. Thi Kinh was disowned, and sought, dressed as a man, refuge in a monastery. There, the daughter of the village elder fell in love with the young “monk”. Rejected, and full of anger, she gave herself to another, became pregnant, and accused the young monk of seducing her. Thi Kinh was expelled from the monastery, became a begging monk, and provided for the child. It was not until after her death, that the truth became known about her and the injustice that she had to endure. The Heavenly King, moved by her fate, made Thi Kinh a goddess of mercy.



Taoism became widespread in Vietnam at about the same time as Confucianism and is based on the mystical teachings of Lao Tse (in Vietnamese Lao Te, about 500-600 BC) and his book “Tao Te King” (“The Book of Tao and Its Power”). Almost as a counterpole to Confucianism, it is not man but nature with its reciprocal forces of yin and yang which is placed at the center of the cosmos.
Tao (in Chinese “way” or “reason”) means the being of all things, the harmony of the eternal world order, the primal principle which defines the universe. It cannot be influenced by the actions of humanity; the fate of humanity is not decided on earth.
The complicated esoteric teaching never took hold in Vietnam, but the popular practice of sorcery, the conjuring of demons, astrology, sooth-saying and magic have survived, alloyed and enriched with folkloristic animism, superstition and mysticism, local tutelary and nature spirits and deified historical figures such as Tran Hung Dao.

The forces of animated nature reappear in supernatural form in the spirits, gods and demons of the Taoist cosmology, which is ruled over by the Jade Emperor Ngoc Hoang, with his ministers Bac Dau, the Star of the North with the Book of the Dead, and Nam Tao, the Star of the South, who keeps the Book of the Living. Lao Tu himself, riding on a water buffalo, is also worshiped as a deity. The Cult of the Mothers often has a separate room dedicated to it in a Taoist temple (den or dien). Tu Phu, the Four Mothers, stand for the points of the compass, but also represent heaven and earth, water and forest, and are surrounded by helpers (five tigers, amongst others) and children symbolizing the better world after rebirth.

Statues of the Taoist pantheon can also be found in almost every Buddhist pagoda; side altars are dedicated to the Cult of the Mothers, and grottoes are provided in the courtyards for the nature spirits.



When the Portuguese, Spanish, and French came to Vietnam in the 16th century, they were not only interested in trading goods, but in spreading the Christian religion: missionary work and trade were inseparably joined with each other from the very start.

Periods of tooth-grinding tolerance on behalf of the disturbed Mandarins, who didn’t want to miss out on the coveted firearms and munitions deliveries from Europe, reacted with the strict prohibition of missionary work and even decapitation of missionaries.

In order to translate Catechism into Vietnamese, the French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes developed the quot ngu at the onset of the 17th century, the transcription of Vietnamese with stress accents, which is still used today. As early as 1663, there were 200 000 Christians in Tonkin, representing 10% of the population, however mass christenings of entire villages and regions were the order of the day. The majority of the Vietnamese didn’t mind praying to Maria and Joseph in addition to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, natural spirits and infernal demons. As the Confucians began to forcefully limit the activities of the missionaries, it was already too late. The persecution of the Christians served moreso the welcome excuse for military punishments, during which France annexed the empire. Since the Catholics were one-sidedly promoted and preferred by the colonists, the Christian church was very popular, this lead, of course, to accusations of collaboration and opportunism.

In 1954, the Americans built up the Catholic Diem to the “strong man” in the anticommunist South Vietnam, and lured approximately 1 million North Vietnamese into the south in order to strengthen his power with the help of radio campaigns and counterfeit flyers that guaranteed all Christians terrible repressions through the hands of the godless communists. Entire villages and communities left the Red River to join the Virgin Mary, who was in Saigon and pining for her children in the north, and under the guise of humanitarian help, the American relief organisations increased the flow of refugees through their head money rewards. When the Diem declared Catholicism quasi as the official religion, he didn’t reckon with the reaction of the “apolitical” bonzes, whose angry opposition and spectacular self-sacrifice was ultimately responsible for its fall.

Although many enthusiastic Catholics left Vietnam between 1973 and 1975, the Catholics belong to the “better-off” in the country. The spiritual salvation of the approximately 2 million Catholics is watched over by archbishops in Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon.


Cao Dai

This sect, which was founded in the twenties by the spiritualist Ngo Van Chieu after a supernatural encounter with the supreme being (Cao Dai), is popular in the south of Vietnam exclusively and still has approximately 1.5 million followers today. Caodaism, an eclectic “Ideal Religion” which seeks to unite all the great teachings of East and West, takes as its point of departure the three historical revelations of the Divine, in earliest times through Moses and mythical figures in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism; in historical times through Jesus, Siddharta Gautama, Lao Tse, and Confucius; and finally, united in the figure of Cao Dai, the supreme Deity, who will bring about the redemption of all mankind.
Apart from Buddhist bodhisattvas, Vietnamese saints and Taoist spirits, international historical figures such as Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc, Churchill or Pasteur manifest themselves to followers at spiritualist séances as mouthpieces of Cao Dai.

In the forties the sect achieved such popularity that the French forbade the propagation of its teachings, especially since it increasingly sided with the anti-French resistance and openly collaborated with the Japanese during the Second World War. With the help of a powerful private army the Caodaists controlled extensive parts of the South and formed a “state within a state”, with whom both the French and the Viet Minh curried favour. Only under pressure from the Americans and Diem’s army were they finally compelled to give up their territorial claims and forced out of the political process.

The Holy Chair, the religious center of the sect, is situated near Tay Ninh, 100 km north-west of Saigon (…)


Hoa Hao

The Reform Buddhism of the Hoa Hao sect, founded in 1939 by “mad bonze” Huynh Phu So in the Mekong Delta, also illustrates the impulse towards an independent political movement with a (pseudo-) religious basis. The much-vaunted return to the “simplicity” of the early Buddhists – dispensing with richly decorated pagodas, replacing them with strict abstinence and prayer four times a day – stood in glaring contrast to the radical militancy of the sect from the very beginning. In 1940 the French committed Huynh Phu So to an insane asylum, where he nevertheless succeeded in winning the director of the asylum over to his own side. The Hoa Hao extended their presence in the Delta in alternating collaboration with the Japanese, the French and the Viet Minh. By the time its founder was murdered in 1947 by the Viet Minh the sect already numbered over a million followers. Together with the Caodaists and the Binh Xuyen, a Mafia-like organization which controlled the brothels and gambling dens of Saigon, and with the secret support of the retreating French, the Hoa Hao for years formed a powerful opposition movement to the pseudo-democratization of the Americans, who were trying to get Diem accepted as president.



Almost all of the larger towns in Vietnam have a mosque, but the minarets have fallen silent. They were built by countless thousands of Indians brought into the country in the thirties by the French in answer to demonstrations and mass strikes by the local population. As the Vietnamese converted to Islam only in the rarest cases, today’s Vietnamese Muslim community (0.5% of the population) is made up primarily of members of the Cham minority and the few Indians who did not leave the country after 1975.



Religions Evolve for Self-Perpetuation

by Huu Ngoc

Similar to the Japanese, Buddhists in Viet Nam practice Mahayana Buddhism, the doctrine of the Greater Vehicle that recommends the liberation of all before oneself. It is different from Hinayama, or the Little Vehicle, that upholds individual liberation. In all Vietnamese pagodas, the Hall of the Patriarchs (nha to) always features a statue of a bearded Indian man, Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect in China. In Japan, Bodhidharma is honoured in a special hall where an oil lamp burns continuously.

Vietnamese and Japanese Buddhists have much in common, as they were both influenced by Chinese Buddhism. In describing these similarities, mention must be made of syncretism and the concept of the Sacred Mountain.

By syncretism, what is meant is the fusion of two different religious elements in which the one introduced second is grafted into the system of local beliefs to create new divinities or new rites.

This phenomena could be observed in Viet Nam in the beginning of the third century during Chinese domination, when Buddhism was first introduced to the region of Luy Lau, now Bac Ninh Province, north of Ha Noi. Legend has it that an Indian monk by the name of Kandynia established himself there to pray and meditate, and was invited to stay with a local devotee. Man Nuong, the daughter of the host, by miracle became pregnant by the monk.

The monk then uttered a magical incantation that caused a large tree to be cleft in two. The infant was placed between the two halves and the tree became whole again. All of a sudden, a storm broke out. The tree was uprooted and carried by the current to Luy Lau. The Chinese Governor Shi Hsieh tried to bring the tree to the shore but he was unable. Man Nuong then gave the tree a light push and it quickly drifted to shore. From that tree, Shi Hsieh had four statues made after the four local divinities of the Fertility Cult – Cloud, Rain, Thunder and Lightning – to be worshipped as Buddhist goddesses under the Sino-Vietnamese names of Phap Van, Phap Vu, Phap Loi and Phap Dien. One dry year, the governor made sacrificial offerings to them to invoke rain, and he was rewarded by a heavy downpour.

Buddhist syncretism also occurred in Japan. Take for example the indigenous mountain genii called gongen. One was the Akiha-gongen, the genius of Akihasan, the sacred mountain that protected the surrounding villages from fire. It is said that a Buddhist monk established himself there in the nineteenth century to seek spiritual perfection. After one thousand days, he identified himself with Akiha-gongen. This hybrid divinity has the typical gongen long nose and rides a white fox as gongen are supposed to do. Like a Buddhist monk, he had sword to sever all ties of worldly temptation and a rope to pull the faithful to the path of righteousness. Syncretism also took place in ancient Greece and in Rome, with the mixture of Greek and Roman cults (hence, the Greek word sugkratismos).

In Viet Nam, religious practices from China (Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist) fused with local creeds to become one with the spiritual web of the nation. The Catholic Church, for its part, remained an alien element for a long time because of its inability to fit in with the local religious environment. The Vatican ended up having to accept a certain degree of Vietnamisation; for instance a Virgin Mary with yellow skin, prayers and psalms in the Vietnamese language, tolerance of ancestor worship, etc.

Viet Nam, China and Japan share another common trait – the existence of temples situated high on mountains that are held as sacred. In fact, mountains are regarded by all cultures as something supernatural, mysterious, sacred and pure, fit for godly presence. Priests of all religions go to the mountains to seek peace and tranquillity far from the impure world.

The most sacred mountain in Viet Nam is Yen Tu, in the coastal province of Quang Ninh. This vast complex of religious edifices is the cradle of the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Thien (Zen) sect created in the thirteenth century by King Tran Nhan Tong. The king eventually retired there to devote himself to Buddhist practice after defeating successive Mongol invaders.

In Japan’s Shintoism, it is believed that genii descend from the sky to mountain slopes while the souls of the dead dwell in nearby mountains waiting to transfer to the other world. Hence, the country’s soaring peaks often inspire fear. In the seventh and eighth centuries, monks sought spiritual perfection on precarious cliffs and were attributed with great powers. People would call on them to make rain, fight evil spirits, and prevent epidemics, fires and poor crops.

In novelist Gao Xinghan’s 2000 Nobel Prize winning book, Soul Mountain, readers are provided with a new interpretation of the classical sacred mountain. He describes it as the unending, impossible quest for beauty and absolute knowledge. “In reality, I don’t understand anything, and that’s the point,” the author concludes.

But it is man’s destiny to seek. In the classic myth that has Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down in vain, Camus has given us his own version of Soul Mountain and what it means to quest. – VNS


Bringing God Along For the Ride


August 8, 2013, 8:49 am  NY TIMES

HCMC Street

Lien Hoang

HO CHI MINH CITY — Get on a bus in Vietnam and you’ll probably see a photo of the Virgin Mary, a bodhisattva or some other deity on the dashboard, if not an altar with fruit offerings. At first I was surprised by such public displays of devotion: Religion is so personal and private, bringing it to work seems like a recipe for offending people.

Not to mention the authorities. Vietnam is usually associated with religious repression. The police have forcefully dispersed protests by religious groups that criticize the government’s land seizures. They block ceremonies andbreak up meetings by churches that aren’t officially recognized. These groups’ ability to organize unnerves the government.

But what often gets lost in this narrative of persecution is the peace that prevails among faiths here. And that is partly the government’s doing. State control over religious activity prevents the sort of sectarian violence that recently broke out in Myanmar and has long plagued Sri Lanka. A Burmese monk like Ashin Wirathu couldn’t roam Vietnam inciting attacks against a rival religion. Here, religions don’t pose much of a threat to each other because they’re not allowed to.

Just 16 million of Vietnam’s 86 million people adhere to a religion, according to the 2009 census. Of them, 43 percent are Buddhist and 36 percent Catholic, while others practice Protestantism, Hoa Hao (a form of Buddhism) and Cao Dai (a local religion that embraces the three major Abrahamic faiths, plus Buddha, Confucius, Laozi and even Victor Hugo.)

Of course this doesn’t mean the remaining 70 million are nonbelievers; according to one poll, no one identified as “a convinced atheist.” Many Vietnamese believe in a mix of folk and popular religions, ancestor worship, animism, karma, the afterlife and other forms of “everyday devotionalism,” to borrow a phrase from Janet Hoskins, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California. This syncretism reflects near ubiquitous respect for all things sacred.

At one Hindu temple in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese caretaker regularly performs a Hindu prayer, and then walks over to light incense before a statue of Buddha. “There’s a lot of interreligious cooperation,” Hoskins told me. There are Web sites like Nhip Cau Tam Giao(“The Bridge of Hearts”), which is run by Catholics who also post about Baha’i and other faiths. Some Vietnamese put their hands together in brief supplication whenever they pass a divine idol, even if they don’t follow the religion it represents.

It’s hard to distinguish what behavior stems from religion, as opposed to culture, tradition or superstition. Before national exams, students go to temples to pray for luck. Just about everyone, myself included, burns fake money and clothing for deceased relatives. Vietnamese people are spiritual but seldom devout or tethered to a formal religion.

Yet if otherworldly beliefs permeate most citizens’ lives, they don’t seem to create divisions. It probably helps that no one religion dominates. In the 1960s, under Ngo Dinh Diem, the Catholic president of South Vietnam, monks took to self-immolation to protest his crackdown on Buddhism. That wouldn’t happen now under the Communist (and officially atheist) government.

To the extent that there are frictions to do with faith, these tend to be about the authorities curbing the power of a religious group that dabbles in politics. A Catholic organization that holds vigils for dissidents has faced arrests, violence and “the deployment of armed security forces around churches,” Human Rights Watch reports. Tensions pit the state against religion, in other words, rather than one faith against another. Or, as the Pew Research Centerput it in 2009, Vietnam ranks high in terms of government restrictions on religion but low in terms of social hostilities. Officials may be suspicious of religion, but among the people tolerance is widespread. And so for a bit of security on the mean streets of Vietnam, bus drivers bring their gods along for the ride.