Religions in Việt Nam
The kneeling woman makes a deep obeisance, her forehead touching the ground, before the altar of the pagoda. She has bought fruit, joss sticks, few flowers and a flask of rice wine to present on a large round tray with a few banknotes as an offering to the monks; then she lights the joss stick and whispers a litany of prayers that she learned from her grandmother. Clutching the joss sticks, her hands clasped over her forehead, she prays to the Buddha, the spirits and her family ancestors. She performs this ritual on the anniversaries of her ancestors’ deaths, on the first and fifteenth days of the Buddhist calendar, and on the occasion of the lunar New Year and other festivals. Sometimes she does it simply because she feels the need.
In Việt Nam homes, the altar dedicated to the spirit of the house faces the entrance. The altar to ancestors has its own special place in the house. It often covers a whole wall, even if the family has modest means and there is only one mat on which to eat and sleep. In wealthier families, a whole room is set aside for the veneration of ancestors; sometimes a pagoda is built outside the family home in their honour.
Souls are cared for, spirits cherished, and memories preserved in this land that has been so often ravaged by invasions and wars, famines, floods and plagues. One by one, the great religions, doctrines and spiritual philosophies have made their mark on this land, which is infused with magic and spirituality. Monks and pedlars, missionaries, merchants, colonists and adventurers all brought with them their own spiritual practices and concepts. The representatives of global faiths have embraced local traditions and respected the local deities, trying to add their own message rather than claiming to replace them.
Priests, seekers of the souls of the dead, fortune-tellers, shamans from the mountains, monks and hermits: all of these spiritual figures share the ills and joys of daily life. Consulted by the villagers, country folk and city-dwellers in both north and south, they are considered a valuable source of advice. In this corner of the earth torn asunder by history, they create a unity within the country, a harmony of souls.
In the south of Việt Nam, freedom of worship made it possible for minority faiths and syncretic sects to be born. Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo, and various Buddhist sects saw the first light of day in the plains between the wide branches of the Mekong river. Rituals were copied or created, holy places were decreed, symbolism formulated and practices initiated that set the pace of daily life as season followed season.
In the north, in Nam Định, the communal village houses, altars are built to ancestors and other spirits whose greatness and mercy govern the lives and actions of all inhabitants. Fishing and farming, war and travel, health and prosperity are all subject to forces that are venerated, respected and feared. In the streets of old Hà Nội, spirit money and “hell noted” are brought and burned as offerings to the spirits, and on the banyan trees dedicated to wandering souls, incense can always be seen burning and votive offerings dance in the wind.
As for the faithful of central Việt Nam, all that keeps them on the ground is the thick mud of the paddy fields. History has seen the emperors of Huế boast that they have a divine mandate and raise their court geomancers to the rank of ministers. Those who claim descent from the sovereigns visit the temples and tombs in secret, offering incantations and prayers for the protection and good fortune of their family line.
There are 6 major religions in Viet Nam, namely Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Muslim, Caodaism and HoaHao Buddhism. The majority of religion, Buddhism, co-exists with traditional ancestor worship. The faith came from India by land to the north and by sea to the south, and embraced influences from animism, Taoism and Confucianism as it took root in Việt Nam soil. The Catholic community has a strong presence, both in the big cities and in some of the southern regions. Islam is also represented. An unusual feature of Việt Nam is that it has developed its own minority faiths based on Buddhism (Hòa Hảo), syncretic cults such as Cao Đài, small sects such as the Coconut Cult and the Whale Cult. These co-exist with local worship of tutelary or family spirits, goddesses and fairies. Ancestors and wandering souls are also revered; no one is forgotten.