Religion in Vietnam

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Religion in Vietnam (2014)[1]

  Non-religious or folk belief (73.2%)
  Buddhism (12.2%)
  Catholicism (6.8%)
  Caodaism (4.8%)
  Protestantism (1.5%)
  Hoahaoism (1.4%)
  Others (0.1%)

Long-established religions in Vietnam include the Vietnamese folk religion, which has been historically structured by the doctrines of Confucianism and Taoism from China, as well as a strong tradition of Buddhism (called the three teachings or tam giáo). Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world. According to official statistics from the government, as of 2014 there are 24 million people identified with one of the recognised organised religions, out of a population of 90 million. Of these, 11 million are Buddhists (12.2%), 6.2 million are Catholics (6.8%), 4.4 million are Caodaists (4.8%), 1.4 million are Protestants (1.6%), 1.3 million are Hoahaoists (1.4%), and there are 75,000 Muslims, 7,000 Bahais, 1,500 Hindus and other smaller groups (<1%).[1] Traditional folk religions (worship of gods, goddesses and ancestors) have experienced a rebirth since the 1980s.[2]

According to estimates by the Pew Research Center, in 2010 most Vietnamese people practice folk religions (45.3%), Buddhists constitute 16.4% of the population, around 8.2% of the Vietnamese are Christians (mostly Catholics), and around 30% are unaffiliated to any religion.[3][4] Officially, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an atheist state as declared by its communist government.[5]


Although according to a 1999 census most Vietnamese list themselves as having no religious affiliation,[6] religion, as defined by shared beliefs and practices, remains an integral part of Vietnamese life,[7] dictating the social behaviours and spiritual practices of Vietnamese individuals in Vietnam and abroad. The triple religion (Vietnamese: tam giáo), referring to the syncretic combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and Vietnamese folk religion (often combined too with them), remain a strong influence on the beliefs and practices of the Vietnamese, even if the levels of formal membership in these religious communities may not reflect that influence. One of the most notable and universal spiritual practices common to Vietnamese is ancestor veneration, a practice shared with Chinese and most other Asian cultures. Practically all Vietnamese, regardless of formal religious affiliation, have an altar in their home or business where prayers are offered to their ancestors. These offerings and practices are done frequently during important traditional or religious celebrations (e.g., death anniversaries), the starting of a new business, or even when a family member needs guidance or counsel. Belief in ghosts and spirits is common; it is commonly believed that failing to perform the proper rituals for one's ancestors will cause them to become hungry ghosts (Vietnamese: ma đói).[nb 1]

A 2002 Pew Research Center report claimed that 24% of the population of Vietnam view religion as "very important".[8]


The great Buddha statue in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

The earliest forms of Vietnamese religious practice were animistic and totemic in nature.[9] The decorations on Dong Son bronze drums, generally agreed to have ceremonial and possibly religious value,[nb 2] depict the figures of birds, leading historians to believe birds were objects of worship for the early Vietnamese. Dragons were another frequently recurring figure in Vietnamese art, arising from the veneration of Lạc Long Quân, a mythical dragon-king who is said to be the father of the Vietnamese people. The Golden Turtle God Kim Qui was said to appear to kings in times of crisis, notably to Lê Lợi, from whom he took the legendary sword Thuận Thiên after it had been dropped into Hoan Kiem Lake. Besides animals, mountains, rivers, and other entities of the natural environment were believed to have spirits, protecting humans who worshipped adequately and punishing those whose worship was lacking. Contact with Chinese civilization, and the introduction of the triple religion of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, added a further ethical and moral dimension to the indigenous Vietnamese religion.[9]

Indigenous religion

A Lên đồng practitioner performs in a pagoda.

Scholars such as Toan Ánh (Tín-ngưỡng Việt-Nam 1991) have listed a resurgence in traditional belief in many local, village-level, spirits.[10]

Đạo Mẫu

The term "Đạo Mẫu" refers to the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam. While scholars like Ngô Đức Thịnh propose that it represents a systematic mother goddess cult, the term draws together fairly disparate beliefs and practices.[11][12][13][14] These include the worship of goddesses such as Thiên Y A Na, The Lady of the Realm (Bà Chúa Xứ), The Lady of the Storehouse (Bà Chúa Kho) and Princess Liễu Hạnh,[15] legendary figures like Âu Cơ, the Trung Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng), and Lady Trieu (Bà Triệu), as well as the cult of the Four Palaces. Đạo Mẫu is commonly associated with spirit mediumship rituals—known in Vietnam as lên đồng—much as practiced in other parts of Asia, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Although the Communist government had initially forbidden the practice of such rituals, deeming them to be superstitions, they relented in 1987, once again legalizing their practice.


Hà Nội's One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple.
File:Amitbabha and female devotee detail.jpg
Amitabha Buddha, the master of the Pure Land, blesses a female devotee in this relief at Quan Am Pagoda, Cholon.

Buddhism came to Vietnam as early as the second century AD through the North from China and via Southern routes from India.[16] Mahayana Buddhism first spread from China to Vietnam's Red River Delta region around 300 AD. Theravada Buddhism arrived from India into the southern Mekong Delta region many years later, between 300-600 AD. Buddhism as practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese is mainly of the Mahayana school, although some ethnic minorities (such as the Khmer Krom in the southern Delta region of Vietnam) adhere to the Theravada school.[17]

Buddhist practice in Vietnam differs from that of other Asian countries, and does not contain the same institutional structures, hierarchy, or sanghas that exist in other traditional Buddhist settings. It has instead grown from a symbiotic relationship with Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and the indigenous Vietnamese religion, with the majority of Buddhist practitioners focusing on devotional rituals rather than meditation.[18]

Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and is said to be one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in Vietnam, in which practitioners commonly recite sutras, chants and dharanis looking to gain protection from bodhisattvas or Dharma-Protectors.[19] While Pure Land traditions, practices and concepts are found within Mahayana cosmology, and form an important component of Buddhist traditions in Vietnam, Pure Land Buddhism was not independently recognized as a sect of Buddhism (as Pure Land schools have been recognized, for example, in Japan) until 2007, with the official recognition of the Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhism Association as an independent and legal religious organization.[20]

Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương

Hòa Hảo

Hòa Hảo is a religious tradition, based on Buddhism, founded in 1939 by Huỳnh Phú Sổ, a native of the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. Adherents consider Sổ to be a prophet, and Hòa Hảo a continuation of a 19th-century Buddhist ministry known as Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương ("Strange Perfume from Precious Mountains", referring to the Thất Sơn range on the Vietnam-Cambodia border). The founders of these traditions are regarded by Hòa Hảo followers as living Buddhas—destined to save mankind from suffering and to protect the Vietnamese nation. An important characteristic of Hòa Hảo is its emphasis on peasant farmers, exemplified by the old slogan "Practicing Buddhism While Farming Your Land." Hòa Hảo also stresses the practice of Buddhism by lay people in the home, rather than focusing primarily on temple worship and ordination. Aid to the poor is favored over pagoda building or expensive rituals.

Today, as an officially recognized religion, it claims approximately two million followers throughout Vietnam; in certain parts of the Mekong Delta, as many as 90 percent of the population of this region practice this tradition. Since many of the teachings of Huỳnh Phú Sổ related in some way to Vietnamese nationalism, adherence to Hòa Hảo outside of Vietnam has been minimal, with a largely quiescent group of followers presumed to exist among the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States.

Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa

Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa ("Four Debts of Gratitude"), a Buddhist sect based in An Giang Province, is one of the most recently registered religions in Vietnam. It is based on the teachings of Ngô Lợi (1831–1890). Official government statistics report that Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa claimed over 70,000 registered followers and 476 religious leaders as of 2005, centred in 76 places of worship spread across 14 provinces, mainly in Southern Vietnam.[21][22] vi:Minh Sư Đạo is a sect that is related to Cao Đài.[23]



File:HCMC Notre Dame Cathedral.jpg
Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

By far the most widespread Christian church in Vietnam, Roman Catholicism first entered the country through Portuguese Catholic missionaries in the 16th century and strengthened its influence during French colonial rule. While the earliest missions were only mildly successful at gaining converts, later missions by Jesuit missionaries eventually saw the definitive establishment of Christian centres within the local population.

Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, who worked in Vietnam between 1624 and 1644, was perhaps the most notable missionary of this period.[24] Among other achievements, he made a significant and lasting contribution to Vietnamese culture by developing an alphabet for the Vietnamese language in concert with Vietnamese scholars and based on the work of earlier Portuguese missionaries. The use of this alphabet, based on the Latin script with added diacritic marks, was originally intended to help reinforce teaching and evangelization efforts. It is still in use, and is now referred to as Quốc Ngữ (national language).

The French missionary priest Pigneau de Behaine played a key role in Vietnamese history towards the end of the 18th century by befriending Nguyễn Ánh, the most senior of the ruling Nguyễn lords to have escaped the rebellion of the Tây Sơn brothers in 1777.[25][26][27][28][29][30] Becoming Nguyễn Ánh's loyal confidant, benefactor and military advisor during his time of need,[31][32][33][34] he was able to gain a great deal of favor for the Church. During Nguyễn Ánh's subsequent rule as Emperor Gia Long, the Catholic faith was permitted unimpeded missionary activities out of his respect to his benefactors.[35] By the time of the Emperor's accession in 1802, Vietnam had 3 Catholic dioceses with 320,000 members and over 120 Vietnamese priests.[36]

According to the Catholic Hierarchy Catalog, there are currently 5,658,000 Catholics in Vietnam, representing 6.87% of the total population.[37] There are 26 dioceses (including three archdioceses) with 2228 parishes and 2668 priests.[37]


Protestantism was introduced to Da Nang in 1911 by a Canadian missionary named Robert A. Jaffray; over the years, he was followed by more than 100 missionaries, members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an Evangelical Protestant denomination. The two officially recognized Protestant organizations recognized by the government are the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), recognized in 2001, and the smaller Evangelical Church of Vietnam North (ECVN), recognized since 1963.[38]

Present estimates of the number of Protestants range from the official government figure of 500,000 to claims by churches of 1 million. Growth has been most pronounced among members of minority peoples (Montagnards) such as the Mnong, Ede, Jarai, and Bahnar, with internal estimates claiming two-thirds of all Protestants in Vietnam are members of ethnic minorities.[39] By some estimates, the growth of Protestant believers in Vietnam has been as much as 600 percent over the past ten years. Some of the new converts belong to unregistered evangelical house churches, whose followers are said to total about 200,000.[39]

Baptist and Mennonite movements were officially recognized by Hanoi in October, 2007, which was seen as a notable improvement in the level of religious freedom enjoyed by Vietnamese Protestants.[40] Similarly, in October 2009, the Assemblies of God movement received official government permission to operate, which is the first step to becoming a legal organization.[41]

The Assemblies of God were said to consist of around 40,000 followers in 2009,[41] the Baptist Church around 18,400 followers with 500 ministers in 2007,[40] and The Mennonite Church around 10,000 followers.

Eastern Orthodoxy

For Orthodox Christianity, the Russian Orthodox Church is represented in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam, mainly among the Russian-speaking employees of the Russian-Vietnamese joint venture "Vietsovpetro". The parish is named after Our Lady of Kazan icon was opened in 2002 with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been given in Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra. The representatives of the foreign relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church come to Vũng Tàu from time to time to conduct the Orthodox divine service.[42]

Vietnam is also mentioned as territory under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Hong Kong & Southeast Asia Nikitas (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), though there is no information on its organized activities there.

Cao Đài

File:Cao Dai prayers 2.jpg
Monks praying in the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh, Vietnam.

Cao Đài is a relatively new, syncretist, monotheistic religion, officially established in the city of Tây Ninh, southern Vietnam, in 1926. The term Cao Đài literally means "highest tower", or figuratively, the highest place where God reigns. Cao Đài's first disciples, Ngô Văn Chiêu, Cao Quỳnh Cư, Phạm Công Tắc and Cao Hoài Sang, claimed to have received direct communications from God, who gave them explicit instructions for establishing a new religion that would commence the Third Era of Religious Amnesty. Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the minimum goal of rejoining God the Father in Heaven and the ultimate goal of freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Official government records counted 2.2 million registered members of Tây Ninh Cao Đài in 2005, but also estimated in 2007 that there were 3.2 million Caodaists including roughly a dozen other denominations.[43] In 2014, official numbers estimated 4.4 million Caodaists, which would be a dramatic increase of 1.2 million or 37.5%.[44] Many outside sources give 4 to 6 million. Some estimates are as high as 8 million adherents in Vietnam. An additional 30,000 (numbers may vary) (primarily ethnic Vietnamese) live in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

Đạo Dừa

Ông Đạo Dừa (1909-1990) created a now discontinued religion, a syncretic Buddhism, Christianity and Taoism. Its adherents ate coconut and drank coconut milk.


Adherence to Hinduism in Vietnam is associated with the Cham ethnic minority; the first religion of the Champa kingdom was a form of Shaivite Hinduism, brought by sea from India. The Cham people erected Hindu temples (Bimong) throughout Central Vietnam, many of which are still in use today; the now-abandoned Mỹ Sơn, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is perhaps the most well-known of Cham temple complexes.

Approximately 50,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area practice a devotional form of Hinduism. Most of the Cham Hindus belong to the Nagavamshi Kshatriya caste,[45] but a considerable minority are Brahmins.[46] Another 4,000 Hindus (mostly Tamil, and otherwise of Cham or mixed Indian-Vietnamese descent) live in Ho Chi Minh City, where the Mariamman Temple acts as a focal point for the community. In Ninh Thuận Province, where most of the Cham in Vietnam reside, Cham Balamon (Hindu Cham) numbers 32,000; out of the 22 villages in Ninh Thuận, 15 are Hindu.[47]


Mosque in An Giang

Much like Hinduism, adherence to Islam in Vietnam is primarily associated with the Cham ethnic minority, although there is also a Muslim population of mixed ethnic origins, also known as Cham, or Cham Muslims, in the southwest (Mekong Delta) of the country. Islam is assumed to have come to Vietnam much after its arrival in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), through contact with Arab traders. The number of followers began to increase as contacts with Sultanate of Malacca broadened in the wake of the 1471 collapse of the Champa Kingdom, but Islam would not become widespread among the Cham until the mid-17th century. In the mid-19th century, many Muslims Chams emigrated from Cambodia and settled in the Mekong Delta region, further bolstering the presence of Islam in Vietnam.

Vietnam's Muslims remained relatively isolated from the mainstream of world Islam, and their isolation, combined with the lack of religious schools, caused the practice of Islam in Vietnam to become syncretic. Although the Chams follow a localised adaptation of Islamic theology, they consider themselves Muslims. However, they pray only on Fridays and celebrate Ramadan for only three days. Circumcision is performed not physically, but symbolically, with a religious leader making the gestures of circumcision with a wooden toy knife.[48]

Vietnam's largest mosque was opened in January 2006 in Xuân Lộc, Đồng Nai Province; its construction was partially funded by donations from Saudi Arabia.[49]

A 2005 census counted over 66,000 Muslims in Vietnam, up from 63,000 in 1999.[21][50] Over 77% lived in the Southeast Region, with 34% in Ninh Thuận Province, 24% in Bình Thuận Province, and 9% in Ho Chi Minh City; another 22% lived in the Mekong Delta region, primarily in An Giang Province. In Ninh Thuận Province, where most of the Cham in Vietnam reside, Cham Bani (Muslim Cham) number close to 22,000. Out of the 22 villages in Ninh Thuận, 7 are Muslim.[47]

The Cham in Vietnam are only recognized as a minority, and not as an indigenous people by the Vietnamese government despite being indigenous to the region. Both Hindu and Muslim Chams have experienced religious and ethnic persecution and restrictions on their faith under the current Vietnamese government, with the Vietnamese state confisticating Cham property and forbidding Cham from observing their religious beliefs. Hindu temples were turned into tourist sites against the wishes of the Cham Hindus. In 2010 and 2013 several incidents occurred in Thành Tín and Phươc Nhơn villages where Cham were murdered by Vietnamese. In 2012, Vietnamese police in Chau Giang village stormed into a Cham Mosque, stole the electric generator, and also raped Cham girls.[51] Cham Muslims in the Mekong Delta have also been economically marginalized and pushed into poverty by Vietnamese policies, with ethnic Vietnamese Kinh settling on majority Cham land with state support, and religious practices of minorities have been targeted for elimination by the Vietnamese government.[52]

The Vietnamese government fears that evidence of Champa's influence over the disputed area in the South China Sea would bring attention to human rights violations and killings of ethnic minorities in Vietnam such as in the 2001 and 2004 uprisings, and lead to the issue of Cham autonomy being brought into the dispute, since the Vietnamese conquered the Hindu and Muslim Cham people in a war in 1832, and the Vietnamese continue to destroy evidence of Cham culture and artifacts left behind, plundering or building on top of Cham temples, building farms over them, banning Cham religious practices, and omitting references to the destroyed Cham capital of Song Luy in the 1832 invasion in history books and tourist guides. The situation of Cham compared to ethnic Vietnamese is substandard, lacking water and electricity and living in houses made out of mud.[53]


The first Jews to visit Vietnam likely arrived following the French colonization of the country, in the latter half of the 19th century. There are a handful of references to Jewish settlement in Saigon sprinkled through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle in the 1860s and 1870s.

As late as 1939, the estimated combined population of the Jewish communities of Haiphong, Hanoi, Saigon and Tourane in French Indo-China numbered approximately 1,000 individuals.[54] In 1940 the anti-Semitic Vichy-France "Statute on Jews" was implemented in French Indo-China (Vietnam), leading to increased restrictions and widespread discrimination against Jews. The anti-Jewish laws were repealed in January 1945.[55]

Prior to the French evacuation of Indochina in 1954, the Jewish population in Indochina (which encompassed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) was reportedly 1,500; most of these Jews were said to have left with the French, leaving behind no organized Jewish communal structure.[56] In 1971, about 12 French Jews still remained in South Vietnam, all in Saigon.[57] In 2005, the U.S. State Department's "International Religious Freedom Report" noted "There were no reported anti-Semitic incidents during the period covered by this report. The country's small Jewish population is comprised almost entirely of expatriates."[38]

Bahá'í Faith

Established in the 1950s, the Vietnamese Bahá'í community once claimed upwards of 200,000 followers, mainly concentrated in the South.[58] The number of followers dwindled as a result of the banning of the practice of the Bahá'í Faith after the Vietnam War. After years of negotiation, the Bahá'í Faith was registered nationally in 2007, once again receiving full recognition as a religious community.[58] In 2009 it was reported that the Bahá'í community has about 7,000 followers and 73 assemblies.[59]

Religious freedom

The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam formally allows religious freedom,[60] however, government restrictions remain on organized activities of many religious groups. The government maintains a prominent role overseeing officially recognized religions. Religious groups encounter the greatest restrictions when they are perceived by the government as a challenge to its rule or to the authority of the Communist party.[61] In 2007, Viet Nam News reported that Viet Nam has six religions recognised by the State (Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Cao Đài, and Hòa Hảo), but that the Baha’i Community of Viet Nam had been awarded a "certificate of operation" from the Government's Committee for Religious Affairs.[62] In 2007, the Committee for Religious Affairs was reported to have granted operation registration certificates to three new religions and a religious sect in addition to six existing religions.[62] Every citizen is declared free to follow no, one, or more religions, practice religion without violating the law, be treated equally regardless of religious belief, and to be protected from being violated in their religious freedom, but is prohibited from using religion to violate the law.[60]

In fact, there are some limitations in religious practice in Vietnam. Foreign missionaries are not legally allowed to proselytize or perform religious activities. No other religions than the aforementioned eight are allowed. Preachers and religious associations are prohibited to use religion to propagate ideologies that are opposed to the government. Many Vietnamese preachers who fled for America and other countries say that they were suppressed by the Communist government for no or unreasonable reasons; however, preachers and religious associations who abide by the law working in Vietnam today are aided and honored by the government.

The Vietnamese government has been criticized for its religious violations by the United States, the Vatican, and expatriate Vietnamese who oppose the Communist government. However, due to recent improvements in religious liberty, the United States no longer considers Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern. The Vatican has also considered negotiations with Vietnam about freedom for Vietnamese Catholics.

Despite some substantial attempts by the Vietnamese government to improve its international image and ease restrictions on religious freedom, the cases of dissident religious leaders' persecution has not stopped in the recent years. The general secretary of the Mennonite Church in Vietnam and religious freedom advocate Nguyen Hong Quang was arrested in 2004, and his house razed to the ground.[63] Christian Montagnards and their house churches continue to suffer from state control and restrictions.[64] In March, 2007, a member of the main Hanoi congregation of the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) Nguyen Van Dai was arrested for accusations relating to his defense of religious freedom, including disseminating alleged "infractions" of religious liberty.[65]

See also

Organized religions



  1. "If properly buried and worshipped, the dead would be happy to remain in their realm and act as benevolent spirits for their progeny. But those who died alone and neglected, and to whom no worship was given, disturbed the dead and preyed on the living." Hue-Tam Ho Tai (2008-08-20). "Religion in Vietnam: A World of Gods and Spirits". Asia Society. p. 1. Retrieved 2010-06-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "It is generally agreed that Dong Son drums were used for ceremonial purposes (e.g. Higham 1996: 133), and it could be argued that they were produced within a particular religious context, so we might talk about Dong Son religion, in the sense we talk about the Buddhist religion, as a cultural production but one which we know little about specifically." Bowdler, Sandra (2006). Bacus, Elisabeth A.; Glover, Ian; Pigott, Vincent C., eds. "The Hoabinhian: Early Evidence for SE Asian Trade Networks?". Uncovering Southeast Asia's past: selected papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists. National University of Singapore: 357.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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