Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Religion in Vietnam

A World of Gods and Spirits

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

Temple in Vietnam (vicguinda/Flickr)

A World of Gods and Spirits


For one's ancestor to be particularly beneficial, he (for this applied mostly to male ancestors) must be buried in the correct spot. This necessitated the expertise of a geomancer. He would look at the lay of the land, the relationship between hills, and hollows and streams, and decide which would be the most propitious site. South Vietnam's most famous modern geomancer was known to carry out his field survey from the height of a helicopter, an example of how science and technology do not cause religious beliefs to dwindle away, but on the contrary can serve to strengthen them.

Between birth and death, daily life was regulated by the determination of auspicious dates. Some inherently inauspicious ones were noted on the regular calendar, and applied to all. For example, no one would dream of doing anything of importance on the 5th, the 14th, or the 23rd of the lunar month. If one did think of embarking on a new venture, be it building a house, embarking on a journey, or starting a new business, then it would not be enough to avoid these unlucky dates; a truly auspicious one must be sought. This would require a fortuneteller, who could be an astrologer, a horoscope caster, an I-ching diviner, a palm-reader, or some other expert in the art of reading the future and divining the wishes of the gods. There was a general in the South Vietnamese army who was notorious for refusing to venture out of his headquarters without first consulting his soothsayer, no matter the orders from above or the strategic needs of the moment.

The above sketches of the day-to-day manifestations of traditional religious beliefs only hint at the richness and variety of Vietnamese religion. But these images help serve as a backdrop to the larger question of the role of religion in Vietnamese society and politics. My underlying theme is that both religion and politics are about power, conceived differently to be sure. This shared concern for power has been both a bond and an enduring source of tension between the two throughout Vietnamese history.