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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


The Gods of the Early Vietnamese

Vietnamese religion was a syncretic amalgamation of the three great religions of East Asia -- Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism -- onto which had been added a rich variety of preexisting animist beliefs. All Vietnamese believed in this single religious conflation in one form or another, but these forms varied greatly. Scholar-officials gave more weight to Confucian teachings; common people put more emphasis on Buddhism and on Taoism in its popular religious form.

In all probability, the religion of the early Vietnamese before Chinese conquest was totemic. Birds feature heavily in the decoration of the famous Dong Son bronze drums fabricated between the third and the first century B.C. This has led historians to assume that birds were important objects of worship. The early Vietnamese believed that they were descended from a dragon-king who had mated with an immortal from the mountains to produce 100 children. Hence, the recurring dragon motif in Vietnamese decorative art. They also believed that as a people, they enjoyed the protection of the turtle god who appeared at times of national crisis to give the leader of the day the weapons with which to fight off his enemies. The last appearance of this turtle god was in the 15th century when Le Loi, the leader of a guerrilla movement of resistance against Chinese occupation, lost his sword in a Hanoi lake. The turtle god dived into the lake and retrieved the magic sword, thus giving Le Loi the power to throw off Chinese colonial rule and to regain independence for his country. Since then, the lake has been known as the Lake of the Returned Sword.

The mountains and rivers of Vietnam were also endowed with magical properties. The mountain spirit, residing on Mount Tan, near Hanoi, won a contest against the water spirit for the hand of the beautiful princess whom both wanted to marry. Disgruntled, the water spirit attacked Mount Tan by causing the waters to rise, but Mount Tan in return rose ever higher. Folklorists like to point out that this is a mythic reenactment of the monsoon cycle. To the Vietnamese, the legend symbolizes their endurance in the face of harsh elements, and, by extension, their endurance as a people and a nation. The-spirit of Mount Tan keeps a watchful eye over Hanoi where, since the beginning of history, the Vietnamese capital has been located (except under the Nguyen dynasty in the 19th century when it was moved to Hue).

In the wake of the Chinese occupation of Vietnam (111 B.C. to 939 A.D.) came Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. By that time, Taoism had lost its original identity as the philosophy of Lao Tzu and his disciples, and had come to refer to magic practices, animist beliefs, and popular religion in general. Geomancers, horoscope-casters, I-ching diviners, fortune-tellers, spirit-mediums, faith-healers, and all sorts of wonder-workers (even those who practiced magic known to be of alien origin), were labelled as Taoist priests. In many cases, these so-called Taoist priests had scant understanding of the teachings of Lao Tzu. Unlike Chinese Taoist priests, they were not organized into a religious organization. Hostile as the Confucian scholars might be to these people they called practitioners of superstition and deluders of innocent people, it was impossible to eradicate them. In a world full of gods and spirits, it was impossible to do without Taoist priests, for through their own efforts at self-cultivation, they held power over these gods and spirits. This power was in their magic, their incantations, their charms and their potions. It was to them that common people turned, for performing the requisite ceremonies at various stages of life, for calling up the dead and healing the living.

As all three religions were introduced into Vietnam at about the same time, Buddhism escaped being singled out and stigmatized as foreign, as was the case in China where Taoism and Confucianism were native religions. Instead it was Confucianism which for a time suffered from being considered as the ideology of the occupying forces and of the educated but Chinese-influenced local elite. The kings who ruled Vietnam after independence (939 A.D.) came from a background entirely different from that of the Confucianized elite who had collaborated with the Chinese occupiers. They rose to power on the strength of their armies and of their personal wealth. Issued from landed families, with no pretension to knowledge, they admired force and despised scholarly softness. In the aftermath of independence, their hold over the country was tenuous, often challenged by other landed clans with large armies. Thus, their control did not extend greatly beyond the capital and the surrounding countryside, but where it was exercised, it was absolute, untempered by laws and regulations. One early king had a huge cauldron of boiling oil and a cage full of hungry tigers set in the middle of his palace courtyard to frighten his courtiers into abject subservience and to instill prudence into would-be challengers to his rule. Despite such precautions, however, he and his heir were assassinated by a man who had dreamed he was destined to be king and proceeded to act upon that prophetic dream. Except that the dream did not come true, for he, in turn, was killed by a supporter of the dead king.

Dreams, omens, prophecies shaped the behavior of the early Vietnamese, for rulers and subjects alike were always anxious to placate the gods and spirits who held sway over human life. Early Vietnamese religion thus was essentially propitiatory and lacked an ethical, moral dimension.