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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


Hoa Hao: Religion and Politics

That the millenarian tradition of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect had endured and even flourished was demonstrated spectacularly in 1939 when a 20 year-old youth named Huynh Phu So founded the Hoa Hao sect. A native of the southwest, Huynh Phu So capitalized on the millenarian beliefs, claiming that he was the reincarnation of the founder of the Buu Son Ky Huong sect and that his mission was to bring the tradition back to its original purity. He reactivated the myth of the millennium, predicting that the end of the world would come within a few years. In a few months he gained thousands of followers. Over the period of World War II, he gathered nearly one million followers who were fanatically devoted to him.

Huynh Phu So stressed virtue in one's daily conduct as the chief method of seeking salvation, for over the years, the tendency to stage elaborate ceremonies with expensive offerings to Buddha had taken over, and with it the reliance on prayers rather than good deeds. Religion, he said, was to provide the guidelines for all activities. It was not enough, furthermore, to seek salvation for oneself only. In this era of imminent apocalypse, collective salvation was the ultimate aim. Religion should not stay separate from political matters; on the contrary, religious people had the duty to become politically involved since both politics and religion were concerned with salvation. To those who accused him of politicizing religion, Huynh Phu So replied that he was bringing religion into politics, as was right and proper. His Hoa Hao sect was thus not only a religious movement, but a political one as well, with a formidable mass base made up of nearly one million peasants, mostly located in the southwest and the Mekong delta. When World War II ended and the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, the sect refused to accept the leadership of the communist-dominated Viet Minh coalition. In 1947, Huynh Phu So was assassinated by Viet Minh agents, and his followers became implacably opposed to the Viet Minh. This hostility lasted through the Vietnam War, although some Hoa Hao members turned to the National Liberation Front (NLF) after the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem crushed an uprising in which the sect had taken part, and disarmed it.

The Buu Son Ky Huong and Hoa Hao sects made the most explicit refutation of the traditional Confucian state's contention that the political order must prevail over all areas of life, and of its claim to determine what role religion should play in the lives of ordinary Vietnamese. Essentially the two sects took a completely opposite view of the relationship between religion and politics. Both the sects and the state, however, were agreed about the fundamentally inextricable nature of this relationship.

The Hoa Hao sect illustrates a reformist, purifying strand in popular religion. Historically, such reformist movements periodically appeared in reaction to the inherent tendency of popular religion towards excessive eclecticism. The latter tendency is well illustrated by the other major political-religious sect of southern Vietnam, the Cao Dai sect, which was founded in 1926, 13 years before the appearance of the Hoa Hao sect.

Cao Dai: Something for Everyone

Caodaism was not only an exuberant blend of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and popular cults, it also aspired to be a universal religion by virtue of incorporating into its pantheon Jesus Christ and various figures from Western history, whose only connecting link was their claim to have had direct communication with God. The most important aspect of its doctrine was a belief in a Supreme Being or Cao Dai who made his wishes known through the agency of teen-age mediums. The eclectic nature of the Cao Dai teachings was reflected in its architecture and in its organization. Whereas the Hoa Hao sect remained family-oriented, and thus did not necessitate the construction of temples, the Cao Dai religion was congregational. The sayings of Cao Dai were transmitted to the faithful in oratories. The most important of these oratories was the Holy See in Tay Ninh province. Its structure was borrowed from the Catholic cathedral of Saigon, but its decoration was a product of Vietnamese popular religion at its gaudiest. Ubiquitous among this decoration was the Heavenly Eye represented by a very naturalistic picture of a human eye, and symbolizing the omniscience and omnipresence of Cao Dai. On the wall fronting the entrance was a large mural depicting Victor Hugo, Confucius and Sun Yat-sen, a painted symbol of the mixed origins of the Cao Dai beliefs.

Cao Dai organization was as eclectic as its architectural style, and as complex as its pantheon of deities. Whereas the Hoa Hao sect had no institutional infrastructure until after World War II, the Cao Dai hierarchy was well developed. There were three different hierarchies made up of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist followers, divided into nine grades. Furthermore, the structure of the sect was composed of a council of mediums, an administrative organ and a body overseeing the operation of charitable agencies serving as recruitment organs. To further complicate matters, male and female dignitaries of the sect were organized separately.

Although the majority of the faithful were peasants from the southeastern provinces of Vietnam, the leaders came mostly from the ranks of colonial civil servants and landowners. In creating a new religion in which Christianity was but one strand, they were trying, in the words of Alexander Woodside, to find equivalence with the West. In organizing the sect as they did, they were also trying to be all things to all men.

In trying to characterize the Cao Dai religion, the words adaptability and inclusiveness come to mind. Whereas the Hoa Hao sect under Huynh Phu So was rigid in its religious and political claims, the Cao Dai sect proved much more flexible. It avoided open conflict with the Viet Minh, while maintaining control over its territory. But in 1955, it too took part in the unsuccessful confrontation with President Diem, and it too was forced to give up its military role. Many of the sectaries, who had no memories of conflict to embitter their relations with the communists, were able to make common cause with them and to join the NLF.

Conclusion: Religion in an Atheist State

Religion affects the lives of ordinary men and women on many different levels. It provides them with moral guidelines, it gives meaning to their existence and to the world they inhabit. It gives them solace and hope for the future. As in 19th century Vietnam, religion can inspire them to build new communities that embody their vision of the perfect world in the most desolate places. The claims of religion need not be in conflict with the claims of the state. Throughout history, religion served both to integrate the Vietnamese people into a cohesive society and to reinforce the presence, if not the power, of the emperor while softening his rule. But it also served as a refuge for those who wanted to escape this rule, and as a vehicle of dissent for those who rejected the all encompassing claims of the state. In their turn, dissenters could, on behalf of their religious beliefs, present claims as sweeping as those made by the state on behalf of politics, and be as intransigent with those who disagreed with them.

The communist state is in many ways heir to the Confucian state. This is evident in the social origins of much of its leadership. Like its Confucian predecessors, the new leadership has made a rigorous attempt to control the religious life of its population, only with the aid of a new state orthodoxy, Marxism-Leninism. The leadership insists that the Vietnamese Catholic church be a national church. It has ordered the confiscation of properties belonging to the Buddhist church, including schools and orphanages, on the grounds that the state alone should run such institutions. It refuses to allow draft-age males into the ranks of the Catholic and Buddhist clergies. Not unsurprisingly, these attempts at state control have provoked a reaction. Although the Communist party is securely at the helm, its leaders are taking no chances. Periodic appeals for vigilance against enemies of the state continue to be issued. Chief among these suspected enemies are members of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, as well as Catholics and Buddhists. The modern state has greater powers, and much more effective means of control than the traditional state ever possessed. It is conceivable that the communist state will succeed where the Confucian state did not. But religious aspirations are too strong to be uprooted easily.

The outcome of the centuries-old tension between state and religion is very much in the laps of the gods.