info Religion and Buddhism in Vietnam


Staff member
Jun 28, 2020
Most Vietnamese would describe themselves as Buddhists, but theirs is a very different Buddhism to that practiced elsewhere in mainland Southeast Asia. Buddhism came to Vietnam from the north, by way of China, as did the other major belief systems of the Vietnamese, Confucianism and Taoism. The resultant mix, combined with an indigenous tradition of spirit worship, makes Vietnamese spiritual values both complex and unique.

Most ethnic Viets are Mahayana Buddhists, following the ‘Greater Vehicle’ interpretation of Buddhism, which places emphasis on attaining perfect wisdom and ultimately becoming a bodhisattva - that is, one who has achieved enlightenment but eschews nirvana, preferring instead to remain behind and help others follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

In the south, and especially in the Mekong Delta, the ethnic Khmer are also Buddhists, but follow the older Theravada form of Buddhism which emphasizes becoming an arhat, or saint, attaining enlightenment and achieving extinction. In practice, both Viet and Khmer Buddhists strive to do good in this life in the hope of being reborn into a better position.


The teachings of Confucius - Khong Tu in Vietnamese - also derive from China, where the great philosopher K’ung Fu-tzu (551-478BC) taught a system of morals and ethical principles which guided Chinese (and subsequently Vietnamese) society for more than two millennia, and which still today underlie many values in both countries. Essentially, Confucianism emphasizes filial piety, correct behavior and loyal service in a society where the ruler maintains power by example rather than through force.


Taoism, once again, is derived from China, where the philosopher Lao Tzu taught his doctrine of dao - literally ‘The Way’ - in the 6th century BC. Taoism emphasises the duality of the universe based on a tension of opposing but complimentary forces, yin and yang, the female and male principles. The essence of Taoism is to preserve this natural balance through complex rituals and practices such as feng shui or geomancy.

Chiefly through the efforts of Jesuit missionaries and the country’s long association with France, Vietnam has an estimated 8 million Christians -after the Philippines, the largest number in Southeast Asia - most of whom live in the south. Of these, around 95 percent are Catholics, the rest being more recent converts to Protestantism, often minority peoples living in the Central Highlands.


Vietnam has two indigenous religious sects, both of which were established in the 20th century, and both of which are based firmly in the south of the country. Cao Dai is the larger, with an estimated 2 million followers. With its Holy See at Tay Ninh to the northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, Cao Dai is an interesting and eclectic amalgam of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Catholicism. The second sect, called Hoa Hao or ‘Peace and Happiness’, is centred on Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta. Its followers practise an ascetic and austere form of Buddhism.

Hinduism and Islam

Hinduism was once a major religion in the region that constitutes modern Vietnam, but with the extinction of the Kingdom of Champa, it went into near terminal decline. Indeed, even while Champa survived, it was already threatened by Buddhism and by Islam, both of which made serious inroads among the Chams.

Today, followers of Hinduism are limited to a few urban South Asians and perhaps 60,000 Chams in and around Nha Trang and Phan Thiet. There are rather more Muslims, perhaps 80,000 Chams, living mainly in the Mekong Delta, as well as small communities of Chulia or Tamil-speaking Muslims in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.


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