While Vietnam is officially an atheist state, most of its population practice some form of religion. Having been strongly influenced by Chinese, Indian and European philosophies, religion in Vietnam today is a melting pot of beliefs and cults from which emerge 3 fundamental religions. Most Vietnamese believe in a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, which is referred to as “Tam Giao” or the “Three Teachings”.
Buddhism was introduced to Vietnam in the second century and during the Ly Dynasty it became the state religion in Vietnam. The main type of Buddhism practised in Vietnam is Mahayana Buddhism. It translates to "big vehicle" because it incorporates the idea that Nirvana is accessible to all, unlike the more conservative Theravada Buddhism, which considers that only the class of monks can reach the ‘enlightenment’.
Confucianism in Vietnam comes directly from Chinese culture and is a form of wisdom and code of social behavior based on family and community order. According to Confucianism, there are five important virtues which need to be nurtured: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and fidelity. While Confucianism in Vietnam declined during the period of French occupation, it continues to influence the way of thinking of the Vietnamese even today.
Taoism is derived from the Chinese word for ‘way’ or ‘road’, and like Confucianism, originated as a philosophy rather than a religion. Its focus was on the search for a way to access the elusive and harmonious forces of the Universe and achieve harmony between man and nature.
Catholicism was introduced later, from the 18th century, and is practiced by around 7% of the population. Protestantism is still very much in the minority with around 1% according to the latest news in Vietnam, but it is interesting to note that it is the fastest-growing religion in Vietnam today.
There are also some Hindus and Muslims among the Chams ethnic group, who live in the highlands of the centre of the country. The remains of My Son near Hoi An and Po Nagar in Nha Trang are testimony to this heritage from India.
While on holiday in Vietnam, when speaking to locals, you might hear many hints of animism. All human effort is directed in such a way as not to upset the indisputable masters that are spirits. It is especially practised by the mountain tribes who regularly indulge in ceremonies which implore among other things the leniency of the elements of nature or even the fertility of the rice paddies.
A number of popular superstitious rituals also punctuate everyday life: certain gestures or codes are subtly accomplished, for example during meals. And in general, all of these beliefs and religions profoundly shape the philosophy of life in the country where, among other things, there is respect and a certain tolerance and acceptance of several beliefs.
Coming from South China, ancestor worship is also very dear to the Vietnamese and very present in everyday life. In each house, usually on the upper floor or high up on the wall, you can spot an ancestral altar, meticulously cared for and honoured during special events of the home and the calendar.
While the influence of religion in Vietnam has diminished since the advent of communism in 1975, especially for the young generation, in each city, you will find at least one place of worship. The pagodas and temples in Vietnam have an architecture very similar to that of China, with their finely carved roofs that flick upwards at their ends. Depending on the era in which they were built or the local religion, they are usually of either the Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist faith.
Despite everything, when you travel to Vietnam, you will have the impression of living at the heart of an omnipresent religious and spiritual life. Indeed, during your trip, you will only be able to notice a number of pagodas and temples, you will see altars in shops and restaurants, you will smell the odours emanating from incense sticks or votive papers burnt at the edge of the sidewalk, an indication of the importance of religion in Vietnam.