Vietnam's major religions are Buddhism and Catholicism, although the largest percentage of the population follows Vietnamese folk traditions or identifies as non-religious. Buddhism has, however, been a driving political force in Vietnamese history, and in 1963, monks led the resistance against the government of South Vietnam. Around 7 percent of the population is Christian, and there are also tiny numbers of Hindu and Muslim believers.
Ancestor worship is another common part of religious life in Vietnam, and many Vietnamese families incorporate ancestor worship into their other religious practices. In many Vietnamese homes you’ll find a shrine that has photos of grandparents and great-grand parents, complete with offerings of flowers and incense. It’s also common to worship rulers of yesteryear, including Ho Chi Minh, the founder of Vietnam’s Communist Party.
There are two types of Buddhist religious sites to visit in Vietnam: Pagodas and temples. Monks live in temples, while pagodas offer a spiritual home for Buddhas. Vietnamese monks are self-sufficient—they grow and cook all their own food. These sites are some of the oldest buildings in the country. (Take note: Sometimes tours will refer to a pagoda as “ancient” when the building itself is relatively new, but is built on top of the remains of an ancient and heavily venerated building.)
Sacred sites are an example of when it is particularly important to be aware of, and respectfully adhere to, the cultural practices of a foreign country. Before entering a temple, it’s common practice to remove one’s shoes. Temple architecture has evolved to evince a prayerful attitude from visitors—doorways with raised bottoms force visitors to look down as they enter, ensuring that everyone has their heads bowed. Supplicants light incense at the altar, and the sticks of incense are almost always arranged in odd numbers. You’ll see altars with offerings of fruit, soda, and cookies piled high.
Burials and Cemeteries
Vietnamese cemeteries dot the countryside, and it’s common to see graves on a family’s plot of farmland. In Vietnam, bodies are buried in wooden coffins for 3 years, and then disinterred for a reburying ceremony. For the second burial the family places the bones in a smaller coffin.
Nowadays, families aren’t supposed to rely on their family plots. There are public cemeteries, although not all are well maintained. Some hastily established cemeteries, created to inter the many casualties of war during the 1960s and 70s, have fallen into disrepair.
Buddhism originated in ancient Nepal, and evolved out of Hinduism. It shares some core beliefs with Hinduism—actions have spiritual repercussions called karma. Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, and that good or bad karma determines the quality of the next life. The point of life is to eventually reach Nirvana, at which point one’s soul is released from the cycle of rebirth.
Within Buddhism, there are specific practices that follow a specific Buddha, such as Hòa Hảo. Hòa Hảo emphasizes practical work over fancy rituals, and focuses on worship in the home.
Catholicism a controversial history in Vietnam. The first Catholic missionaries came from France, and it is still viewed as the official religion of a colonial power. There are a few beautiful cathedrals sprinkled throughout Vietnam, including St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi.
Some of Vietnam’s religious traditions blend together different beliefs. Tam Giao translates to the “three teachings,” and is a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. (Confucianism and Taoism are philosophies without spiritual elements.)
Cao Dai is another practice that blends multiple faiths together. Cao Dai means “the high tower,” and it borrows mainly from Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. Religious rituals and church hierarchies are recognizably Catholic.
Vietnam's spritrual diversity means that the country has a rich variety of holidays and festivals you can observe or be a part of during your trip—allowing you to absorb more of the culture.