religions of vietnam

Atheism, Ancestor-Worship, and Other Major Religions of Vietnam

Vietnam has a high diversity of different ethnic groups and different religions — including some that you’ve probably never heard about.

Despite being an officially atheist nation, the country is steeped in quasi-religious ritual and superstition.

In this post, we discuss the major religions and spiritual beliefs of Vietnam.

What are the main religions of Vietnam?

Although different surveys yield different estimates, the main religions of Vietnam include:

  • *Non-religious: 75% to 85%
  • Buddhism: 5% to 15%
  • (Mahayana): 4% to 14%
  • (Theravada): 1%
  • Catholic Christian: 6% to 7%
  • Protestant Christian: 1%
  • Hòa Hảo: 1% to 2%
  • Cao Đài: ~1%
  • Islam: <0.1%

Source: 2020 International Report on Religious Freedom, Vietnam

*The dominant label of “non-religious” is actually misleading, based on differing definitions about what constitutes a “religion”, which we discuss next…

What is the dominant religion in Vietnam?

An interesting quirk about Vietnam is that the dominant religion isn’t considered a religion at all. Instead, the common set of beliefs and rituals (such as ancestor-worship) are dismissively referred to as mere “Vietnamese culture”, and not consider an organized religion in the same sense as Christianity or Islam. The inability to name this non-religion suits the Socialist government, for whom atheism is the official state religion.

However, of the ~70% of the population who identity as non-religious, the majority ardently observe the following beliefs and rituals:

  • Ancestor worship: families pray to their dead relatives and make symbolic offerings (such as paper-simulacra of luxury goods) in order to ensure their ancestors’ well-being in the afterlife. Vietnamese celebrate the death-anniversaries of past relatives with more gumption than the birthdays of extant relatives.
  • Ritual care of family shrines: twice a month, on the 1st and 15th day of the month, the household matriarch will tend to her family’s in-house shrine, including prayers, placement of fresh-flowers, food, and burning incense. Incense is important as a connection between the living and spirit-realms. Similarly, the family graves must be cared for once a year, or else there would be bad-luck.
  • Luck and superstition: the day-to-day activities and decisions of Vietnamese people are strongly influenced by notions of good-luck and bad-luck — one cannot understand the behaviour of Vietnamese people without understanding which activities promote good-luck, and which promote bad-luck. Read more about common Vietnamese superstitions here.
  • Reincarnation and Karma: Vietnamese people believe that one’s good deeds or bad deeds will have consequences in future reincarnations. Likewise, if one currently has a good life, then it is attributable to their good deeds from in previous incarnations.
  • Numerology, Astrology and the Zodiac: there are complex numerological/astrological calculations to determine which days and years will bring good fortune and which days/years will have bad-luck. Such calculations play a major role in instructing people when to start a business, when to get married, when to ask for a promotion, when to induce child-birth, and even when to get a haircut. Self-declared Fortune Tellers claim to be able to make such numerological calculations, and they hold an inordinate amount of power over people’s lives.
  • Temples: these are places to worship great beings, such as historical figures, mythological creatures, gods, heroes, kings, queens, and whomever else was beloved enough to have a wealthy patron to build them temple. Such places can seem superficially similar to Buddhist temples (at least to outsiders), but the temple caretakers do not have a formal religious hierarchy or priesthood.
  • Mid-Autumn Festival and Tet: the major celebrations of the year are the Autumn equinox full-moon (Mid-Autumn) and the Lunar New Year (Tết). These are the biggest holidays for family-feasts and gift-giving, and are especially exciting for children, much like Western children adore Christmas. These days are also very auspicious for deciding the year’s luck and fortune.
  • Ghosts: good and bad spirits are everywhere in Vietnam. They are in the trees, ancient buildings, in lakes and rivers. It is totally normal for people to claim to see ghosts and casually discuss their manifestation with others. Most Vietnamese have special charms (bùa) to prevent the evils ghosts from entering their house. Ghosts are often blamed on bad relationships.
  • Daoist Mythology: there is a pantheon of deities from Chinese Daoism, include the prime-god Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng Đại Đế), and the Kitchen Gods (Táo Quân) who are revered, celebrated and prayed to. If you walk into a business and see a three-legged toad with coins in its mouth, that is Jin Chan, an uncle to the Jade Emperor, and who’s receipt of prayers can steer the Jade Emperor’s power in one’s favour.
Alter in Vietnam
Family alter to worship ancestors. Photo credit: Lynn @ VietnamDaily

If you see a Vietnamese person burning a paper-mache iphone on the street on the 1st day of the month, you may think to yourself “what an interesting religion” — but, the person will emphatically resist the assertion that it is religious, merely just part of the Viet culture.

Are Vietnamese Buddhist?

The majority of Vietnamese are not Buddhist; instead, they believe in a type of ancestor-worship, mixed with elements of Daoism. Buddhism is the second largest religion in Vietnam, with upto 15% of the population identifying as Buddhist (according to the USA 2020 report).

However, there is not a clear societal separation between Buddhism and the “non-religious” elements of Vietnamese culture. Many Buddhist families will still participate in ancestor-worship and various Daoist rituals. Likewise, many non-religious Vietnamese will opportunistically go to Buddhist pagodas to pray for good luck, especially on Tết. Some go just for fun. This contrasts with other religions, for which there is little co-mingling of rituals.

Vietnamese culture: honouring the buddha with gifts like snacks
Choco Pie cakes are piled up as offers in a temple, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Southeast Asia

In the past, Buddhism was more prevalent during certain periods such as the Trần dynasty. In South Vietnam, where people are more religious in general, there are estimates that 50% of the population are Buddhist. Accordingly, you can find many more extravagant temples and vegetarian food in South Vietnam.

Do Vietnamese Believe in God?

Among the ~80% Vietnamese who are either Buddhist or practise ancestor worship, the nearest equivalent to a monotheist “God” is Ông Trời aka the Jade Emperor, from ancient Chinese Daoism. He lives in heaven has a lot supernatural powers, especially the authority to command other lesser-gods and spirits to do his bidding.

The Vietnamese do not necessarily believe they have a personal relationship between Ông Trời, nor do they pray directly to him. Instead, Vietnamese mostly pray to other lesser-gods who will communicate with Ông Trời, like the Kitchen Gods, who provide an annual report of one’s good deeds throughout the year.

How Many Christians are in Vietnam?

There are approximately 6 million Catholics and 1 million Protestants in Vietnam, comprising approximately 6-7% of the populace. Christianity is more popular in South Vietnam (which is more religious than the North, in general). Christianity is also more prevalent among ethnic minorities in rural mountainous regions of Vietnam, such as the H’mong people.

Many Catholic churches have become beloved national monuments, such as St Joseph’s Cathedral, which was consecrated in Hanoi in 1886. The Church is a major tourism attraction and social-hotspot on weekends.

Alter of Jesus Christ in Vietnam
Vietnamese-style alter to worship Jesus and Mary.

Nowadays, Christmas has become a large, secular celebration in big Vietnamese cities, like a mix of New Years and Black Friday. Most large businesses will decorate their stores with familiar red-and-white ornaments and put-on Xmas sales and promotions. On Christmas evening, the streets of big cities become saturated with huge crowds of revelers walking around to admire Christmas decorations, listen to live music, and eat and drink.

Read more about Christmas in Vietnam.

While the pop-culture version of Christianity is growing in Vietnam, many Vietnamese Christians complain about not being able to grow, establish new parishes, or build religious schools, due to the governments careful regulation of religious activity in Vietnam. Unsanctioned “meeting places” that want to form new churches often complain about local governments dissuading or disrupting their activities, despite laws that protect religious freedom (read below). Importantly, the government has the final say about religious appointments, such as Bishops.

Missionary work and proselytizing are forbidden in Vietnam, so you won’t find many Korean or Mormon preachers trying to spread the faith in public.

Are religions banned in Vietnam?

Although the country is officially atheist, religions are no longer banned in Vietnam. Since 2004, the Vietnamese government implemented a legal-framework to allow religious freedom within Vietnam.

However, religious organizations and activities are carefully regulated in Vietnam. In many ways, religions have a legal status that is not too dissimilar to a corporation, including registration and regular reporting to the government. Only government-registered religions are allowed to practice openly or build places of worship. The government also has final-say in religious appointments, such as head monks or Catholic Bishops.

Curiously, quasi-spiritual entities like fortune-tellers and feng-shui masters face no such regulatory obstacles, even though the government laments their widespread influence on Vietnamese people — more so than any organized religion.

Minority Religions in Vietnam

There are several small religions which developed domestically within Vietnam. Among the ethnic minority people, for example, there are many of folk religions that incorporate elements of animism or shamanism. In the cities of the South, two popular domestic religions are Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài, each representing ~1-2% of the population.

  • Cao Đài – This Vietnamese religion combines Eastern and Western religions under one spiritual pantheon. For example, they worship Confucius, Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, as well as many others. Even Victor Hugo is revered as a saint.
  • Hòa Hảo – An austere variant of Buddhism that shuns the elaborate rituals, statues and ostentatious temples of mainstream Buddhism, instead advocating for simple rituals at home. The religion incorporates a lot of other non-Buddhist spiritual practices like ancestor worship and some elements of Confucianism. The Hòa Hảo were one of the first groups to organize militarily against French and Japanese colonial masters, and later had clashes with the Việt Cộng.
Phu Quoc: the bizzare Cao Dai religion is interesting to see
Cao Dao temple in Phuc Quoc with multiple saints on arch, including Christ, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and more.

Exploitation by Fortune Tellers in Vietnam

Despite the efforts of the Vietnamese government to dissuade people from trusting fortune tellers, they have a tenacious and widespread influence on Vietnamese culture that is unmatched by any other organized religion.

While some future tellers can be superficial and harmless, such as instructing people where to hang household talismen, a lot of their advice is very consequential. For example, families have been known to allow or disallow marriages based on a fortune teller’s numerological calculations of the bride and groom’s birth-dates. They often “cure” peoples’ love-lives with magic rituals. Some tellers instruct young mothers when to induce labour in order that a child may have a lucky birthday. Other examples include massive real estate developments being made based on the advice from feng shui masters.

There is almost no segment of society nor sector of the economy that isn’t unduly influenced by self-professed fortune tellers. In modern days, they are proving adept at using social media to spread their fame and influence.

Learn more about our own experience with a fortune teller, which was actually very fun and eerily on-point.

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