Communist China had a "Cultural Revolution" in the 1960s and 1970s that eviscerated the native religious culture. Vietnam, although Communist, never went through a similar ordeal. Consequently, the country enjoys an impressively diverse collection of religions.

The primary religion in Vietnam is a fusion of Buddhism, Confucian thought, and local religious practices. When queried, most adults answer that they are Buddhist; the younger generation are generally non-commital. But Buddhism's dominance in the country was clear, as temples and pagodas were everywhere.

Outside the Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi. Inside the Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi. Pagoda in Saigon. Buddhist Statue.

Buddhist Temple in Saigon.

Buddhism can be broken into three regional denominations: Theravada (Way of the Elders), Mahayana (Salvation Vehicle), and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle). Theravada is the most conservative of the two and originated in Sri Lanka, where it spread to Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. Mahayana is a more altruistic and spiritual Buddhism that originated in Tibet, from where it spread into China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Vajrayana is Tibetan Buddhism, directly related to Mahayama and which focuses on harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing powerful states of concentration and awareness. Vietnam is sandwiched between the two regions, but its temples all appeared to be of the Mahayana denomination, evidence of the country's historical ties to China.

Vietnam is about 9% Catholic, second in Asia only to the Philippines. There are also several Protestant churches, including Vietnamese Evangelical, but most churches were French Catholic and had the names and architecture to prove it.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. The interior of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Tan Dinh Church ("Pink Church") in Saigon. Church in Sapa.

The churches we did see were vibrant centers of worship. This enormous church in Hue was packed with thousands of paritioners on a Sunday evening service. It was also one of the tallest buildings in Vietnam's third largest city.

Church in Hue.


The Saigon Mosque said that long sleeves and long pants were required to enter. The weather was warm and we were wearing shorts and t-shirts, but an elderly man nonetheless invited us inside with a greeting of "Bonjour!" and showed us around. About 1-2% of Vietnam is Muslim, and we also saw mosques in Hue and Hanoi.

Mosque in Saigon.


Caodaism is a religion indigenous to Vietnam and barely a century old. The founder, Ngo Minh Chieu, borrowed from Buddhism, Christianity, and other philosophical traditions from the East and the West. Pilgrims were everywhere, and while the religion may be obscure, those who do follow the faith take it very seriously.

Cao Dai Grand Temple in Tay Ninh.


Last but not least is Hinduism, a minority of minorities. Apparently the only site of Hindu worship in the country is this temple in Saigon, built by the miniscule Hindu Tamil population of less than 100 worshippers.

Hindu Temple in Saigon.

My final observation: strings of flags to the tops of holy structures were common, regardless of the faith. Compare the picture below of the Perfume Pagoda (outside Hanoi) to the Sapa Church above.

Regular commenter and Vietnam veteran Lirelou weighs in on the Hindu and Islamic sites:

The Cham people, who inhabited Central Vietnam until their defeat in 1471, and after began drifting away (the last group left Nha Trang in the 1820s) were originally organized into Hindu city states named for regions of India. In the 15th Century, many Cham began converting to Islam. Groups of Cham still live in Vietnam, notably in Phan Thiet, Phan Rang, and up towards Tay Ninh. There is an active mosque in Phan Thiet. Cham women can be noted by the fact that they wear long, wrap-around skirts instead of the ubiquitous pants. A small group of Vietnamese Cham still practice Hinduism, and occasionally conduct ceremonies at the Po Ngar tower in Nha Trang. There was a small but vibrant Indian community in Vietnam prior to 1975, mostly engaged in the textiles trade. Many left after 1975. Indian merchants could be fouhnd in such out of the way places at Pleiku and An Khe. As expected, that community included both Muslims and Hindues. I suspect that the Saigon temple was built by Indians rather than Cham.

On to the next entry...

AUDIO TRACK: The bell of a Buddhist Temple along the Perfume River in Hue.

c. 2006