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The Buddha SideGender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam$

Alexander Soucy

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780824835989

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824835989.001.0001

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Views of the Religious Landscape

Views of the Religious Landscape

(p.16) 1 Views of the Religious Landscape
The Buddha Side

Alexander Soucy

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a background of the Vietnamese religious landscape and different conceptions about how the supernatural relates to people’s lives. Starting off with descriptions of some of the ways that people approach religion and religious practice, the chapter illustrates the widely different interpretations of being religious in Vietnam. Buddhism cannot be understood through the philosophical content of religious texts. For most practicing Buddhists, what is identified as Buddhism represents only apart of a complex interaction with a supernatural world that is also populated by various other beings that have the power to help or hinder. The chapter ends with the opposing elite view of religion, and how it has played out in recent history.

Keywords:   Vietnamese religion, supernatural, religious practice, Buddhism, religious texts, elitist religion

For most people in Vietnam religion is lived rather than experienced intellectually. People pray to the buddhas, chant sutras, offer incense to gods, goddesses, or ancestors, and have their fortunes read without, for the most part, pondering the cosmological implications of their actions. Buddhism, as most people approach it, cannot be understood through the philosophical content of religious texts: most people who visit pagodas are unaware of the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy. They do not repeat a creed nor “belong” to a religion. This does not mean that in Vietnam there is one amorphous religion, followed uncritically by all. Rather, there are objectively different aspects, shapes, and contours to the religious expressions that are a part of everyday lives. There is something called “Buddhism,” with an institution, corpus of sacred writings, definable rituals, and recognizable religious specialists. At the same time, there are unities and ambiguities that make it artificial to talk about Buddhism divorced from the overall religious landscape. For most practicing Buddhists, what we identify as Buddhism represents only a part of a complex interaction with a supernatural world that is also populated by a variety of other beings that have the power to help or hinder.

The intention of this chapter is to provide descriptions of how the Vietnamese that I knew in Hanoi interact with the supernatural, highlighting the competing views about how to be religious. By introducing some of these people, I hope to show the fluid boundaries between different religious expressions. This will lead into a discussion of the popular view of the beings that populate the supernatural, the ranking that they are accorded, and the characteristics that people attribute to them. While the view I will describe is pervasive, it is politically marginalized by an “elite” view of religion, which also figures in the way that some people (principally men) engage in Buddhism. The chapter, accordingly, will end with a description of this opposing view of religion, and how it has played out in recent history.

Descriptions of the Landscape

In Vietnam today there are very few religious practices that are prescribed, with the exception of funerals and ancestor worship. People pick and choose the beliefs (p.17) and activities that make sense within the context of their own lives. For some, this lack of prescription results in almost total skepticism and avoidance, but religious activities and ideas play a role in the lives of most. The tremendous variance in beliefs and practices means that the supernatural is approached in a multitude of ways. This is especially the case in urban Hanoi, where village-based practices and imperatives are not as prominent, and where people are left to invent ways that religion will be a part of their lives. I first introduce you to four people that I have known in Hanoi. I have remained in contact with three of them since I first met them in 1997—“Mrs. Tu,” “Nhung,” and “Thầy Linh.” I have reinterviewed two as recently as 2010 regarding their religious practices. The fourth person, “Mrs. Thanh,” I knew for only a year, in 1997. These four individuals adequately illustrate the variety of ways that people are religious in Hanoi. With the exception of Thầy Linh, they all can be characterized as typical. Though the constellation of their beliefs and practices are idiosyncratic, between them they are also representative examples of the many ways that people approach the supernatural. Their lives bring out the fact that the large choice of possible sites and activities available to those who have a religious inclination makes interactions with the supernatural both personal and varied.

Mrs. Tu

Mrs. Tu, a religiously active woman in her late fifties when I first met her in 1997, has remained devout. She is a housewife, born in the late 1940s, who never received a high level of education, though her family can be described as middle class. She came from Hà Tây Province and grew up acutely affected by the struggle against French colonialism. Her father had a son and two daughters before his first wife died. He remarried and, with his second wife, conceived Mrs. Tu. When she was still a young child, her father was arrested and executed by the French as a suspected resistance fighter. After her husband’s death, and with no support from her husband’s family, Mrs. Tu’s mother left the village with her daughter, leaving her stepchildren in the care of their paternal family, and went to Hanoi, where she remarried and started a new family. She eventually had two sons and three more daughters. Mrs. Tu, therefore, lives in two families and takes active part in both as the sole offspring of parents who had all of their other children with other spouses. On her father’s death day—an important occasion for the commemoration of ancestors—she returns to the village of her father and pays respect to him inside the small pagoda near the place where he was shot. Then she joins with her half-brother and half-sisters to prepare offerings for her father’s altar and the feast for the gathered family.

(p.18) Although she grew up in Hanoi, raised by her mother and her stepfather, she follows tradition in considering the village where she was born—the village of her father—to be her native village. For this reason, she habitually returns to this village not only for the death anniversary of her father, but also for the village festival that centers on the village communal house, where offerings are made to the patron spirit and protector of the village.

The most notable feature about Mrs. Tu’s religious life is that she is a devout Buddhist. She chanted sutras regularly at the local pagoda and went to Quán Sứ Pagoda whenever she could in order to listen to dharma talks by well-known monks. When her mother’s health failed in 2008, she had to spend time taking care of her until her death in 2010. Now she is busy taking care of an infant grandchild. Nonetheless, while it is difficult for her to go to the pagoda to chant sutras with any regularity, she still chants every day in front of the large altar in her bedroom. She also subscribes to the Buddhist magazines Enlightenment Weekly Magazine (Tuần Báo Giác Ngộ) and The Research Journal of Buddhist Studies (Tạp Chí Nghiên Cứu Phật Học), though she seldom reads them. She adorns her house with Buddhist statues, calendars, pictures, and memorabilia from her Buddhist activities. In 2004, she started meditation with Sùng Phúc Thiền Tự, a center that had just been located in Gia Lâm, on the outskirts of Hanoi.1 At the same time, she is in contact with a Theravada monk in Ho Chi Minh City and regularly sends donations to him, though it is unclear to me whether she draws any difference between Theravada and Mahayana, as distinct traditions.2

She also goes on pilgrimages organized by the local pagoda association (hội phật tử) to famous religious sites in northern Vietnam, and sometimes farther.3 In the past few years she has gone to southern Vietnam several times, and once to China. I accompanied her in 1998 on a less ambitious pilgrimage that amply demonstrated the unclear boundaries between Buddhist and non-Buddhist sites and the way in which worship of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist figures is the norm. The bus took the pilgrims to a pagoda and a temple in Hà Tây Province and then to another non-Buddhist temple, Phủ Tây Hồ, in Hanoi on West Lake, before going to the One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi. Next stop was Hồ Chí Minh’s museum and mausoleum, and the stilt house he lived in behind the Presidential Palace.

The visits to the Hồ Chí Minh sites seemed at the time to have as much of a religious feeling as the visits to the temples and pagodas. Historical figures who have contributed to the country, such as General Trần Hưng Đạo and Bà Triệu, have always been venerated in Vietnam. Many of the women not only paid respect to Hồ Chí Minh’s embalmed corpse, but also held their hands together (p.19) in the manner of worship and whispered prayers in the same way they had at the altar of spirits and buddhas throughout the day.

The focus of Mrs. Tu’s total religious practice is usually oriented towards bringing immediate benefit for her and her family’s health, wealth, and happiness, as it is for most religious people in Vietnam. For example, I accompanied her in the autumn of 1997 to a temple in Gia Lâm dedicated to the goddess Ỷ Lan. Mrs. Tu made an elaborate offering of fruit, flowers, and incense, and, with the palm of her hands pressed together, told the goddess the name and addresses of both her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé. She then made wishes for their health, prosperity, happiness, and fertility. While she was there, she also paid a fortune-teller to determine the best time for the wedding.

Mrs. Tu is typical of many women her age in Hanoi. She is an extremely devout Buddhist, but her Buddhist practice is fully integrated into a wider spectrum of religious activities and beliefs. While her self-identity is first and foremost Buddhist, this does not preclude her from visiting non-Buddhist sites and praying to non-Buddhist deities, spirits, and ancestors. It also does not deny her the spiritual resources available for discerning the future and improving her fate and the fate of her family through the supernatural technologies of fortune-telling and geomancy.


Nhung was unhappily single when I first met her in 1997. She was a tailor, so was interested in fashion, and always took great care in the way she dressed. She enjoyed dancing at clubs, shopping, and spending time with friends. However, her single status was a concern for her, and for her family and friends. Young women in Vietnam are expected to be married before the age of thirty, and she was twenty-eight, with no prospects in sight.

Nhung responded to this situation in a number of ways. Her friends actively introduced her to eligible young bachelors. She made herself as attractive as possible and put herself in social situations where her displays of availability would promise maximum benefit. She also altered her behavior to appear less gregarious and more gentle. However, she also enlisted the aid of the supernatural to help her in her quest for a husband. Every month on the first and fifteenth (according to the lunar calendar) she would go to a pagoda or temple and make offerings and wishes to find a husband. Sometimes she went to Phủ Tây Hồ and made offerings to the mother goddesses there, because they have a reputation for granting wishes of this sort. She also would visit famous Buddhist sites in the provinces surrounding Hanoi and would ask for the buddhas to give her a husband. One time, in desperation, she consulted a fortune-teller, who told her that her problem was (p.20) that a ghost was attracted to her and the lingering ghost was driving away potential suitors. She underwent a ritual performed by a spirit medium, which was the spiritual equivalent of a divorce, freeing Nhung to meet with living men. Nhung was married in 2005 to an overseas Vietnamese living in Prague.

Nhung’s religious practice was very pragmatic. She was not particularly devout, and although she believed in the efficacy of praying for supernatural assistance, she did not make a distinction between the buddhas or other spirits when seeking assistance. In fact, the reputed potency of a particular supernatural figure was a more important consideration, and though she would pray to the buddhas, she did not view herself as Buddhist. Like Mrs. Tu, her religious practice was aimed at worldly concerns, but she did not have a family, so those concerns rested mainly with the immediate problem of finding a husband.

Mrs. Thanh

Mrs. Thanh was not a particularly religious woman, either. She was well educated and made a living as an interpreter, especially for international development organizations working on health issues. She had an ancestor altar in her house, and she sometimes went to pagodas on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month, but she did not take part in any group activities, such as chanting sutras. She was religious in the sense that she had a strong belief in the supernatural, however. This manifested itself primarily in a concern with ghosts, the afterlife, and psychic healing. She believed that the spirits of the dead were still active in her life and the life of her family—a belief shared by most Vietnamese.4 She kept an ancestor altar, which she kept filled with offerings of fresh fruit and flowers; the ceiling above the altar had a black spot from the smoke of the incense she lit daily.

Her brother had died in the 1950s, but in the turmoil of those times his grave had been lost. Out of concern for the fate of her brother’s spirit, she had been on a personal quest for a number of years to locate his remains. She was intensely concerned that her brother’s neglected spirit was hungry for lack of offerings and lonely for lack of attention. She agonized over the thought that her brother was suffering from neglect and that he had become a hungry ghost.5 With no way to find his remains, she turned to the supernatural with the help of spirit “callers.” However, the many different religious specialists she visited all failed to give her the location of the grave. In her desperation and faith, her determination had not waned and she continued to visit spirit callers in the hopes of finding her brother. Instead of the inability of the spirit callers to find his remains resulting in disillusionment and doubt over the techniques used, she merely judged some as fake and others as incompetent.

(p.21) I went with her once to see a spirit caller in her mid-forties who was holding a séance, or spirit calling (gọi hồn).6 We arrived at the door of an unassuming house in the southern part of Hanoi. The caller’s husband ushered us in, and we went up to a medium-sized room that was crowded with people who had come to contact their dead family members. An assistant took the details from Mrs. Thanh about the spirit she wanted to contact and we sat down in the crowd of expectant clients. The scene in the room was emotional, as one by one the clients were reunited with their dead relatives and spouses, channeled through the spirit caller. Conversations with the dead brought tears and provoked offers of comfort and support from those who sat closest. Each client’s interactions with their dead presented the crowd with intensely personal vignettes into the sufferings and sorrows of loss that are a part of the human condition.

The most heartbreaking episode came when a mother contacted her dead child. The possessed caller spoke in a childish voice, animating the crowd, most of whom were women, to call out playfully to the child. When the child’s spirit asked for candies, some were quickly produced. The scene eventually involved the entire crowd, who laughed when the child was playful and cried when the child expressed the horror of living alone in a land of ghosts.

Eventually Mrs. Thanh’s turn came, and we pushed our way through the crowd to the side of the caller, where we sat and waited. She briefly greeted Mrs. Thanh and then gathered herself. After a few moments she became possessed by the spirit of Mrs. Thanh’s brother, who wept while relating how he suffered from neglect. He described where he was in vague terms, but was unable to provide details that would aid in the search. Throughout the session the usually strong and stoic Mrs. Thanh cried openly while expressing how she loved and missed him and wanted to find him so that she could care for his soul. I sat near her, feeling slightly embarrassed and uncomfortable while taping the session, at her insistence. After the session, she felt better for communicating with her brother, but was skeptical about the caller’s ability and was determined to try another she had heard about.

As with Mrs. Tu and Nhung, Mrs. Thanh’s beliefs about the supernatural were not systematic, but she nonetheless held that there were forces at work in our lives. She believed strongly in the power of fortune-tellers—as do most people in Vietnam—and consulted them regularly to determine her fate and to help with major decisions. She believed in the importance of geomancy to ensure that the forces of the world work in her favor rather than against her. She also was interested in the potential of psychic healing and spoke to me often about one master that she particularly favored.

(p.22) For Mrs. Thanh, the Vietnamese landscape is populated with spirits of the dead, both strangers (ghosts) and family (ancestors) that actively affect the living. Her concern for her brother is representative of how people regard ghosts and ancestors as continuing to have reciprocal relations with the living. Her lack of involvement in most religious rituals at temples and pagodas is not unusual, but cannot be equated with disengagement or disenchantment with religion. Most people believe—and, more importantly, participate—in some aspects of the religious landscape.

Thây Linh

The most flamboyant monk I ever met, Thầy Linh, let his sideburns grow down the side of his face, extending from the stubble on his shaved head like a Buddhist Elvis. He wore jewelry if he was not going to meet other, higher-ranking, monks. On occasion he would smoke cigarettes, but more often he would chew betel nut—a habit usually reserved for elderly women—which colored his lips a bright red. He was known for having a sharp tongue and a propensity for cursing in the manner stereotypical of a market woman. He was effeminate, flamboyant, and (for a monk) ostentatious, drawing around him a sizeable following of devotees.

I first became acquainted with Thầy Linh on a two-day pilgrimage that was organized by his pagoda community and the community of Phúc Lộc Pagoda. He and Thầy Tâm, the resident nun at Phúc Lộc Pagoda, were good friends at the time. He proved to be an excellent trip leader, always full of good humor and adept at keeping the group entertained and informed. I later found out that Thầy Linh was also a spirit medium when Thầy Tâm arranged for him to perform a spirit possession ritual at Phúc Lộc Pagoda, explaining to me that, though it was not Buddhist, the pagoda had a shrine for the mother goddesses (nhà mẫu) that required service to the goddesses in the form of these rituals.

Thầy Linh was an accomplished bà đồng, exhibiting a high level of artistic skill in the dances and performances that are central to the rituals.7 As with mediums in the Korean medium rituals, described by Kendall (1985, 1996) and Kendall and Lee (1992), Thầy Linh was chosen by the spirits and so was compelled to fulfill this role. When he was a child, he became ill and his sickness persisted. His parents consulted a fortune-teller and were told that it was his fate to become a medium. As soon as he started apprenticing as a medium, his illness disappeared.

Thầy Linh’s story shows the ambiguity between different aspects of the religious landscape of Vietnam. Thầy Linh has achieved the equivalent of a master’s degree in Buddhist studies, and is bright, articulate, and charismatic. Although the government and the Buddhist institution do not approve of “superstitious (p.23) activities” life spirit mediumship, and believe that they are not a part of Buddhism, Thầy Linh does not see a contradiction in being both a monk and a medium. Instead, he feels that the two traditions are complementary and that both are essential. Many Buddhists share the opinion of Thầy Linh in describing the mother goddesses as being complementary to the buddhas, and actively supplicate both as part of their total religious practice.

Specialists, Locations, and Practices

As the above examples show, being religious in Hanoi is varied and multifaceted, leading different people to practice differently. It is mainly their particular concerns that drive them towards one or another form of religious activity and religious space. The way that religion is most often expressed is contextual, through the particularities of specialists, locations, and practices. Thus people speak of having their fortunes read to find the correct date to get married, or become a medium because of a “heavy spirit root” (nạng căn), but few would connect these activities and expound in a precise way on the nature of fate (số phận) or how it works.

The various activities are usually conducted at specific locations and involve specific specialists, and people usually describe their practices through reference to these. Ancestor worship, for example, is performed primarily by the family at the home altar or at family graves without the help of specialists, other than those needed for siting graves and conducting Buddhist mortuary rites for those who have a stronger affinity with Buddhism. Buddhas are worshipped at pagodas (chùa), while spirits are worshipped at temples (đền), palaces (phủ), or shrines (miếu). Individual supplication is the most common interaction with spirits and buddhas, though specific specialists conduct more important rituals at these locations (see Table 1.1).

There are, therefore, a variety of related specialists, locations, and practices active in the Vietnamese religious landscape. However, those who are religious do not usually refer to the groupings of specialists, locations, and practices as separate religions or declare themselves as belonging to a particular religion. Instead, people speak of specific specialists, locations, and practices that play a role in their lives. While specific activities are understood as serving defined purposes, they are nonetheless seen as being part of a whole, like features of a landscape. Thus, Mrs. Tu, though a self-proclaimed and actively practicing Buddhist, did not hesitate to make offerings at locations she fully recognized as non-Buddhist. Likewise, Thầy Linh saw no contradiction between Buddhist practice and the practice (p.24)

Table 1.1 Religious Activities, Locations, and Specialists




Worship and make personal offerings (to a variety of supernatural beings)

Any altar, but especially at pagodas and temples

Non-specialist, individuals

Worship the Buddha or buddhas (lễ Phật)

Pagoda (chùa)

monastic or lay leader (nhà sư)

Make official (annual) sacri-fices (tế lễ)

Communal house (đình)

Ceremonial master (ông tế) and the community

Fortune-telling (xem bói)

Anywhere (but often the fortune-teller’s home or on the temple or pagoda grounds)

Fortune-teller (thầy bói)

Feng-shui (phong thủy)

Home, office, grave

Feng-shui master (no specific term)

Spirit possession ritual (lên đồng, hầu bóng)

Temples, shrines, and “pal-aces” (variously called đền, phủ, điện, miếu…)

Spirit medium (bà/ông đồng)

Ghost calling or séance (gọi hồn)

shrine (điện) (usually con-structed in the home of the channeler)

Channeler (no specific term)

Ancestor worship

Home or grave


A variety of Buddhist and non-Buddhist rituals (such as making offerings to hun-gry ghosts to clear the way for a ritual)

Any religious site, usually before rituals

Ritual specialist (thầy cúng) or ritual group (ban cúng)

Writing petitions to the gods (sớ), or talismans (bùa)

Usually at the entrance of non-Buddhist religious sites

Scribe (ông thầy)



Physician (thầy thuốc) or psychic healer (nhà truyền cảm)

Note: This table does not encompass all Vietnamese religious expressions. For instance, it does not incorporate Catholics or agnostics, nor the state-cult, which centers on the figure of Hồ Chí Minh and other national heroes.

(p.25) of spirit mediumship. Instead, he described the supernatural landscape in a way that included everything. There is a unity to the way that the supernatural world, populated by gods, ghosts, ancestors, and buddhas, is conceived as being a potent force in people’s lives. Furthermore, these supernatural entities can be propitiated, through placation, flattery, and gifts, to bring material and soteriological benefit, and to avoid the negative aspects of their supernatural nature. This potency is personalized, so that offerings are most often made to gain support in the worldly affairs of the supplicant. Nonetheless, these beings are not uniform, and are commonly divided into two “sides” in popular speech. Elite discourses, which issue from the state, the academy, and the Buddhist institution, do draw a distinction, though, labeling the former as legitimate, orthodox religion (chính đạo) and an acceptable belief (tín ngưỡng), and the latter as heterodox (tả đạo) and as superstition (mê tín di đoan).

The Buddha Side and the Spirit Side

As with Thầy Linh, the most common description that people make of the supernatural landscape draws a distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist “sides” (bên). The two sides have similarities, in that they are both populated by powerful beings that are regarded as supernatural patrons that can be supplicated with gifts and service, and through invocations of their names for material benefit and protection. Nonetheless, the beings that populate these two sides are not identical, having particular characteristics and proclivities to fulfill specific kinds of requests.

The “Buddha side” (bên phật) includes primarily the buddhas (phật) and bodhisattvas (bồ tát). The Buddhist saints or arhats (la hán), usually thought of as followers of the historical Buddha, also are included in the Buddha side. They are honored but do not receive specific prayers, though I was told that these saints or arhats are also buddhas. In the antechambers of most pagodas can be found a pair of martial statues of the dharma guardians (hộ pháp) who protect pagodas from evil spirits and are also included in the Buddha side. They, as one nun described them to me, are “the Buddha’s people” (người của Phật). The Ten Kings of Hell (Diêm Vương) are usually associated with Buddhism in Vietnam, and are traditionally responsible for judging souls for punishment in hell before being reborn. I have also been told that they can be included in the Buddha side (bên phật) because they “teach people in hell.”

Buddhas and bodhisattvas are believed to intervene in the everyday world, and, like the spirits of the spirit side (bên thánh), can aid people with their mundane (p.26) concerns. Furthermore, there is a sense in which the buddhas and bodhisattvas are seen as having specializations. Foremost among these specialized members of the Buddhist pantheon is the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Quan Âm (Ch. Guanyin).8 She has mercy on those who suffer in this world and is frequently represented as having a thousand eyes and a thousand hands, symbolizing her ability to see our suffering and offer her aid to us. People pray to her for safety, especially those who are at sea. She is also viewed as a figure who will help to conceive children (particularly boys). This ability to aid in conception is especially evident at the Perfume Pagoda in Hà Tây Province, which is dedicated to Quan Âm and renowned for its fertility-granting power. Sometimes she is thought to save souls from hell, though the bodhisattva Địa Tạng (Dizang) is more usually regarded as the bodhisattva specifically dedicated to saving souls that are tormented in hell; he made a vow not to achieve enlightenment until all the hells are emptied. He is frequently seen in pagodas in Vietnam, often to the left of the main altar, wearing a crown and holding a staff that he uses to force open the gates of hell. Once a month at Phúc Lộc Pagoda a sutra is recited for the Medicine Buddha, Dược Sư Phật (Yaoshi Fo), who is seen as particularly potent for curing illness. A Di Đà Phật (Amituo Fo) is also particularly important in the Buddhist pantheon as the central focus of Pure Land Buddhist practice. He has made an oath that anyone who recites his name in faith will be reborn in his Pure Land (Cực Lạc in Vietnamese), a paradise from which enlightenment is guaranteed.

The Buddha side is unique in that it can have the soteriological and eschatological effects of aiding with reincarnation, teaching souls in hell, and thereby incrementally assisting towards eventual enlightenment. A Di Đà Phật can even assist people to bypass hell and rebirth completely if they recite his name. In this sense, the efficacy of buddhas and bodhisattvas is seen as overriding the cause-and-effect nature of karma, which holds that a person’s actions will inevitably result in punishment or reward after death and in the next life. It is in relation to death that Buddhism and the Buddhist pantheon principally distinguish them-selves, though they are also supplicated for material, this-worldly requests.

The “spirit side” (bên thánh) refers specifically to gods and goddesses that lie outside the Buddhist pantheon, including immortals or fairies (tiên), holy sages or saints (thánh) such as the deified hero Trần Hưng Đạo, spirits or genii (thần), the complex of mother goddesses (thánh mẫu), God or Heaven (Ông Trơi), the Earth God (Ông Địa), the Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng), and other figures associated with the Chinese Daoist pantheon (e.g., the Kitchen God—Ông Táo) (see Table 1.2). I have even been told that Hồ Chí Minh can be included on the spirit side, though in the following account from a nun he is eventually elevated to the (p.27)

Table 1.2 The Buddha Side (Bên Phật) / The Spirit Side (Bên Thánh)

The Buddha Side

The Spirit Side

buddhas (phật)

holy sages or saints (thánh)

bodhisattvas (bồ tát)

court installed spirits (thần)

Buddhist saints (arhats, la hán)*

immortals (tiên)

Ten Kings of Hell (Diêm Vương)*

mother goddesses (thánh mẫu)

Dharma guardians (Hộ Pháp)*

Earth God (Ông Địa)

Jade Emperor (Ngọc Hoàng)

God (Ông Trơi)

The Kitchen God (Ông Táo)

ancestors (tổ tiên)

(*) These figures are revered but not propitiated to the same extent as the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Although they are especially associated with Buddhism, they have many of the qualities of the spirits.

Views of the Religious Landscape

Portrait of Hồ Chí Minh with portraits of other divinities, for sale on a Hanoi street

(p.28) level of a buddha or bodhisattva, illustrating that the boundaries between the two sides can be somewhat flexible:

All of the Vietnamese people pay respect to him. He is a spirit [thánh]. Some families make an altar for him and others keep him in their hearts … if they make a wish to him, they make a wish for the country, praying for the country’s liberty, peace, for there to be no more foreign invasions and for the north and the south to be peaceful and get along with each other. They also pray to him for everyone to have plenty of food and warm houses. Hồ Chí Minh is perfect. He points out the direction for us. He is also a buddha and he attained complete enlightenment [giác ngộ hoàn toàn]. When he died there was nothing left—he was completely rid of greed, anger and ignorance [bỏ hết tham sân si], same as the Buddha. He became a bodhisattva, like Quan Âm.

(Interview with Thầy Tâm, April 2010, Hanoi.)

Ancestors are not usually included in the division, but they display much the same characteristics, and when questioned about ancestors people will usually say that they belong in the same order as the spirit side. Ancestors have the same dual nature of being both beneficial but potentially punishing, and they eat meat and drink alcohol. The difference is that ancestors are directly related to a particular family, whereas deified heroes such as the Hùng Kings, Trần Hưng Đạo, or even Hồ Chí Minh are considered ancestors of the nation rather than of a particular family.

An essential difference that separates the spirit side from the Buddha side in the eyes of my informants is that the interactions of the gods and goddesses with humans is entirely centered on this world, whereas the buddhas and bodhisattvas, who can also help with the common material issues of this world, are specialists in aiding with the consequences of death and rebirth, as well as with spiritual progress. Thus, when people recite Buddhist sutras, most feel that such recitation will have some effect after they die. When they are supplicated by people on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month, the buddhas are usually approached for things like, in the words of one informant, “peace and health and good for all mankind.” On the other hand, the spirits are also approached for issues related to material wealth, and often are approached with requests that are more specific, such as help in examinations, in business, finding a husband, or a cure for illness. One woman in her thirties at Phúc Lộc Pagoda described the objective of her supplications: “I wish for good luck with my clothing sales at the market.” The Buddhist (p.29) pantheon was considered by many of my informants to be above such requests for material benefit, especially when it is obtained by enterprises that involve lying and cheating. The buddhas and bodhisattvas remain somewhat distant, with the possible exception of Quan Âm, who embodies all of the positive but none of the negative attributes of the spirit side.9

Another distinguishing feature is that the supernatural beings that populate the spirit side are more dangerous and fickle. The spirits are just as likely to cause problems as they are to help if they feel that they are not properly cared for, or if they believe that they have been insulted. For instance, I was told near the beginning of my research not to point at a statue because the god would get angry and curse me with bad fortune. One nun stressed to me that the spirits punish—something that people never associate with the Buddhist pantheon: “The buddhas will forgive you if you do something wrong and show you how to be a better person, but the spirits will destroy you.” Their capricious nature was demonstrated for me once when I went to a séance. At one point in the afternoon’s activities the spirit caller, at this point possessed by the main goddess who granted the caller’s powers, started to scream at a woman. The story of this woman was then related to me by one of participants of the spirit calling who was nearby:

That woman has problems because she and her husband didn’t obey the spirit. Before she came to see the spirit caller she was deaf, dumb, blind, and paralyzed. After nearly four years of attending the spirit here she was getting better, but then the goddess [through the caller] asked them to devote themselves more fully. They were supposed to be at the service of the goddess for a period of 100 days, but they didn’t complete their service. Now, because she and her husband stopped their service prematurely, the woman has been struck blind again. They have today returned to resume their service, but the spirit is very angry at her.

The way in which mediums and spirit callers are chosen by the gods betrays the gods’ fickle nature. As in the case of Thầy Linh, mediums become aware that they are called to serve the spirits by experiencing unexplained illness or insanity. Refusing to answer the call will result in the medium’s condition worsening.10

Buddhas and bodhisattvas are more compassionate than spirits by nature and never punish. Instead, the moral repercussions of karmic cause and effect inevitably lead to causal consequences rather than to direct punishment at the hands of the buddhas. On the other hand, spirits are more likely to punish for neglect than for moral shortcomings of the supplicant. For this reason, goddesses (p.30) such as the Lady of the Storehouse (Bà Chúa Kho) and the Lady of the Realm (Bà Chúa Xứ) are more likely to be approached by business people, merchants, and petty traders (P. Taylor 2004), whose activities are prone to involving a measure of dishonesty.

The motivations of the two sides are also described differently. The buddhas and bodhisattvas are asked for help, and help is given out of their innate goodness. The spirits, however, are approached in the same manner as human relations. That is, there is always an element of reciprocity associated with the interaction. It can be implied, as in the case of mother goddesses helping those who serve them. It can also be overt, as in the case of people who have to repay “loans” (in spirit money) from the Lady of the Storehouse at the end of the year. However, as with human relations, failure to reciprocate can damage relationships and bring about bad feelings on the part of the spirits, the consequences of which can be dire. Therefore, requests to the spirits are also mostly amoral, in that they are not attached to any requirements of moral rectitude on the part of the supplicant in order for the wish to be fulfilled.

Indicative of the ambiguous nature of the spirits is the line that can be drawn between ancestors and ghosts as two aspects of the same supernatural entity.11 Someone who dies before his or her time, by unnatural causes, or without heirs to make offerings, will become a hungry ghost, wandering the Earth and making trouble for the living. Ghosts will never help, but if propitiated, one may get by without the ghosts causing trouble. Although people say that ancestors theoretically can help, it is most often their malevolent and vengeful aspects that people are trying to assuage. Special rites are performed not only out of filial piety, but also because ancestors make demands and pose a real threat. In extreme cases, ancestors may require their graves to be relocated. These responses are in reaction to negative circumstances in people’s lives, which may be attributed to unhappy ancestors. One family I knew experienced difficulties that were attributed to dissatisfied ancestors. The parents were often fighting physically, one of the daughters was sick, and another was having problems with her husband, who had not come home for three weeks. They went to see a fortune-teller who used betel nuts and leaves to divine the source of the problem. It turned out to be the result of an ancestor who wanted to have a special ritual performed for him. After the ritual was performed, the family’s problems seemed to diminish. The possibilities of beneficial or destructive behavior on the part of the dead underlines the ambivalent nature that is inherent in the spirits, whereas this ambiguity is entirely absent from the Buddha side.

Importantly, though, my informants see both the Buddhist and non-Buddhist (p.31) sides as essential to the whole, while recognizing differences between the two sides. The following explanation, given to me by an old woman when I asked whether it was important to worship the buddhas as well as the gods, clearly illustrates this holistic understanding: “Both [sides are important]. You have to follow the Buddha as well as the mother goddesses. Firstly, the Buddha is higher, and after that the various goddesses are on a lower level. In other words, regarding religion, God [Ông Trơi] is highest, after that the Buddha, and then the other [buddhas and spirits] … Like that. It isn’t only the Buddha alone, nor is it only the mother goddesses.”

Neither “side” is regarded as being irrelevant or dispensable, and this is explicitly recognized in the architecture and statuary of pagodas in northern Vietnam. The most common architectural arrangement has the main shrine in front, and contains the statues of the Buddhist pantheon and sometimes non-Buddhist deities. In a separate building or room, usually situated behind the main shrine, is the shrine for mother goddesses that holds statues of deities associated with their cult. People who come to make offerings at pagodas in Hanoi usually first offer to the buddhas, then go to the other altars to offer incense and money to the spirits. They are seen as being complementary and both have to be addressed for a pagoda visit to be considered complete.

Divisions were made between the two sides, based primarily on the different practices, locations, and religious specialists involved, but at the same time, the various aspects were seen as complementary. For this reason, all but the most doctrinal of Buddhists felt it necessary to worship both the buddhas and the spirits. Nonetheless, these were ranked, with the buddhas usually seen as being more important, if not necessarily more useful, than spirits.

Elite Views of Religion

While the conceptualization of the supernatural outlined above is overwhelmingly the most common view and the one most often described by my informants, there is also an elite view of religion that is very different. The principal proponents of this view are the state, the academy, and the Buddhist institution represented by the state-controlled Vietnamese Buddhist Association. The elite view was also supported by a number of people in Vietnamese society, most notably by men, whose views reflected those put forward by the masculine institutions.12 Although there are exceptions, the discourses of religion fall along gender lines, with religious practices and views that are associated with men having authority, and those associated with women marginalized.

(p.32) When religion is acknowledged by those who uphold the elite view, and in instances when religious practice is enacted by them, what constitutes legitimate “religion” is phrased in a fundamentally different way. Instead of stressing people’s connection with a potent supernatural force that can provide material assistance and benefit by engaging in reciprocal relationships, or harm if demands are not fulfilled and precautions taken, the elite view stresses an inert force that needs to be acknowledged, but that lacks potency. In 2010, on the ritual day for the Hùng Kings (the founding dynasty of the Vietnamese people), President Nguyễn Minh Triết made televised offerings in front of the altar to the Hùng Kings. Then, at a dais facing the altar, rather than facing the crowds of high-ranking attendees, he made the following speech:

In front of the spirits of our Hùng Kings, we, your descendants, with all of our sincere reverence, solemnly show our gratitude to our ancestors who founded and built the Văn Lang country, an independent and sovereign country of ancient Vietnam. At this holy moment, we sincerely and reverently remember and are grateful to our ancestors, our source, past generations of our grandfathers and fathers. We are grateful to President Hồ Chí Minh, all of the veterans and heroic mothers, martyrs and all of the families who contributed to the revolution, all of the remarkable people, and to everyone and all of the heroic soldiers who fought with stamina and a sense of purpose for independence, freedom and for the country and the happiness of the Vietnamese … In front of their spirit we wish [i.e., hope] for peace for our people and for other people in the world to live in peace and to continue to develop.13

In this way, the “elite” view stresses honoring and commemorating rather than supplicating for divine favor. Legitimacy is given to world religions, while local practices and beliefs tend to be devalued. The select practices in which the state figures currently choose to participate—primarily commemoration of national heroes—draw on Confucian ideas of correct rituals of remembrance, while denying the possibility of supernatural efficacy.

This view of religion is not new, but has its roots in elite biases against popular religion that has existed historically in China and Vietnam. In imperial China, orthodoxy was defined as “structures of value that valorize order and legitimate existing social institutions and authority” (Sangren 1987, 76). Although orthodoxy incorporated this understanding in Vietnam, the complex relationship that Vietnam had with China and Chinese culture also was important in establishing (p.33) discourses of legitimacy. Vietnam benefitted from its privileged cultural contact with China relative to its Southeast Asian neighbors, and Chinese cultural products were therefore given a prominent place.14 In Vietnam, cultural products of China were given a legitimacy that was particularly upheld by the literati, who identified themselves as following the way of the scholars (Nho Giáo, i.e., Confucianism). They relegated Vietnamese indigenous knowledge to a lower status and often were highly critical and even derisive of “the superstitious nature of peasant religion” (Ho Tai 1987, 113). Examples of this discrimination include a bias towards Chinese medical systems over indigenous knowledge (Marr 1987), and the rhetorical predilection towards Zen Buddhism (C. T. Nguyen, 1995, 1997).

Orthodoxy in Vietnam became specifically associated with the elite formulation of three religious traditions of China. This concept of three distinct traditions is called tam đạo or tam giáo, derived from the Chinese san jiao. It literally means three paths or three religions, and refers to Confucianism (Đạo Không or Không Giáo), Daoism (Đạo Lão or Đạo Giáo), and Buddhism (Đạo Phật or Phật Giáo).15 In China, san jiao is a term that is firmly grounded in the textual tradition that stands at the core of Chinese elite culture. It is therefore a view that privileges the elite orthodox view of religion, while discounting the less textual “folk” practices that are prone to be labeled as heterodox.16

Elite biases against popular religious views and towards the Three Traditions of China were further reinforced by Western discourses of religion. The Western academic approach to religion in Asia attempted to define clear traditions based on textual understandings. Scholars such as Leopold Cadière consequently grappled with the gap between Buddhist textual discourses and on-the-ground practices, concluding that there were few “real Buddhists” in Vietnam (Cadière 1958, 5–6).

In the colonial period, critiques by male Vietnamese urban elites were directed against religious excesses and focused especially on village ritual—where approximately 10 to 15 percent of household budgets were given over for such purposes (Malarney 1993, 281). These polemics seem primarily motivated by the question of how Vietnam was taken over so easily by the French, how the Vietnamese could modernize society so as to eventually gain independence (Marr 1981, 344–346), and how they assumed a largely Western secular view.

When the Communists consolidated power in northern Vietnam, they carried with them the elite view of popular religion as socially destabilizing and outside the boundaries of what had been defined as “religion.” This view was further fuelled by the Marxist discourse against religion. Aspects of religious practice that the state felt posed a potential threat were curtailed. Communal houses, for example, (p.34) that had housed the local tutelary deity and were the seat of the village power structure, were dismantled and desacrilized (Malarney 1993, 2002). During the post-1954 period, the discourse focused on “superstitious” beliefs and practices as being reactionary or antirevolutionary. The effervescent, but diffused, popular religious cults and practices were strictly curtailed (Choi 2007, 103–104; Larsson and Endres 2006, 152–154; Malarney 2002, 80–85; P. Taylor 2007, 13). The practices specifically banned as superstitious were those in which women were mostly engaged, including séances, spirit possession rituals, the burning of votive objects and spirit money, the use of protective amulets, divination, and fortunetelling (Malarney 2002, 81).17

The institutionalized religions—Buddhism and Christianity—were officially recognized as legitimate, though significant pressure was brought to bear on them as well. Fearing Communist repression, many Catholics fled to the south after the 1954 partition of Vietnam along the 17th parallel. Vatican authority was not recognized, and a new government-controlled organization took control of the Catholic Church in Vietnam. The Catholic Solidarity Committee fell under the purview of the umbrella organization that controlled all associations and societies (the Fatherland Front; Ramsay 2007, 384–387). Similarly, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association was eventually formed to impose control over Buddhists and Buddhist ideology.

Vietnam underwent a series of drastic reforms in the late 1980s, opening itself to the world and moving from a state-run to a market-driven economy in a process called the Renovation (Đổi Mới). At the same time, some social restrictions were eased. Although legal shifts have been minimal, there was an on-the-ground relaxation of enforcement that amounted to tacit permission for the resumption of religious practices of all kinds, and this has contributed to the effervescence of religious activity. Since then, ancestor altars, which some of my informants said they had hidden during less-permissive years, have been reinstated in prominent places in most homes. Other nonsanctioned religious activities, such as spirit possession rituals and séances, also have become popular again. Devotee traffic at pagodas has increased significantly, and donations are driving the renovation of old pagodas and the construction of new ones. Throughout the Hanoi area, there are large-scale reconstruction projects on Buddhist pagodas and other religious sites.

Despite the religious resurgence, there is a continued bias against popular religious practices and ideas. The “three religions” still hold some currency among scholars in Vietnam, though this explanation of the religious landscape is not commonly encountered in popular discourse.18 Furthermore, there is a persistent (p.35) legitimacy given to religions that came from China (Daoism, Confucianism, and Mahayana Buddhism), giving them the designation of religions (tôn giáo), rather than some other label. Anything that falls outside the parameters of these world religions is termed popular belief (tín ngưỡng), tradition (truyền thống), or custom (phong tục), all of which are still acceptable. The idea of some religious expressions being heterodox and unacceptable, however, is maintained through the labeling of certain practices as superstitions (mê tín di đoan).19

The prevailing attitude now is that there are some religious expressions that hold value for society, especially those that are useful for fostering patriotism (Endres 1998, 6). These religious expressions include the cults of Hai Bà Trưng and Trần Hưng Đạo, national heroes who fought against the Chinese (Phạm Qùynh Phương 2006, 50–51, 2007); the veneration of the war dead (Jellema 2007, 61; Malarney 2001, 2002, chap. 6); and ancestor worship and village rituals (Choi 2007, 91; Malarney 2002, chap. 7).20

Thus, the “elite” view tends to deny the popular understanding that sees the supernatural as consisting of powerful forces, and instead gives legitimacy to textual traditions, especially favoring the so-called world religions. The prejudice against popular religious practices has a long history and is persistent, being successively adopted by Confucian officials, Vietnamese reformers, Marxist revolutionaries, and bureaucrats; and by the post-Renovation state, academy, and Buddhist institutions.


The religious landscape of Vietnam is sprawling, with a vast and rich profusion of life, as Cadière famously described in 1958. There are numerous religious expressions that have been transmitted from elsewhere and absorbed into the Vietnamese view of the supernatural. Without effective systems of authoritative control, the view of the supernatural remains relatively unsystematized. Nonetheless, both popular and elite understandings exist side by side. Furthermore, the view of the latter is, with some historical exceptions, not so much imposed on those who hold the popular view as it is used by the elite to create distinctions.

The popular view sees the supernatural as potent and omnipresent. The supernatural can assist in the vagaries of life, but also can cause great misfortune if not dealt with carefully. Furthermore, the supernatural is not uniform, but is inhabited by different kinds of beings that are ranked and that have different characteristics and roles. The primary distinction is drawn between the Buddha side and the spirit side; the popular view sees these two sides as being complementary (p.36) rather than exclusive. Thus, at the popular level people see no contradiction in chanting sutras in front of the Buddhist altar and then making offerings to the mother goddesses. This popular view is pervasive and is held by the majority of practitioners, who are women. The “elite” view, on the other hand, is expressed mostly in print and in media, is upheld by the institutions of power in Vietnam, and is tacitly supported by men. The supernatural, in this view, lacks both potency and imminence.

The different ways that the supernatural realm is conceptualized in Vietnam has important implications for identity, personal and political legitimation, the exercise of state power, and gender hegemony. The distinctions between these views are also crucial for understanding the choices people make regarding their participation in certain religious activities and the significance that regular and elite practitioners attribute to their choices. It is not mere coincidence that religious practices in which most women are engaged have been labeled as “superstition,” consistently targeted for ridicule by the press, or that women have nonetheless continued to follow these practices under the threat of institutionalized violence.21 Many of the Buddhist practices and perceptions—and all of the religious actors—that will be discussed in this book have been deeply and continually affected by the discourses surrounding religion.


(1.) The center is organizationally under the leadership of Thích Thanh Từ, who is headquartered in Đà Lạt in the south, and the abbot (from Huế) is one of his close monastic disciples. See Soucy (2007).

(2.) Theravada is the tradition mostly practiced in South and Southeast Asia, whereas Mahayana is practiced in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Most Theravadins in Vietnam are ethnic Khmer. The two traditions hold in common the central teachings of the Buddha, but their view of the historical Buddha is radically different. Theravada Buddhism regards the Buddha as a man who discovered the truth of existence and leads us to our own eventual discoveries solely through example. Mahayana Buddhism, by contrast, sees the Buddha as both a historical figure and a cosmic emanation. In the Mahayana tradition, the (p.207) historical Buddha is only one of many buddhas and bodhisattvas who have the capacity to assist people in their spiritual quests and with other difficulties experienced on Earth and in other realms. It is unusual for people to follow both, though adherents to either would offer respect to monks of the other.

(3.) I have rendered hội phật tử as “pagoda association,” rather than as the more literal “Buddhist association” because of the association’s unofficial status and relationship to a particular pagoda. In the literature, it also seems to be commonly called the Elderly Women’s Buddhist Association (hội chư bà), reflecting the character of most of the participants (Lế Thi 1998, 82; Luong 1992, 58, 1993, 271; Malarney 1999, 196). I have never heard the groups referred to by this term in Hanoi, however, and informants I spoke with were puzzled when I asked about it.

(4.) The belief in ghosts in Vietnam has recently been the topic of two books: Ghosts of War in Vietnam (Heonik Kwon [2008]) and War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam (Mai Lan Gustafsson [2009]), and two documentary films: Psychic Vietnam (Phua 2006) and Wandering Ghosts (Lojkine 2005). All of these works deal especially with the concern for ghosts that resulted from lost remains because of the war. In addition, Nash and Nguyen have written about the belief in ghosts by Catholic overseas Vietnamese in New Orleans (1995, Ch. 7).

(5.) Hungry ghosts (ma đói) are spirits that were potentially someone’s ancestors, but for one reason or another have been neglected, and have literally become hungry, marauding beings. They are sentenced to roam the Earth in a near-permanent state of starvation. Before most important rites, whether Buddhist or otherwise, an offering is made to hungry ghosts so that they will not interfere with the proceedings.

(6.) To the best of my knowledge there is no specific term for a spirit caller. People speak about attending a séance or “spirit calling,” and address the spirit caller as “teacher.”

(7.) The literal meaning of “” and “ông” are “grandmother” and “grandfather,” respectively, but they are also used as respectful pronouns. In the case of Thầy Linh, who was in his early thirties, the pronoun “ông” was used out of respect for him as a monk rather than because of age when he was not in the context of spirit mediumship, but his followers addressed him as (grandmother) when in his role as a medium, indicating his ambivalent gender identity, especially when engaged in mediumship. Barley Norton (2006, 55–75) deals with sexuality and mediumship.

(8.) Her full name in Vietnamese is Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát, but she is often referred to as Lady Buddha (Phật Bà).

(9.) Sangren (1983) suggests that Guanyin’s power arises from the fact that she is not associated with aspects of women that are threatening to Taiwanese traditional kinship structure (e.g., wives and daughters-in-law who might try to split brothers in order to increase their share of property). Sangren’s argument is also compelling in the Vietnamese context with Quan Âm.

(10.) The process by which mediums are called to service by experiencing illness or insanity (p.208) is also described by Endres (2006, 80, 83); Fjelstad (2006, 97–99); and Fjelstad and Maiffret (2006, 112–116).

(11.) Arthur Wolf has written a substantial essay on the close connections between ghosts and ancestors in the context of Taiwan. His overall observations regarding the ambivalent and contextual nature in which spirits of the dead are regarded largely hold true for Vietnam as well (A. Wolf 1978, 146).

(12.) The masculine nature of the state, the academy, and the Buddhist institution are so overwhelming that they need not be elaborated at length here. However, it can be substantiated by a few facts: (1) Only 10 percent of people in Communist Party Committees are women, and women have never held the top government positions of either prime minister or president (Vuong Thi Hanh and Doan Thuy Dung 2007, 3). At the provincial, district, and city levels the number of women representatives rarely exceeded 20 percent during the period 1985 to 1999 (Lê Thị Nhâm Tuyết 2002, 205; United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific [UNESCAP] n.d., 9). (2) Women hold only 37.6 percent of university-level teaching positions (National Committee for the Advancement of Women in Viet Nam [NCFAW] 2006, 56). (3) Although there are no statistics on women in Buddhism, all notable figures reported in Buddhist magazines are men, as are all leaders in the Vietnamese Buddhist Association.

(13.) My translation, from TV broadcast.

(14.) Among the more significant borrowings that gave Vietnam a relative advantage were the adoption of paper money and wood-block printing techniques in the fourteenth century that “gave Vietnamese a lead of about four centuries over their Southeast Asian neighbors in such matters as the organization and storage of political and scientific information” (Woodside 1988, 25).

(15.) There are several terms for Confucianism. I think that the traditional term is Nho Giao and the others might be relatively recent inventions that have emerged with the Western notion of “religion” and “world religions.”

(16.) Hue-Tam Ho Tai points out that the state or Confucian concern with orthodoxy is partly due to the idiom of rebellion taking a religious form (Ho Tai 1987, 134). Li Tana shows that a hybrid official religion was integral to the Nguyễn establishment of authority in southern Vietnam, though it could hardly be called Confucian. Instead, and as opposed to the more Confucian north, the religious ideology of the south relied much more on Mahayana Buddhism (Li Tana 1998, 102–103) than it did in the north. Woodside also points out that tensions existed between state orthodoxy and local beliefs to a greater extent in Vietnam than they did in China (1971, 228).

(17.) See also Fjelstad and Nguyen (2006a) for a number of accounts of spirit possession rituals being practiced during the pre-Renovation period. Phạm Qùynh Phương (2006, 49), in particular, describes how one male medium of Saint Trần kept his shrine and continued to perform possession rituals privately after the land reforms of the 1950s, despite his brother being arrested and having to undergo reeducation for owning a shrine.

(p.209) (18.) Trần Ngọc Thếm’s (1997) overview of Vietnamese culture, for example, implicitly follows the scheme by devoting a chapter each to Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, while all other aspects of Vietnamese religion are covered in a chapter entitled “beliefs.” Thanh Huyên writes in “An Overview of Beliefs and Religions in Vietnam,” “Probably only Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism can be counted among organized religions” (1996, 12). He dismisses Confucianism from being included because he insists it is more of an ethic than a religion.

(19.) Fjelstad and Nguyen (2006b) note, “Practice of the [spirit medium] ritual is still not officially allowed. State instructions on cultural and religious activities consider len dong spirit possession as a ‘social evil,’ and a list of condemned superstitious practices released by the Ministry of Culture and Information in 1998 states that astrology, horoscopy, ghost calling, spirit petitioning, making amulets, performing exorcism, and magical healing are superstitious practices. This ban was supported by a 2003 resolution that ‘strictly forbids using religion and belief to carry out superstition’” (p. 15). The “Ordinance of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly NO. 21/2004/PL-UBTVQH11 OF 18 JUNE 2004 Regarding Religious Belief and Religious Organizations” continues to state that it is illegal to “spread superstitious practices” (Standing Committee of the National Assembly [SCNAC] 2004, Chapter 1, Article 8, Clause 2). However, it is not made clear what activities are considered superstitious, other than the following found in Chapter 1, Article 3, Clause 1: “Activities which arise from religious beliefs [hoạt động tín ngưỡng] manifest themselves as ancestor worship [tôn thờ tổ tiên]; memorializing and honoring those who have rendered great services to the country and the collective; the worship of saints and deities [thần, thánh], traditional symbols and other folk beliefs and activities [hoạt động tín ngưỡng dân gian] that inspire responsibility towards valuable historical, cultural, moral and social values” (SCNAC 2004). The 2006 Law on Information Technology, under Article 12, “Prohibited Acts,” includes, “Exciting [sic] violence, propagating wars of aggression; sowing hatred among nations and peoples, exciting obscene, depravation [sic], crime, social evils or superstition; undermining the nation’s fine traditions and customs” [my emphasis] (National Assembly, Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2006).

(20.) As the essays in The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam illustrate, the manipulation of symbols has been broad-ranging, and is not just limited to religion (Ho Tai 2001). For example, art (N. Taylor 2001), cinema (Bradley 2001) and tourism (Kennedy and Williams 2001) have also been subject to this process, as has traditional culture and religion.

(21.) By institutionalized violence, I am referring to the threat of arrest and punishment that was most manifest during the pre-Renovation period. Nonetheless, while the threat of state violence and its institutions of enforcement (i.e., the police and army) are often hidden, the possibility of their employment is always present. This is true not just of Vietnam, but of all states. While in Vietnam there has been increasing lenience towards religious practice since the Renovation, in recent years, there is still some trepidation that control can be reinstated at the whim of forces well beyond the control of those engage in marginalized practices, such as spirit mediumship. These concerns are perhaps intentionally perpetuated by continuing the lack of legal clarity and unevenness in the way that the law is prosecuted.