Buddhism In Vietnam

Sounds around the World Series

Today I want to give a brief overview of the two main Buddhist schools in Vietnam. Because of  its history, the country knows two main directions: Mahayana and Theravada. Several smaller sects of Buddhism can be found, too. These have split from the main directions even as late as the 20th century.
What all have in common with other Buddhist traditions is the strong colouring of local habits and rituals, whcih can be seen and heard in the rich cultural heritage.

Lăng Ông Bà Chiều in Ho Chi Minh City


Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism (lit.: Greater Vehicle) is characterised by the idea that all beings have a Buddha-nature and should (and can) aspire to Buddha hood (the original Buddha is basically only one of many Buddhas). Arriving in Vietnam it travelled from India via the north route through Asia: Nepal, Tibet and China, as well as Korea and Mongolia. On its way to Vietnam, all countries left their traces on the believe. China—also because of its political role in Vietnam’s history—had the strongest influence.

Mahayana Buddhism represents the biggest community in the country. It has gone through several changes not only considering the historical context of Buddhist tradition, but especially in regards to its translations: from Sanskrit into Chinese into Vietnamese.

However, the Vietnamese translation is for the most part some form of phonetical Vietnamese, substituting the original Sanskrit texts. Through these translations each translator had a chance to leave a trace as well. Particularly Chinese scholars have left society their believes and religious convictions  of Taoism and Confucianism in the translations, which can be found all over pagodas in Vietnam.

The most distinguished difference to other Buddhist traditions in South-East Asia might be the use of devotional rituals in place of meditation practices in order to reach a pure and joyful state of mind and the escape from the eternal cycle of rebirths.


Mahayana pagoda outside Mahayana pagoda inside
Evening prayer

Other Philosophical Influences

As mentioned, Buddhism in Vietnam knows many local influences. Taoism and Confucianism were introduced into the ruling class of Vietnam almost two millennia ago by the Chinese. It still exerts a strong influence, which becomes obvious in everyday life in the ways people are addressed (e.g. the language discriminates in regard to age and “status”) or when taking a look at the hierarchical order within society or a family.

Family order in Confucianism melts with the belief in animism. The result can be found in regularly performed rituals for ancestors: deceased family members up to two generations into the past are prayed for and worshipped.

Local traditions have their input in form of ancestor and hero worshipping, too, and then add a belief in ghosts and spirits(1), as well as traces of animism—the historical first belief system in Vietnam—to Vietnam’s typical flair.

Further proof of the influence of local habits in pagodas is literally seen when taking a closer look at the highly sophisticated wooden carvings and ornaments. The ornaments show predominantly the four magical animals dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix(2), who —similar to Greek gods in western mythology—represent certain human attributes and values.


wooden ornaments-1 ooden ornaments-2
wooden ornaments-1 wooden ornaments-2


Of course, many more signs of the long journey the religion has taken and the following merging with Vietnamese customs can be found everywhere. Other examples might be the ways ceremonies are held, or the particular way saints and honoured (deceased) masters are integrated in the worshipping and prayers. however, the most striking example –at least for a foreigner– might still be found in the cemeteries.



Close relatives pray for the deceased soul to find its way either to the interim life or directly to the new one in front of a little altar (mieu) which is found in every Buddhist home.  Of course praying for the departed can also be done with help of a monk in a private or even public ceremony in the pagoda.

Urnes in Giac Vien pagoda

The ashes are generally kept in an urn together with a picture of the deceased. The urned is stored at home or in the pagoda, depending if the one who has passed away still has some relatives who will pray for him. In cases without living relatives the monks in the pagoda take over their role and include the deceased in their prayers.

Ancestor worshipping results in another unusual sight: in rural areas ornamented tombs in middle of a rice field or the land owned by the family of the deceased can be seen everywhere. To the eyes of a Westerner the  choice for burial places can feel peculiar at times.

Cần Giổ Tra Vinh province

Incense Burning

Vietnamese live with the solar as well as the moon calendar. Another regular ritual related to the latter is the burning of paper or “fake money” around full moon in front of shops or houses.

ritual around full moon

While shop owners pray for good business, the ritual itself is meant to cleanse and bring good fortune. At the same time it is also attempting to satisfy and lead “hungry” ghosts and spirits who have not found their way to the next life yet back onto the right path.


Theravada Buddhism


Theravada pagoda

Crossing one of the huge arms of the Mekong river from Ben Tre province by ferry, visitors reach the shores of Tra Vinh province and  find themselves in a quite different world.

The scenery has radically changed into a rural area, dominated by farming and huge rice fields with a pace somewhat more quiet and definitely slower. Pushing further into the peninsula (and getting closer to the city Tra Vinh), first signs of a culture deviating from the Viet can be seen around every corner.

But with a different culture also comes a different form of Buddhism. In Tra Vinh province Theravada Buddhism (little vehicle, or literally ‘Teaching of the Elders’) is popular. It can only be found in the deeper parts of the Mekong Delta and is practiced by the somewhat smaller “Khmer Krom” community. Mahayana Buddhism for example is found all over Vietnam with the Viet as main practitioners.

Having taken the route via the south of Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Cambodia), Theravada Buddhism distinguishes itself radically from the Chinese influenced pagodas in style and look.


 Theravada style-1 Theravada entrance-1
Theravada pagoda (1) Theravada pagoda entrance (1)
xxx-2 Theravada entrance-2
Theravada style (2) Theravada entrance (2)
Theravada style-3 Theravada entrance-3
Theravada style (3) Theravada entrance (3)

Community and Schools

Theravada Buddhism derives from the Pali canons and still focuses on the old, relatively conservative teachings of the first epoch of Buddhism believing that Gautama is the only Buddha and that only a few are able to reach Nirvana.  Still, every member of the community is supposed to spend some time in the pagoda as a monk. The period of time spent there varies and can last a few months up to a few years, depending on the personal wishes of the practitioner.


spending some time in school


The writings in Khmer are still on thin, wooden plates, and bound together at its ends. Another difference to Mahayana Buddhism is that each of the about 141 temple complexes of the Theravada Buddhism in Tra Vinh province includes a school building. During their stay, the laymen and monks use this opportunity to get to learn Khmer and study their own culture.


I hope to have given a condensed and brief overview over the two forms of Buddhism in Vietnam, including  some of the observations I have come across during my last stay.

Next to wikipedia and of course other sources, The Navi Department Library published an informative and thorough listing with explanations about the various religions found in Vietnam.


Have you been travelling in those areas? Let me now what your experience is in the comment section below!




1 Animism belief holds that each person has a spirit, which continues to exist even after the death of the body. Because the spirit lives on in an independent existence, it must be cared for and provided with its needs and desires. Unattended spirits may become angry, bitter or revengeful and seek to re-enter the earthly life, which would create havoc in numerous ways.
2 The translations for unicorn and phoenix are more of an approximate. If compared with the terms as used outside of Asia, these animals carry a different (mystical) meaning concerning their looks and attributes.


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