Vietnam: Spiritual nation & geopolitical realities

CUTLINE: The man in the foreground is about to burn incense as an offering in a temple in the Cholon District of Saigon that dates back to the 18th century. After a person’s death, relatives go to the temple or pagoda for 30 days to burn incense in honor of the deceased. The wire cones above the altar symbolizes that the incense is trapped in the heavens. In the background you can see some of the reddish-colored shrines; Buddhist temples usually have three shrines –or one is of Buddha, the other two frequently relate to either noted religious figures or to the temple’s founder. (Jerry Wadian photo)



Vietnam:  Spiritual nation & geopolitical realities

By Jerry Wadian
Contributing Writer

This last column on my journey to Vietnam focuses on two areas of concern raised by people with whom I have talked: religion and Vietnam’s relationships with other countries.

Let me start with geopolitical realities.

Vietnam is allied with Russia and mainland China. However, as with much of Vietnam, not all is as it seems.

Ho Chi Minh was a great admirer of the United States democracy, even if he did not agree with its economic policies. He lived in the U.S., advocating for his country  for several years. Unfortunately, no one would listen and he turned elsewhere. I still suspect if we had recognized his government, as Harry Truman wanted to do in 1945, and made a deal for tractors and other aid, there would not have been a Vietnam War. However, we were allied with France and dragged into a quagmire. 

China, being a bordering state, was an obvious ally for supplying aid. However, China and Vietnam are not friends historically. China has twice conquered Vietnam, staying once for 1000 years! Each time the Viets ultimately drove out the invaders by force of arms. 

After the war with the U.S. was over, the Viets helped overthrow Cambodia’s Communist regime of Pol Pot (the man who slaughtered millions of his own people) for a more moderate form of Communism. In retaliation, China, who backed Pot, invaded Vietnam with an army of 200,000. China “voluntarily withdrew” after 17 days –  after suffering a casualty rate of over 10 percent.

Throughout the Indochina wars against France and the U.S., Vietnam also used Russia as an ally, so the Viets would not be solely reliant on the Chinese with whom they have frequently been at war.

In fact, the Viets still protest the Chinese occupation over 50 years ago of islands in the Bay of Tonkin that are claimed by Vietnam.

A few weeks before professor Don McComb and I left for Vietnam,  a Chinese gunboat sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in an ongoing  dispute over territorial claims (i.e., fishing and offshore oil rights – if and when oil is found). The Viets are retaliating by buying more Russian jet fighters and a submarine (things we don’t see on network news).

So Chinese influence on Vietnam’s culture, is more a result of 1000 years of occupation than tenuous political alliances.

One major aspect of Vietnamese culture is religion. While the government is Communist and therefore atheistic, it allows people to practice religion openly. 

In terms of religion, Vietnam is once again not what it seems. Polls show that only 20 percent of Viets term themselves “religious.”

However, I found that the Vietnamese people are deeply spiritual. 

The Catholic countries of Portugal and France were the first Western nations to settle in Vietnam; Catholicism still claims about 9 percent of the people, mostly in the south.

The Cham culture (Polynesians from Indonesia and Malaysia that ruled Central Vietnam for centuries), brought the Hindu faith to Vietnam. There are many Cham still living in Vietnam who are now either Hindu or Muslim.

If you ask most Viets, they say they are Buddhists. There are two major types of Buddhism, and the Viets practice both. 

However, it is not a form of Buddhism that Buddha would recognize. 

There are any number of influences  on the Viets’ version of Buddhism. The indigenous hill tribes lend a major dose of animism (a belief in spirits in people and various inanimate objects), and ancestor worship.

Obviously there is a strong Chinese influence in the forms of Confucianism and the Taoism of Lao-Tse (neither is really an organized religion, but a way to live life). 

The Viets combine the teachings of Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tse into what they call Tam Giao (triple religion), as their brand of Buddhism. It is almost as if Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tse got together and tried to decide what religion they would like to start.

It is not church on Sunday, but McComb and I were in temples dating back to the 18th century that are still in use today. Vietnamese  come to the temples anytime, day or night, to burn incense as offerings, honor their ancestors, and find inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. On the whole, Viets visit temples and pagodas more often than the average Christian goes to church in America.  

During my first trip to Vietnam in 1969-70, I was able to visit some small, rural  temples and talk with the Buddhists monks. I was most impressed because I found them very kind and gentle with a strong sense of inner peace. 

It was hard to hate the  Viets in 1969-70, despite the fact that so many were trying to kill me because I saw many of the same characteristics of the monks in the ordinary Vietnamese people that I met. Of course I also realized that I was also almost killed by Thais, Aussies and Americans and I had no reason to hate them. 

The traits I saw in my first trip seem to remain today, and I think much of it is due to the spiritualism of the Tam Giao.

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