According to Vietnam’s official statistics, in 2019, the religion with the largest number of followers in the country is Catholics with 5.9 million people. The number of followers of Buddhism is 4.6 million, ranking second. However, the numbers reported by this census contradict statistics from other state agencies, leading religious leaders and followers in Vietnam to question its accuracy.
The Giac Ngo Newspaper – a Buddhist media – reported that this news “shocked” some monks, and that some believers “burst into tears” when they heard the news. Many people naturally assumed that Vietnam would have more Buddhists than any other religious group.
However, over the years, followers, monks and as well as senior sangha officials in Vietnam, have gone from one disappointment to another because the number of Buddhists has fallen dramatically in state statistics.
The number of Buddhists in the 2009 Population and Housing Census was 6.8 million, a decrease of about 300,000 compared to 1999. Even so, Buddhism remained the religion with the largest number of followers in Vietnam.
The situation only changed with the 2019 census results.
In that year, the government announced that the number of Buddhists decreased by 30 percent compared to 2009. From 2019, Buddhism has lost its top position in the number of followers in Vietnam according to the State census.
Over the past 50 years, Vietnam’s general population increased, but the number of Buddhist followers decreased
Buddhism – a religion of about 2,000 years of development in Vietnam – now has only 4.6 million followers, accounting for about 4.78 percent of the total population.
Meanwhile, the number of people who claimed to be Buddhist in the Republic of Vietnam (which only consisted of the south of Vietnam and a portion of the center) in 1963 was 9 to 11 million, accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of the south’s total population as stated in the estimates that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compiled that year.
The current figure of 4.6 million Buddhists is also less than the number of followers identified by the CIA as active Buddhists in the Republic of Vietnam in 1974, which was about 5-6 million.
After 1975, the vibrant religious culture in the south suffered a period of “government watch” for more than 15 years. During that time period, major religions were restricted in their practices and the smaller religions were completely banned.
According to State Magazine, a research journal of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the first two censuses of 1979 and 1989, Vietnam did not record the number of religious followers.
By the early 1990s, Vietnam began to officially recognize the religions that were previously popular in the South but which were banned after 1975, such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhism. In 1999, the government started to keep statistics on the number of religious followers in the country.
Nevertheless, as more statistics were completed, it was observed that the number of Buddhist followers were reported as having fallen. Throughout the three censuses (in 1999, 2009, and 2019), the number of Buddhists decreased by 35 percent while the national population increased by about 26 percent
The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha refutes the state figures, but also does not publicize its own membership numbers
Looking back, in 2012, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam opined about the number of Buddhists in Vietnam after the 2009 census results were published.
Although Most Venerable Thich Bao Nghiem, vice chairman of the board of directors and head of the Board of the Dharma Preaching of the Central Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, acknowledged the 2009 census is quite “large, serious, and objective,” he also said at the time: “The statistical results …. about Buddhism are not accurate for many different reasons.” He explained that in Vietnam, apart from those who claim to follow other religions, the rest are really “followers of Buddhism, who love Buddhism and are influenced by Buddhism”. If one accepts Thich Bao Nghiem’s reasoning, then the number of followers of Buddhism in Vietnam could have been about 78 million in 2009 – which is the number we get when we subtract all people who declared themselves to have a different religion than Buddhism from the national population at that time.
However, in 2019, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha was again surprised when the State census stated that the number of Buddhist followers declined further and that Buddhism was no longer the religion with the most followers in Vietnam.
Despite this continuing disappointment, over the years, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – with nearly 40 years of operation and the only state-recognized Buddhist organization in the country – still has not published the number of its own followers. The only official figure for Buddhists in Vietnam comes from state statistics.
Meanwhile, other religions have tallied and announced the numbers of their own followers. For example, in 2018, the Vietnam Catholic Bishops’ Council announced that the whole country had about 7 million Catholics (Vietnam’s state statistics put the number at just about 5.86 million). Overseas branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism also stated that there were about 3 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2010 (state statistics in 2009 said just 1.3 million).
Figures for the number of Buddhist followers from other state agencies are also inconsistent
Unable or unwilling to declare the number of its own Buddhist believers, the Buddhist Sangha currently uses statistics from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.
Accordingly, the Sangha often uses the estimate given by Tran Thi Minh Nga that she used when she wrote an article in 2014 on the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Nga said that up to June 2010, Buddhism had had about 10 million followers in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the number of Buddhists in 2009 announced by the General Statistics Office was only 6.8 million.
Nga did not cite the data source that she mentioned in her article at that time. In 2014, she was the deputy director of the Buddhist Department of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Currently, she is serving as the deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.
In a report on religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019, the US Department of State also used data from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, which in January 2018 stated that about 14.9 percent of the total population was Buddhist. If applying this ratio to the total population in 2019, the number of Buddhists would have been about 14.3 million.
According to Associate Professor Hoang Thu Huong of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, the National University of Hanoi, Buddhist monks believe that Buddhists must include both 1) those believers who take refuge in the Three Jewels or Triple Gem (also known as the “Three Refuges”), and also 2) those who identify themselves as being influenced under Buddhism. Dr. Huong also said that because the criteria for inclined towards Buddhism could not be included in statistics survey questions, and that could be why the number of Buddhist followers differs among different state agencies.
However, during the period of the Republic of Vietnam, the CIA recorded both of these statistics, including active believers (possibly including the Three Refuges) and self-proclaimed and sympathetic Buddhists.
(*) Data sources for the chart listed above.
- Population in 1973: United Nations Report, page 163.
- Number of Catholics and Buddhists in 1974: CIA report, of which 5-6 million Buddhists are considered active believers.
- Total population, 1979 – 2009: Report of General Statistics Office.
- Number of Buddhists in 1999: Article of Associate Professor Dr. Hoang Thu Huong on State Magazine.
- Number of Catholics in 1997: Vietnam Cultural Foundation, Associate Professor Dr. Tran Ngoc Them, Education Publishing House.
- Total population, number of Buddhists and Catholics in 2009, 2019: General Statistics Office (Vietnam Population and Housing Census 2009, Vietnam Population and Housing Census 2019).
This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by Luu Ly.