The Curious Case of Tibetan Buddhism in Vietnam and Its Dance with Government Authority

Unusual exceptions are given to foreign Buddhist sects, while Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village (Lang Mai) is still outlawed in Vietnam.

The Curious Case of Tibetan Buddhism in Vietnam and Its Dance with Government Authority
Graphic Cover: Luat Khoa Magazine.

From the end of March 2023, tourists visiting Don Duong District, Lam Dong Province, which is over 40 kilometers away from the center of Da Lat, were greeted by an extraordinary spiritual architectural complex characterized by a remarkably unique design.

This Buddhist spiritual and cultural venue is called Samten Hills Dalat, which spans the distance of three hills, covering an area of ​​about 500 hectares. [1]

This complex holds the world record for having the largest Prayer Wheel – a sacred object in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – in the world, which is coated in gold and weighs about 200 tons. [2]

Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, is not a widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Vietnam. Despite this, it now has a vast spiritual center in Lam Dong Province.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government has not given Plum Village – a world-famous Buddhist sect founded by Vietnamese Buddhist monks – permission to operate officially in the country. Vietnamese followers of the Plum Village tradition must travel to other countries like the United States, France, and Thailand for spiritual practice.

In addition, the government also does not recognize the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which was established before 1975. Since the establishment of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha in 1981, monks from this religious sect have been imprisoned, repressed, and unable to freely practice their faith.

The preferential treatment given to Samten Hills and other Tantric Buddhist meditation centers – religious complexes infused with foreign Buddhist values – warrants further exploration and understanding.

A Venue for Spiritual Tourism, not for Religious Practice?

According to Tibetan Buddhism, samten refers to the state of "body and mind merging as one” that is reached through meditation. Samten Hills Dalat is recognized as the forefront cultural and spiritual center of Vajrayana Buddhism in Vietnam.

One of the founders and operators of Samten Hills Dalat is Nguyen Thu Ngoc, who represents Kim Phat Production Trade Company Ltd. She is also a representative of the VPMilk brand, which has a milk production factory located around two kilometers from Samten Hills. [3]

Recently, she told the press that Samten Hills should not be referred to as a pagoda because it is not a place for religious activities and beliefs but rather a "spiritual and cultural tourism site.” [4]

The Samten Hills website advertises there will be restaurants, coffee shops, and luxury resorts consisting of private houses and villas for visitors to experience spirituality on the beautiful hills. The site will also feature Buddhist works that display the architectural complexes of Tibetan Buddhism, such as the Butter Lamp House, the Dharma Protector House, and the Tibetan Buddhist Heritage Gallery. [5]

It appears that Samten Hills does not want to be identified as a venue for religious worship, such as other spiritual sites, Bai Dinh and Tam Chuc. This deliberate approach enables the venue to maintain independence and autonomy, avoiding reliance on the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as dodging the strict religious control imposed by the Vietnamese government.

However, the question arises: Is Samten Hills merely a humble spiritual tourism site?

The Rapid Spread of Tibetan Buddhism

Samten Hills Dalat is a religious center in Vietnam that does not fall under the leadership of Buddhist monks. Regardless, its operators skillfully integrated its sacredness into its opening ceremony. During the official opening day, many Tibetan monks took center stage, leading the sacred rituals of the inauguration ceremony.

According to the state-run Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper, the construction of Samten Hills is the aspiration of the venerable Drubwang Sonam Jofel, the leader of the Drigung Kagyu tradition, to "promote the flow of Vajrayana Buddhism in Vietnam.” [6]

As part of the opening ceremony rites, Samten Hills organized a series of religious events, such as the Puja prayer ceremony, Chakrasamvara worship ceremony, Drigung Phowa and Amitayus Abhisheka ceremony, Dzambala Abhisheka ceremony, and the Tara Abhisheka ceremony, which were all led by Tibetan monks. [7]

The Drigung Kagyu Buddhist tradition is one of the eight small branches of the Kagyu sect. The Kagyu sect is one of the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It differs from the Gelug sect led by the Dalai Lama. [8]

In recent years, some individuals who have great financial means or political influence have attempted to spread Vajrayana teachings in Vietnam. Even the operator and founder of Samten Hills, Nguyen Thu Ngoc, is also a devoted follower of Vajrayana.

In 2020, a Drigung Kagyu meditation center was constructed in the Phu My Hung urban area, District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, with the same name: Samten. This place regularly holds Vajrayana rituals led by Drigung Kagyu monks. [9]

According to current regulations on religious management in Vietnam, all religious activities must occur at religious establishments licensed by the state. However, the meditation center in the Phu My Hung urban area is not considered a religious establishment.

The operating agency of this tradition, the Drigung Kagyud Rinchen Palri Society, based in Nepal, announced that this meditation center was an independent establishment; their announcement did not mention the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. [10]

According to the Drigung Kagyu official website, they have eight meditation centers in Vietnam located in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province, and Hai Phong; Samten Hills Dalat is the ninth. Vietnam currently has the second-highest number of meditation centers under this tradition in Asia. [11]

Samten Hills is not just a tourist destination but also reflects the efforts to spread Tantric Buddhism in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, 14 years ago in Lam Dong Province, members of Plum Village were forced out of a pagoda belonging to the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. The practitioners had to meditate outdoors without any shelter. Eventually, Plum Village ceased all operations in Vietnam. This incident is believed to have been influenced by the Vietnamese government. Even after the passing of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, Plum Village has not been allowed to operate publicly in the country. [12]

The Anomaly of Samten Hills and Tibetan Buddhism in Vietnam’s System of Religious Control

A month after the inauguration ceremony, the  Ministry of Home Affairs and the Committee for Religious Affairs requested Lam Dong provincial authorities explain granting Samten Hills Dalat permission to operate. [13]

This action illustrates the Vietnamese government's concern when this religious center attracted a lot of public attention. The situation of Samten Hills contrasts with the state’s strict control of religion.

The government continues to maintain its position of preserving stability in religious affairs; the Vietnamese state does not want the religious situation in the country to change.

Religious groups with foreign elements are heavily suppressed in Vietnam. For instance, in the case of the Korean-founded World Mission Society Church of God, even though many of its followers exercise their faith privately in small towns and villages, they still face staunch oppression from state authorities.

The situation surrounding Samten Hills Dalat may create a new precedent that challenges the state's management of Buddhism. Traditionally, the Vietnamese government grants control of all Buddhist activities to the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. To operate legally in the country, other Buddhist sects must join this organization; Samten Hills goes against this established norm.

Tibetan monks, who are not members of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, can publicly participate in religious activities and conduct religious rituals for thousands of people in Vietnam.

Kim Phat Production Trade Company Limited is a big investor in the Samten Hills project. Initially, this company requested land from the government to safeguard forests, raise cows, build dairy processing plants, and offer tourist visits to these locations. They did not mention the goal of constructing a spiritual tourism site; this was added sometime later. [14]

There is nothing wrong with the Samten Hills model and the spread of Tantric Buddhism. Even the licensing process for Samten Hills complies with local and national laws, as announced by the parties involved.

Nevertheless, the presence of the Drigung Kagyu tradition in Vietnam will further deepen discrimination between foreign and domestic religions.

Nowadays, authorities punish anyone who builds pagodas without the blessing of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. They must also comply with other legal regulations related to the construction and licensing of religious establishments.

At present, the teachings of Plum Village are practiced in secret and cannot be made public. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam also faces incredible difficulties in organizing religious activities because its leaders are constantly monitored by the state.

The construction of Samten Hills and the preaching of Tantric Buddhism from the Drikung Kagyu tradition are unusual exceptions to the established order in Vietnam; Tibetan monks are also free to enter the country and publicly organize independent Buddhist activities. These events have led to speculation regarding whether or not a powerful government faction is covertly giving support to the group.

This article was written in Vietnamese and previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on May 8, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.


1. Trao chứng nhận “Không gian văn hóa tâm linh” tại Samten Hills Dalat. (2023, March 7). Báo Tuổi Trẻ.

2. P.Q. (2023, March 16). Những điều chưa biết về Đại Bảo tháp Kinh Luân tại Samten Hills Dalat. Tuổi Trẻ Online.

3. 0303539369 - CÔNG TY TNHH SẢN XUẤT-THƯƠNG MẠI KIM PHÁT. (n.d.). Ma so Thue.

4. Chủ đầu tư Samten Hills Dalat lên tiếng trước những ồn ào dư luận. (2023, April 20). Báo Pháp Luật.


6. Khánh thành Không gian văn hóa Tâm Linh Phật giáo Kim Cương thừa ở Lâm Đồng. (2023, March 7). Báo Lao Động.

7. Chuỗi sự kiện Khánh thành Không gian văn hóa tâm linh - trái tim của Samten Hills Dalat. (2023, March 13). Drigung Kagyu Samten Ling Vietnam.

8. The Kagyu Lineage. (n.d.). Kagyu.

9. Khai trương trung tâm thiền định Drigung Kagyud Ling. (2020, September 8).

10. See [8].

11. World Wide Center. (n.d.). Drigung Kagyu.

12. Cuộc đời thiền sư Thích Nhất Hạnh. (2022, January 22). Luật Khoa.

13. Làm rõ hoạt động dự án Samten Hills Dalat có bảo tháp dát vàng lớn nhất thế giới. (2023, March 31). Báo Người Lao Động.

14. Thêm thông tin về hoạt động của dự án Samten Hills Dalat. (2023, April 7). Đời Sống Pháp Luật.

15. Nguyen, L. (2023). The increasing presence of Vajrayana lineages in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Magazine.

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