Cultural Metamorphosis: The Journey of Superstition to National Identity in Post-War Vietnam - Part 1

Cultural Metamorphosis: The Journey of Superstition to National Identity in Post-War Vietnam - Part 1

Tran Phuong wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 26, 2020. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.

At about 8 p.m. on September 2019, deep within a narrow alley on Giang Vo Street in Hanoi, 57-year-old Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh was preparing for the “lên đồng” ritual. This ritual is practiced in Vietnamese folk religion, involving followers becoming mediums for various spirits. The ritual occurred in the Lady of the Storehouse Temple, which also served as the government-established “cultural house” for that ward.

Inside this small yet splendid temple, Oanh sat in front of a mirror, with bronze shelves on both sides, where small statues simulating the figures of kings and goddesses were placed.

In front of the shrine, slightly to the right, was a wooden altar dedicated to President Ho Chi Minh, sitting on a tall wooden podium. The altar was accompanied by a sign stating that the temple was sponsored by the government.

Over 25 years ago, Oanh became a disciple in the temple, hoping to have a child. At the time, she was 31 years old, and despite exhausting all possible means, she remained childless. Furthermore, she believed she had the gift of becoming a spirit medium because whenever she visited someone's home where someone had died, she would connect with the dead soul, enter a trance, and speak about that person's family. After about seven years of temple worship, she had her first daughter, and she attributed this miracle to the blessings of the deities.
Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh transformed into the Lady of the Storehouse. The ritual lasted for about two hours. Photo: Luat Khoa magazine.

As worship singers sang ceremonial songs in harmony, four women around Oanh finished dressing in elaborate costumes, each corresponding to a different goddess or lord who would possess them during the entire performance.

After a few minutes of swaying and trance-like movements, as their headscarves were lowered, Oanh began lively dances, and the atmosphere became festive yet filled with reverence, enveloping the temple. This was the moment when the "saints" had "arrived" and "entered" the mediums. Those in attendance received sweets, money, or tokens as blessings from each deity.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh was perhaps one of the first openly permitted soul mediums in Vietnam.

Before that, when the communist regime officially took control of the north in 1954, Mother Goddess worship or mediumship was entirely prohibited and labeled as “superstition” or the “vestiges of the feudal regime.” To avoid being arrested by the police, soul mediums had to operate in secret, as noted in Claire Chauvet's research. [1]
Female mediums practiced fortune telling at Ghenh Temple, Hanoi, 1953. Photo: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient.

Chauvet cites research by Vu Ngoc Khanh, who stated that Mother Goddess worship shrines were expropriated and repurposed as state offices or public buildings at that time. For example, the Bac Le Shrine in Lang Son, dedicated to the Princess of the Forest, became the headquarters of the People's Committee and a school. It was not until 1995 that the festival at the Phu Day Temple, dedicated to Princess Lieu Hanh, was officially restored. [1]

The extremist wave of religious and belief cleansing infiltrated the south when the Vietnamese Communists overthrew the Saigon regime.

Religious Beliefs in Southern Vietnam Before the Fall of Saigon

The culturally diverse region of Southern Vietnam had a multi-belief society with many ethnicities coexisting. In addition to traditional religions, two relatively new religions in the south were Hoa Hao Buddhism and Caodaism.

During the era of President Ngo Dinh Diem, the government attempted to assimilate the indigenous people of the Central Highlands through Christianity, ethnic education, and a "settled farming" policy aimed at rapidly urbanizing the Central Highlands and other rural areas [2].

Excluding Catholicism, religions such as Buddhism and religions operating in rural areas, such as Caodaism and Hoa Hao Buddhism, faced low evaluations and had to withstand government oppression [2].

In 1962, the Ngo Dinh Diem government even passed a law to eliminate spiritualism, the supernatural, and activities deemed "superstitious." [3]

Over time, urbanization policies eroded community traditions in rural areas and gradually deteriorated traditional folk beliefs.

According to Professor Philip Taylor, under the Republic of Vietnam regime, despite the dominance of urbanization, the traditional religious beliefs of South Vietnam remained vibrant and flourishing.

Many temples and shrines were rebuilt and renovated. Heroes and patriotic martyrs were highly revered to stimulate anti-Communist sentiment as Communism was encroaching upon the South [3].

Numerous graves and shrines of historical figures, such as Le Van Duyet, Tran Hung Dao, Truong Dinh, and Nguyen Trung Truc, received support from politicians and government agencies at all levels for spiritual activities [3].
A woman burning incense in a temple in Cho Lon, Saigon on Lunar New Year in 1962. The photo was taken on Feb. 6, 1970. Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS.

Pilgrimages to sacred sites like the Ba Chua Xu Temple in Chau Doc City and the Ba Den Pagoda in Tay Ninh Province were not considered superstitious, and the government ensured the safety of the people on these pilgrimage routes [4].

Taylor notes that until the 1960s, when the Viet Cong spread fear through attacks in rural areas of South Vietnam, both on land and water routes, the number of pilgrims to remote temples began to decline. For example, to reach the Ba Den Pagoda in Tay Ninh, pilgrims had to pass through a fearsome Viet Cong guerrilla stronghold in Cu Chi [4].

In March 1973, with hopes for peace following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the Saigon government hired two Hong Kong companies to launch advertising campaigns to promote tourism and foreign investment in the south.

“South Vietnam has the potential once again to become a major tourist area in Asia,” a representative of one of the hired companies told The Tampa Times in July 1973.

However, that dream never materialized as the Communists arrived; no tourism, investment, or temples were permitted to operate.
Girls engaging in fortune-telling in Vung Tau, 1967. Photo: Bruce Tremellen.

Religions and Beliefs in Southern Vietnam Under the Viet Cong Regime

In May 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the Coconut Monk began raising his voice after years of vowing to remain silent until peace arrived, according to United Press International (UPI).

"The Catholics and the Buddhists must show that they are together before we can say there is peace,” he told UPI reporters when he sat beneath a painting of Jesus and the Buddha draping their arms around each other.

"I may go to Hanoi now,” he said. "I am waiting for Nguyen Huu Tho to come here and make the arrangements." At that time, Nguyen Huu Tho was the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the Advisory Council Chairman of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam.

Immediately after taking over South Vietnam, the region’s religious and spiritual activities became a foreign pest in the eyes of the northern Communists.

Spiritual activities that were already popular in the South, including worship rituals, customs, and festivals, were all considered "superstitious," "backwards," and "negative," affecting progress toward socialism. [5]

Like in the north, according to John Kleinen, Communists prohibited worship rituals, the practice of magic, feng shui consultation, physiognomic advisory, and mediumship in the south [6]. John Kleinen is a well-known anthropologist and historian specializing in Southeast Asian studies, particularly focusing on Vietnam.

Buddhism and Catholicism were tightly controlled, while Hoa Hao Buddhism and Caodaism were eradicated.

The Coconut Monk was also not allowed to practice his religion. According to the Phap Luat newspaper, he was arrested for trying to escape across the border and was not released until 1985.

Places of worship, temples, and pagodas were closed by the government, religious lands were confiscated, and belongings and decorations were seized. Many temples and pagodas across the south were transformed into museums, propagating the revolutionary spirit. In some temples, images of Ho Chi Minh and revolutionary martyrs emphasized the qualities needed to reach socialism among the younger generation [7].

According to Philip Taylor, revolutionary officials viewed religion as a place where enemies constantly sought to infiltrate and undermine the revolution [7].

For illustration, in the Giac Ngo newspaper in 1982, Vu Thanh Huan, a member of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee's Commission for Mass Mobilization, condemned the potential of "superstitious" activities to undermine the regime:

“In terms of awareness, the government, organizations, and the public view these activities as impure, superstitious, and fanatical. If, in the era of the new type of colonialism, the United States and its puppets encouraged and intensified superstitious activities to repress, hinder, and divide the public from the revolutionary movement, today, they have not abandoned their plot and tactics of using superstition to sabotage the cause of building and defending the socialist fatherland of our people.” [8]
An article by Vu Thanh Huan in the Giac Ngo newspaper on Aug.1, 1982. Photo: Law Faculty magazine.

The Resilience of Folk Beliefs

According to Taylor, in the early 1980s, the strong development of the black market in urban areas, predominantly led by women, revitalized activities previously deemed "superstitious," such as fortune-telling, physiognomic advisory, East horoscope, spirit calling, and soul worship. [7]

In other excerpts from Vu Thanh Huan's article, it is evident that folk spiritual activities had made a strong comeback among the people:

“After the complete liberation of Saigon, media agencies, publishing centers, and the import sources of superstitious books and newspapers were suppressed. Large and small centers of superstitious activities during the old regime shifted to underground operations. Recently, there has been a trend of resurgence. [...]

The activities of the ‘Bà Chúa Xứ Nương Nương’ group use an improved form of superstition: When the soul of an animal possesses someone, that person has to act like that animal. The ‘Đền thánh Phủ Giày’ Association still maintains its practice of activating the sacredness of joss-stick bowls and treating diseases with incense stick ashes and wastewater. […]

Pilgrimages to the ‘Holy Land’ areas are being eagerly organized to squeeze money out of the public. [...]

After the Lunar New Year, on the festival day of “the Holy Mother of the Realm, districts 5, 6, 8, and Tan Binh d]District suddenly witnessed various thanksgiving offering forms. Everyone rushed to the temple with expensive, large incense sticks. Each incense stick was affixed with a small red paper bearing Han characters with messages like “Thuận buồm xuôi gió” (Go off without a hitch), “Thượng lộ bình an” (Wishing you a healthy journey), and “Gia đình sum họp’ (Family reunion).” [8]

These folk activities have made a strong and diverse resurgence, scattered throughout urban corners, and despite all efforts, the government has been unable to suppress this trend.

More than a decade after April 30, 1975, when the market economy was rejected and folk beliefs were eradicated, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world.

In 1990, journalist Jonathan Freedman, after a four-week journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, witnessed Vietnam's poverty.

“Hanoi, despite its poverty, resembles an other-worldly city from the last century. It is a quiet city of bicycles. Only one traffic signal is in place, and it is disconnected,” he wrote for the Copley News Service. “Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City is still called by many, is a city of perpetual movement and bicycle traffic jams.”


[1] Claire Chavet, 2011, Changing Spirit Identities: Rethinking the Four Palaces’ Spirit…, p. 91, in Engaging the Spirit Word.

[2] Philip Taylor, 2004, Goddess on the Rise…, pp. 35-36,], University of Hawai’i Press.

[3] Frances R.Hill, 1971, Millenarian Machines in South Vietnam, p. 346.

[4] Philip Taylor, 2004, cited book, p.37.

[5] Malarney, Shaun Kingsley, 1996, The Emerging Cult of Ho Chi Minh? A Report on Religious Innovation in Contemporary Northern Vietnam, p. 540–560 American Ethnologist 23 540 – 560.

[6] John Kleinen, 1999, Facing the future, reviving the past. A study of social change in a Northern Vietnamese village, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

[7] Philip Taylor, cited ], Goddess on the Rise, p. 41.

[8] Vũ Thanh Huân, 1982, Mê tín dị đoan và bài trừ mê tín dị đoan ở thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (Superstition and eliminating superstition in Ho Chi Minh City), published in Giac Ngo newspaper No. 149, Aug. 1, 1982.

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