Cultural Metamorphosis: The Journey of Superstition to National Identity in Post-War Vietnam - Part 2

Cultural Metamorphosis: The Journey of Superstition to National Identity in Post-War Vietnam - Part 2
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Tran Phuong wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on May 3, 2020. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.

In the early 2000s, I often accompanied my mother to visit Mrs. Ut's house for fortune-telling. I still remember one occasion when, after looking at the cards on a floral-patterned mat, she told my mother that good people would help her, so we should have confidence in our family's business endeavors.

Mrs. Ut was one of the fortune-tellers in my small hamlet. During the day, she would travel to town to read fortunes. In the afternoon, she welcomed clients into her home.

During those years, migrants from remote rural areas settled in my neighborhood. They were people with limited capital who ventured into small-scale businesses.

Right next door to my house was a family that had moved from a distant rice paddy region and made a living by selling birds to local taverns that would use them for the menus. Adjacent to them was Mrs. Tu, who originally came from the rural Ca Mau Province. When she arrived in our village, she started making salted vegetables to sell at the market. Every year in April, Mrs. Tu and the people in our neighborhood undertook a pilgrimage to the Bà Chúa Xứ (Holy Mother of the Realm) Temple for a festival at Sam Mountain, Chau Doc, in An Giang Province. The journey there was long and exhausting, but they believed that by seeking the blessing of Bà Chúa Xứ, their businesses would prosper throughout the year.

In the early 2000s, researchers believed that spiritual activities in Vietnam had experienced a resurgence as the country transitioned into a market economy. Simultaneously, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) relied on the life vest of spiritualism to avoid sinking in the face of the global spread of anti-Communist sentiments. Before this time in Vietnam’s history, the open practice of religious or spiritual activities was banned and had to be done in secret.
The Phu Do Village Festival in Nam Tu Liem District, Hanoi, is held every five years on Jan. 7-8. Photo: Huu Nghi/Dan Tri newspaper.

The Role of Spirituality in Smuggling 

Several years after the war ended, alongside the growth of the centrally planned economy, the black market system emerged in South Vietnam.

According to Philip Taylor (a professor at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where he has been involved in the School of Culture, History, and Language within the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific), the black market appeared in the late 1970s due to the breaking of the Chinese-Vietnamese (in Vietnamese: Hoa) people's monopoly on trade and the failure of the state to establish goods distribution channels for the entire population. [1]

He believes that women played a prominent role in the black market as intermediaries between households and the market. The most common method was for women to visit their relatives in the countryside to sell products from the city and buy goods from the provinces. They would then bring these newly acquired items into the city and repeat the process. The extent of smuggling ranged from small quantities, like a few pounds of meat concealed around their bodies, to more significant amounts hidden on buses during interprovincial bus trips.

Mrs. Nguyet, a small-scale merchant in Can Tho, told Taylor that women from Ho Chi Minh City would pay bus drivers to hide their goods. These drivers would have already bribed revolutionary cadres so their vehicles would not be inspected at checkpoints. [2]

The revolutionary cadres also participated in the black market trade.

Mrs. Lan, a vendor of steamed rice rolls who also engaged in smuggling in Ho Chi Minh City, told Taylor that to facilitate her smuggling business, she not only helped the police buy illicit goods but also offered complimentary breakfast to about thirty police officers and local officials at her stall. [3]

Due to the illegal nature of their chosen line of work, people who engaged in smuggling often sought the protection of deities to feel safer.

In the early 1980s, Ba Chua Xu Temple (Holy Mother of the Realm) emerged as a religious venue in the south with the old tradition of "borrowing at the beginning of the year and repaying at the end." In this tradition, people would come to the temple to "borrow spiritual capital" for risky business endeavors.

Furthermore, beginning in the late 1970s, Vietnamese intended to escape across the border as refugees also came to seek blessings from this goddess. [4]

In 1982, Vu Thanh Huan, a cadre from the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee's Commission for Mass Mobilization, wrote in the Giac Ngo newspaper that spiritual activities had appeared in various mystical forms that affected society:

“This [Bà Trầu Religion] is a tremendously wild religious practice. Some girls willingly hang themselves from the rafters for the monks to torture and interrogate, hoping they will not be summoned by demons in the underworld after death. While torturing them, the monks would curse our regime, saying things such as, ‘This society is ruled by demons and animals,’ and ‘We must put fire into the mouths of these demons and arrogant beasts.’

“Unexplainable phenomena like the Fatima Bình Triệu Church, the Crying Statue of the Virgin Mary in Tan Binh, and Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva emerged to rescue those who fled their homeland and encountered peril at sea; some people also claimed that the U.S. Navy captured images of it; someone in Saigon bought, printed, and sold these pictures for thousands of dong a piece; many people competed to buy them...” [5]

Until the early 1990s, spiritual activities continued to diversify and become even more widespread as the population entered a period of economic reform.
The Holy Mother of the Realm statue in the Chau Doc Temple is one

The Resurgence of Spirituality with the Return of the Market Economy

As the state immersed the entire country into the market economy in the late 1980s, the people entered a period of confusion.

Just like anywhere else worldwide, every family must earn enough money to pay for their living, from cooking oil to electricity. Farmers had to pay for fertilizer, rent machinery, and manual labor for arduous tasks like digging ponds for fish farming or transitioning from rice fields to fruit orchards. Other families sought ways to raise capital for small-scale trading or to start businesses such as tailoring, machinery for rent, or ferry services. [1]

The phrase "making business" regained popularity, accompanied by a feeling of unease. It was because Vietnam should be a socialist state, the free market represented capitalism and should not have been welcomed. However, things were changing.

According to Taylor, laborers and small traders had high spiritual needs during this period. Activities like fortune-telling, mediumship, deity worshiping, praying, and spiritual pilgrimages became increasingly common as the government pushed people to integrate into the capitalist world at an unprecedented level. [6]

Taylor also discovered that laborers and small traders often faced immense pressure. With an underdeveloped banking system, most family-run household businesses resorted to high-risk informal channels for funding, such as borrowing at exorbitant interest rates or revolving capital through engaging in the “hui” system (informal loan club). Because many people were under such pressure in a legal, political, and culturally unpredictable environment, they prayed and relied on spiritual forces. [7]

The Bà Chúa Xứ Temple was among the most sacred pilgrimage sites in An Giang Province of the Mekong River. It was considered a place of spiritual support for the people as the market economy was beginning to resurface. For example, the items people took away from her shrine represented their hopes and wishes. Salt and rice symbolized "having enough to eat," red envelopes meant "having enough to spend," a piece of fake gold leaf stood for capital, and a pair of candles were used to illuminate their homes with the goddess’ blessings. People even consulted with the Holy Mother of the Realm about business plans.

During this period, some observers began to view worship as indispensable in a society undergoing significant changes.

In his study of Bà Chúa Kho (Lady of the Storehouse), Le Hong Ly argued that the rising practice in the north of praying to gods for prosperity reflected people's anxiety about the rapid pace of societal change. [8]

Another related perspective explaining the resurgence of spiritual and ancestral worship in Vietnam is that it is similar to the transitional periods in post-socialist countries like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. 

Professor Hue–Tam Ho Tai, a Vietnamese-born historian at Harvard University, believes that the revival of worship activities in Vietnam must be understood in the context of the heavy historical control exercised by the Vietnamese government from the 1950s to the 1980s. As the government retreated, society allowed different historical narratives and long-suppressed personal memories to emerge. [9]

According to researchers, during this period, a significant portion of the income from Vietnamese living overseas was sent back to support their families and economic development, [10] one of the reasons the Vietnamese government legalized certain spiritual activities that had previously been considered "superstitious.”
Scene of a busy market in Saigon in 1997. Photo: Kyle Michael Nunas.

Allowing Ancestral Worship to Promote Nationalism

Activities related to ancestral worship, common today, were not allowed after April 30, 1975, as they were considered "superstitious" and "meaningless." [11]

However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even the staunchest Communist critics of superstition and cult practices returned to ancestor worship to bolster their reputation and legitimacy.

A small study by Nguyen Khac Vien and Nguyen Thanh Huyen in 1994 showed that, on average, out of every 35 Vietnamese families (including those of government officials), one practiced ancestral worship. [12]

According to Kate Jellema (an American academic known for her work on Vietnamese studies, particularly focusing on aspects of culture and society in Vietnam), the mid-1990s was when Vietnamese cultural scholars began studying ancestral worship customs to stimulate nationalistic sentiment.

During this period, the legitimacy of the VCP was being challenged. Abroad, major democratic movements were gaining strength, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were collapsing, and domestically, centralized economic policies had led to deflation and ethnic unrest in the highlands.

The government also faced the challenge of globalization. The first wave of foreign investment also prompted some "boat people" to return and invest in the country, while domestic Vietnamese sought opportunities overseas. [13] The spirit of resistance against foreign aggression, maintained from 1975 to 1986, had caused Vietnam to isolate itself from the world.

Faced with embracing globalization or regressing like North Korea, Vietnamese cultural scholars played a crucial role in the quest for nationalism.

In 1994, Đặng Nghiêm Vạn, then the director of the Institute for Religious Studies, proposed that ancestral worship should be considered the national religion. He argued that because the veneration of the deceased in Vietnam was not limited to immediate family members and extended to individuals who had made significant contributions to the community and the nation, it had the potential to nurture loyalty to the country. [14]

Beyond being just a religion, the 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions asserted that ancestral worship, a national tradition, was linked to activities of “commemorating and honoring those who contributed to the nation.”

State leaders actively participated in these worship rituals to convey the message of "when drinking water, remember its source" or "returning to one's origins.”

In 1995, the Hung Kings' Temple Festival was officially recognized as a significant holiday; by 2007, it was designated a national public holiday. The government annually allocates funds to organize the Hung Kings' Temple Festival.

According to Taylor, temples and shrines were reopened over a decade after closing. Beginning in the early 1990s, shrines were registered and permitted to operate under the Ministry of Culture and Information. [15] The number of recognized shrines increased from 1,659 in 1994 to 2,500 in 2002. [16]

Vũ Quang, then the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, told a journalist in 1993 that the value of folk festivals was to "bring the country to its cultural roots and traditional customs.” [17]

Promoting worship activities also motivated some "boat people" to return to the country. For instance, some returned to give offerings to Bà Chúa Xứ after she had blessed them during their border crossings.

The spirit of nationalism was stimulated through ancestral worship, ensuring that those who left to study abroad or work overseas would never forget to return to their homeland.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited the Hung King's Temple with Nguyen Van Binh, governor of the State Bank of Vietnam 2016. Photo: Phu Tho Newspaper.

“Motherizing” the Nation

One noteworthy spiritual phenomenon in the early 2000s was the Vietnamese government’s promotion of female deities.

Temples dedicated to female deities received distinct treatment compared to others. Some prominent temples in the south include the Holy Mother of the Realm Temple, the Ba Den Pagoda, and the Dinh Co Temple. In the north, these include the Lady of the Storehouse Temple, the Princess of the Forest Temple, and the Princess Liễu Hạnh Temple.

Today, tourists witness the effects of substantial investments and funding when visiting these temples, allowing many pilgrims to practice spirituality during their pilgrimage.

Bac Lieu Province has a temple with an 11-meter-tall statue of the Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, referred to by the government and locals as "Mẹ Nam Hải" (Mother of the Southern Sea).

According to Taylor, in the 1990s, ethnologists and folklorists discovered the role of worshiping female deities in building nationalism. [18]

By that time, worshiping female deities were no longer regarded as "superstitious" but rather an expression of "national identity.”

The legends surrounding these female deities were carefully chosen to be suitable for evoking "virtuous qualities" promoted by the state.

For instance, the Dinh Co Temple in Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province is revered as a woman who served in the Tây Sơn army and was killed by the Nguyễn dynasty; Ba Den Pagoda in Tay Ninh Province is associated with the legend of a young woman who waited for her husband to return from battle but eventually took her own life to protect her chastity when enemy soldiers and officials surrounded her.

In addition to worship activities, the government stimulated nationalism in various ways. For instance, eighth-grade students were required to learn the song “Nổi trống lên các bạn ơi” (Beating the drums, oh comrades) by Pham Tuyen as one of the methods of fostering nationalism among adolescents:

“In ancient times, Mother Âu Cơ bore a hundred children.

Fifty went to the sea, and fifty came to the highlands.

Now, millions of descendants share the same love for the nation.

We are flowers that share the same roots, brothers of the same family, etc.” [18]

The term “homeland” was also strongly promoted to attract Vietnamese expatriates back to the country.

"Homeland" was propagated as a place every Vietnamese, no matter where they were, must return to. Returning to the homeland meant returning to one's ancestors and the country where they were born.

A poem by Đỗ Trung Quân portrays the specific image that the government wanted to instil in the minds of overseas Vietnamese.

“Each person has only one homeland

As if we each only have one mother

For those who do not remember their homeland

They will not fully mature.”

According to Jellema, in the 2000s, the Vietnamese government initiated policies to attract overseas Vietnamese to return to their homeland. [19]

In 2004, remittances sent to the country amounted to around USD $ 3.2 billion, with the Vietnam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development alone handling USD $ 1-2 million daily. Remittances surpassed foreign direct investment and contributed more to the domestic economy than crucial export sectors such as petroleum, textiles, and aquaculture. [19]

Apart from turning ancestor worship into a national tradition, Resolution No. 36, adopted in 2004 by the Politburo of the VCP, also affirmed that overseas Vietnamese were an inseparable part of the national community and would receive care and privileges from the state. [19]

In 2005, the Vietnamese government invited Nguyen Cao Ky, former prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam, and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to return to Vietnam as role models for overseas Vietnamese. Prime Minister Phan Van Khai officially called on overseas Vietnamese to set aside past differences and contribute to the development of their home country.

Nearly 50 years after the conclusion of the war on April 30, 1975, the folk beliefs of Vietnam are no longer confined by the label of "superstition" but have taken on a different cover, that of nationalism, to lure investments from overseas or exiled Vietnamese.


[1] Philip Taylor, 2004, “Goddess on the Rise…”, p. 86, University of Hawai’i Press.
[2] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise…”, p. 105.
[3] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise…”, p. 106.
[4] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise…”, p. 107.
[5] Vũ Thanh Huân, 1982, “Mê tín dị đoan và bài trừ mê tín dị đoan ở thành phố Hồ Chí Minh,” published in Giac Ngo newspaper No. 149, August 1, 1982.
[6] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise…”, p. 83.
[7] Philip Taylor, “Spirit, Iconoclasts and the Borders of the Market in Urban Vietnam.”
8] Lê Hồng Lý, 2001, “Praying for Profits: The Cult of the Lady of the Treasury,” a research paper presented at the conference of the Association for Asian Studies, Chicago on March 23, 2001.
[9] Kate Jellema, “Returning Home: Ancestor Veneration and the Nationalism of Đổi Mới Việt Nam.”
[10] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise…”, p. 107 and 108.
[11] Nguyen Thanh Huyen 1994, pp. 27–28; Kleinen 1999, pp. 161–89; Endres 1999, p. 207, Kate Jellema, “Returning Home…”.
[12] Nguyen Khac Vien, Nguyen Thanh Huyen 1994, quoted by Kate Jellema in “Returning Home…”.
[13] Kate Jellema, “Returning Home…” and Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise”, p. 107.
[14] Quoted by Kate Jellema in “Returning Home…”.
[15] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise”, p. 43.
[16] Horim Choi, Ritual Revitalization and Nativist Ideology in Hanoi, pp. 90 - 120, Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
[17] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise”, p. 44.
[18] Philip Taylor, “Goddess on the Rise”, p. 50.
[19] Kate Jellema, “Returning Home: Ancestor Veneration and the Nationalism of Đổi Mới Việt Nam”.

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