Culture and religion in Vietnam


In 1802, Prince Nguyen Anh united the northern, central and southern regions of the country and called it Vietnam. The prince and the emperors who followed established programs to build new bridges and castles and restore old structures. Angered by Vietnam's positions against business deals and Catholic missionaries, the French launched their first major attack against Vietnam in 1847. They fired upon the Vietnamese at the port of Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam. France took control of Vietnam, and in 1887 Vietnam became a French colony. The French took charge of Vietnam's farmlands, minerals and other natural resources. They also introduced the Vietnamese to European schooling and customs.

In 1940, Japan took over Vietnam during World War II after its ally Germany defeated the French. In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which shortly led to the Japanese surrender. Vietnam was once again without a foreign occupation force. A power vacuum existed throughout the Indochine region and without a stronger force to stop them (like England or the United States), France tried to regain control of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese Communist, led an independence movement, called the Vietminh, against the French. The Vietminh subsequently defeated the French and Vietnam was divided into two zones: the Communist-ruled north and a republic in the south. Ho Chi Minh acted as President of North Vietnam until his death in 1969.

American politicians believed that communism threatened to expand all over Southeast Asia. When communists from North Vietnam launched a guerrilla war on the South Vietnamese government, the Americans intervened to help South Vietnam in a costly and ultimately unsuccessful war which brought domestic civil unrest and international embarrassment. This was known as the Vietnam War which was protracted and bloody. Thirty years of the 20th century were dominated by war, Vietnam has spent decades recovering from the ravages of war with first the French and then the Americans. Since 1986, Vietnamese authorities reaffirmed their commitment to economic liberalization and international integration. They moved to modernize the economy and to produce more competitive export-driven industries.


Buddhism is the largest of the major world religions in Vietnam, with about ten million followers. It was the earliest foreign religion to be introduced in Vietnam, arriving from India in the second century A.D. At present, Vietnam has more than 20,000 pagodas dedicated to Buddha, with a large number of other pagodas being built or restored.

The second largest foreign religion in Vietnam is Catholicism, with about six million followers. Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by the Spanish, Portuguese, and French missionaries early in the 17th century.

Protestantism came to Vietnam in 1911, and was widely spread throughout Vietnam in 1920, but the number of Protestants in Vietnam is not very large. Islam was introduced to Vietnam long ago, but did not flourish.

In addition to these religions originating in other parts of the world, Vietnam has indigenous religions, such as the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, with their holy lands in the city of Tay Ninh and the provinces of Chau Doc and An Giang in the Mekong Delta.

Vietnamese names

An example of a Vietnamese name is Nguyen Van Nam, where Nguyen is the surname, Van is the middle name and Nam is the first name. Vietnamese names are normally spoken and written in this order. The Vietnamese always call someone his or her first name, e.g. if I want to ask for someone's help whose name is Nguyen Duc Hung, I will say "Hung, could you help me please!"

The most popular surname used in Vietnam is Nguyen. According to a statistical study conducted in 2005, Nguyen accounts for nearly 38% of the population.

The most popular middle names used in Vietnam are "Van" for male and "Thi" for female. Hence, if you see a name of someone in a list who you have never met before, you may know the sex of this person by the middle name.

Customs and practices

  • Vietnamese culture is concerned more with status obtained with age and education than with wealth.
  • Breaking a promise can be a serious violation of social expectation. It is very difficult to re-establish a lost confidence.
  • When inviting a friend on an outing, the bill is paid for by the person offering the invitation.
  • Vietnamese may not take appointment times literally, and will often arrive late so as not to appear overly enthusiastic.
  • Speaking in a loud tone with excessive gestures is considered rude, especially when done by women.
  • Summoning a person with a hand or finger in the upright position is reserved only for animals or inferior people. Between two equal people it is a provocation. To summon a person, the entire hand with the fingers facing down is the only appropriate hand signal.
  • Modesty and humility are emphasized in the culture of the Vietnamese and deeply ingrained into their natural behaviour. Therefore, bragging is often criticized and avoided. When being praised for something, a Vietnamese often declines to accept praise by humbly claiming that he does not warrant such esteem. The Vietnamese do not customarily demonstrate their knowledge, skills, or possessions without being asked to do so.
  • The majority of Vietnamese women do not drink alcohol and usually demure when alcoholic beverages are offered to them. Drinking women are disdained in Vietnamese society. Drinking problems are rare and practically non-existent among women.
  • While smoking has gained wide acceptance among men, very few Vietnamese women smoke; those who do are generally older women. Women smoking in public has been traditionally considered something "unusual."


Celebrated across the country, the Tet Festival is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and is a time for family and friends to get together. It takes place on the first few days of the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

On the 19th of May every year, the entire country celebrates the birthday and the life of its most cherished historical figure Ho Chi Minh. Vietnamese hold parades in cities, carrying posters depicting him. Many women wear the ‘ao dai’, which is a traditional Vietnamese dress. Speeches about Ho Chi Minh generally follow the parades.

According to Buddhist sutras, the first and the fifteenth days (Tet Nguyen Tieu) of every lunar month are Buddha's Days, when acts of worship are performed in Buddhist shrines and before family altars. Joss-sticks are lit and trays of fruit and other offerings are laid out.

Related Chapters

Introduction to Vietnam

Economy of Vietnam

The Government


Legal System

Regulatory Framework

Banking & Finance

Capital Markets

Land & Housing

Labour Law


Intellectual Property

Selected Sector Regulations

Dispute Resolution

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