The Transformation of Religions and Religious Beliefs in Vietnam Today

The Transformation of Religions and Religious Beliefs in Vietnam Today, 355 pages, Hanoi: The Gioi Publisher, 2008

Reviewed by Pham Quynh Phuong (Southeast Asian Studies Program, National University of Singapore)

For the last two decades, Vietnam has experienced an upsurge and remarkable innovation of religious practices. This proliferation has captured the interest of scholars, leading to a good number of publications published in and outside Vietnam. The book Sự biến đổi của tôn giáo tín ngưỡng ở Việt nam hiện nay (The transformation of religions and religious beliefs in Vietnam today), the first book in the social sciences book series funded by the Harvard-Yenching Institute, not only makes important contributions to our understanding of religious dynamics from the perspectives of Vietnamese researchers, but also sets a new standard for publications in Vietnam.

The book consists of an Introduction “Studying religion and religious belief in contemporary Vietnam” by Nguyen Thi Hien, and eleven chapters covering diverse aspects of religions and religious practices. Tran Hong Lien’s paper explores changes in the lives of monks and nuns in Ho Chi Minh City as well as in Buddhism’s social activities after the Renovation (Doi Moi) in 1986. Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc provides interesting insights into Buddhist rituals and how, although not recognized in Buddhist orthodoxy, these services play a role as part of folk Buddhism to meet the demands of people in a rapidly changing society. Nguyen Duc Loc documents the life-cycle rituals and contestations over the religious lives of migrant Catholics in Ho Nai (Dong Nai). Huynh Ngoc Thu contextualizes the Supreme God Ceremony of Caodaism in Ho Chi Minh City to investigate its social functions and meanings as understood by devotees themselves. Phan Phuong Anh and Vu Hong Thuat explore the religious worlds and the meanings behind sacred objects, namely the social life of script on the ancestor’s altar, and the fascinating journey of an amulet displayed in the Museum of Ethnology. Truong Van Mon (Sakaya) reveals different historical layers and the syncretism of religions of the Chams. Nguyen Cong Thao offers an account of the “existence” and the “vanishing” of ghosts in a northern delta village from an ecological anthropological perspective. From a socio-economic approach, the phenomenon of borrowing money from the Lady of Treasure (Ba Chua Kho) is the subject of scrutiny in Nguyen Kim Hien’s chapter. Based on ethnographic and mass media research, Nguyen Anh Tuan provides interesting insight into the lives of people who claim to have the capacity to find lost graves using Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP). From a different angle, Nguyen Thi Hien and Karen Fjelstad offer a new perspective of Len dong (mediumship) ritual from their study of transnational networks of spirit mediums in Vietnam and California.

This anthropological collection is engaging and fascinating for many reasons. As the first peer-reviewed book on religion in Vietnamese, this book is nicely printed, well-organized and ethnographically richly documented. It provides first hand ethnographic data with reliable sources and proper references, which have not been widely practiced in Vietnam. The topics cover prominent issues that have been overlooked or understudied, including the changes in the lives of devotees, the transformation of rituals, the social life of sacred objects, the changes in spiritual perceptions due to alteration of the geographical landscape, the dynamism of religious symbols in relation to the economy, and the power and new meaning of money in a changing society. As the emphasis of the book is on transformation, authors pay particular attention to the impact of modern pressure, social upheavals, economic transformation and transitions from a traditional society to a modern world, from a community-based value society to the emergence of an individualistic-value society. As Nguyen Thi Hien points out in the Introduction, these papers display a new tendency in social science, which goes beyond the Marxist approaches to religion that have conventionally been employed by scholars in Vietnam. The overseas educational backgrounds of some of the authors partly account for these fresh perspectives. Although some chapters are still descriptive and lack satisfying analytical and theoretical treatment, the book is a testament to the efforts of the co-editors, Le Hong Ly and Nguyen Phuong Cham, to bring together different perspectives on religious life in contemporary Vietnam in a volume that meets international academic standards.