Culture and religion in Vietnam

Vietnamese scholars argue that the history of Vietnam began in the mists of time with a legendary line of Kings called the Hung. These kings reigned before written records existed and it wasn’t until Chinese imperial authorities expanded their rule to the area of present day northern Vietnam that the history of what would eventually become what we now know as the country of Vietnam truly began.

From the early 2nd Century CE Chinese administrators controlled the Red River valley and the mountainous regions of northern Vietnam. They established forts, imposed taxes and corveés, and forced the indigenous peoples to learn Chinese. It wasn’t until the 10th Century that Vietnamese forces would rise up and defeat their Chinese masters to become the independent kingdom of Dai Co Viet.

At first the new kingdom struggled to maintain consistency in its ruling family. Three separate dynasties came to power in the first 70 years of its existence. But then the Ly Dynasty rose to dominance and consolidated its power. The Ly emperors founded the city of Thang Long—what would become Hanoi—and began to establish an administration that quickly expanded throughout the rural territories. Women were given key roles and minor skirmishes were fought with both the Chinese and the Khmer Empire to the south and west.

The Tran Dynasty followed and modified written Chinese to become something unique to Dai Co Viet, a writing method known as ‘chu nom’ that would be retained as the primary alphabet for Vietnamese until the French occupation of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Three times the Mongols invaded Dai Co Viet and three times the Vietnamese fought them off. Also at this time the kingdom began what would become an expansion to the south slowly taking over territory that had belonged to the Kingdom of Champa—a one-time important maritime trading nation that would eventually be consumed by the expanding country.

Disputes between powerful families eventually led to infighting in the capital and supporters of the declining Tran called in Chinese aid to maintain power. For a brief time, the Chinese oversaw Dai Viet as part of its empire. Le Loi and his generals, however, in 1428 cast out the Chinese invaders and established the Le Dynasty. They called the country Dai Viet. At the height of their powers the Le established an administration based on Chinese Confucian philosophy, enacted a revolutionary law code, and expanded the territory of the kingdom even farther south. But as with all dynasties, the Le fell into disrepute and the leading families again fractured.

The split led to the establishment of competing dynasties and for years the north and south fought over the legitimacy of their claims to control the kingdom. Two families eventually came to dominate and essentially split the kingdom into two. It wasn’t until the Tay Son Rebellion in the late 18th Century that this situation changed.

The Tay Son movement was a peasant rebellion that expanded both north and south and eventually controlled the territory from Hanoi in the north to Gia Dinh in the south. Despite their final demise at the hands of the southern Nguyen Dynasty—with support from an alliance of Khmer, Thai, and French soldiers—the country would now be united.

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 males and "Thi" for females. 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 in 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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