Christmas in Vietnam

Submitted by tomo on December 26, 2012 - 4:15pm

Christmas in Vietnam is stressful. Just kidding. The downtown streets of Saigon get pretty packed as young people crowd in for the various photo opportunities on Le Loi and Nguyen Hue streets. And the whole area around Diamond Plaza and Notre Dame Cathedral is packed right up until Christmas Eve at midnight. Christmas in Vietnam actually ends right after it becomes December 25th. Christmas in Vietnam means Christmas Eve!

One nice thing about celebrating Christmas in Vietnam is that there's no pressure to do Christmas shopping. Forget Black Friday or Cyber Monday. And forget Boxing Day. Buy a gift for somebody if you want. But only do so because you want to, not because you feel obligated, because you expect they will buy you a gift. Because they probably won't.

Only one in 10 Vietnamese people are Christian, although that makes it one of the more Christian Asian countries. So why do you see Christmas decorations everywhere? Why are there giang Christmas trees downtown and Christmas lights hanging all over stores (to be fair, those lights often stay up year round).

Like Halloween and other Western holidays, Christmas is celebrated more and more as Vietnam is more exposed to Western culture. But it's been celebrated in the country for a long time actually. During South Vietnam's brief existence as a Catholic nation, with a war ongoing, it was celebrated. After the war's conclusion, Vietnam, including former South Vietnam and Saigon were impoverished as a result of poor economic policies. There was not much celebration of any kind. Only until after Doi Moi (return to capitalism) did people have money to celebrate things like Christmas again. Nowadays, at least in the cities, young people party in the streets without much care. Celebrating Christmas means going to Mass for Christians and just going outside with friends for everyone else. There might be some drinking and eating (nhau) to go along but you won't find turkey or other traditional Western Christmas dishes.

So there you have it. Christmas in Vietnam comes and goes. People still go to work on the 25th and there's not much to look forward to on New Years either. The big holiday here is Tet, the Lunar New Year.

Buddhism in Vietnam

Submitted by tomo on April 4, 2012 - 5:29am

Curious about Buddhism in Vietnam? So was I. When you look around the country you would just about assume that everyone was Buddhist. Until recently, I was only taking in these "Buddhisms" as just another dish in the realm of Vietnamese culture that makes the country so different from the West. But there are also Christian churches (some 10% of the population) as well as a long tradition of Islam within certain ethnic minorities like the Cham who form Muslim communities in their provincial strongholds as well as in the city. There's also a unique indigenous religion called Cao Đài that basically mixes Buddhism and an Abrahamic God. Still it's clear that Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country in both religion and culture and it has been for most of known recorded history (notably, there was a dark and critically damaging period for Buddhism in Vietnam when Roman Catholics controlled the Southern Vietnamese government, more on the issue of religious intolerance in another future post perhaps).

What kind or sect of Buddhism?

When one thinks of Christians, they are a diverse group that identify much more with being Catholic or Protestant or Mormon or whatever else more than just being a Christian. It seems every major world religion has similarly broken down over the years into sects that started believing all kinds of things that weren't there at the founding of the religion, and who differentiate themselves from other sects through these new and unique beliefs. While people in Vietnam seem to just think they are Buddhist rather than any special kind of Buddhist, Buddhism itself, as I've found, has not been immune from such corruption -- or innovation, depending on how you look at it.

When you think of Buddhism as just an aspect of being Vietnamese, you don't think much about how Vietnamese Buddhism relates to Buddhism in other countries but in fact it does have its own characteristics. If you split Buddhists into the two main branches, Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) and Theravada, Vietnam falls into Mahayana along with the rest of China's historical sphere of influence (the CJKV countries, ethnic Chinese countries like Singapore and Taiwan, and neighbors like Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia). The Southeast Asian Buddhist countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia) are all Theravadin except for Vietnam. What is relatively unknown is that Vietnam does have Theravada Buddhism among the million or so Khmer (Cambodian) population concentrated in the Mekong Delta as well as with a small number of ethnic Kinh (Vietnamese are mostly ethnically Kinh) who have their own Theravadin temples. There is also a third, newer branch called Vajrayana a.k.a. the Diamond Vehicle (Kim cương thừa or Mật tông in Vietnamese), Esoteric Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism. There are some small centers teaching Vajrayana scattered throughout the country including ones (associated with Diamond Way Centers) run by foreigners. Otherwise, Vajrayana doesn't lie in Vietnamese Buddhist tradition the same way as Mahayana.

But unlike a Catholic or Protestant, a Vietnamese Buddhist might not really identify with any sect of Buddhism. If you ask them, they might not even know. And Theravadin Buddhists and Mahayana Buddhists can actually be Buddhist buddies together in the same places without any conflict. Vietnamese Buddhists are generally some mixture of Pure Land and Tientai for most people (laypeople) which involves mostly chanting, burning stuff, ringing bells, and praying, or Vietnamese Zen (Thiền-Na or more commonly just Thiền), which is mostly for monks and is where meditation is found. The two types of Buddhism live side by side and are mixed into a unified Zen-Pure Land Buddhism and this doesn't seem to bother anyone. Vietnamese might not even identify themselves as Buddhist, although they will still have a mix of Buddhist, Confucian, and ancestor-worship beliefs and practices.

Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật

A common chant or prayer used by Vietnamese Buddhists is "Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật" which is a call (somewhat like seeking refuge) to the A Di Da (Amitābha) Buddha, who was a, but not the, Buddha. By calling out his name it is said you will be born in the Pure Land (tịnh độ) when you die, where you can more easily attain enlightenment. To me, it sounds a lot like Jesus. However, chanting can also be similar to Buddhist meditation practices by instilling a sort of mindfulness. Anyways, that line is just the first part of a longer prayer which is meaningless in Vietnamese but was transcribed (via Chinese) from Sanskrit. You can find it in small booklets found, among other places, in some vegetarian restaurants.

Vietnamese Buddhist laypersons are mostly not vegetarian, but once a month (although preferably six days a month) Buddhists will abstain from animal food products. On these days, which occur at midpoints in the lunar month, many local restaurants especially those near temples will serve vegetarian dishes. Vegetarian restaurants will be packed, but temples will also provide vegetarian meals, sometimes for free.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

The last piece I'll cover in this introduction to Vietnamese Buddhism is the aspect of Vietnamese Buddhism outside of Vietnam. In America, Buddhism came to be known from Asian immigrants and especially from certain Americans going over to Japan after the war and learning about Japanese Zen. [If there are stories of American War Veterans bringing Vietnamese Buddhism back to the States, I'd love to hear about it.] Buddhism in Japan had itself spread from China which had received it from India. Likewise, Tibetan Buddhism has also spread to the Western world after exiled Tibetans fled to India where they came into contact with traveling hippies.

Vietnamese Buddhists have also had their influence around the world although mostly through a single enigmatic figure rather than a school of thought. This person would be Thich Nhat Hanh (random aside: Thích is the "family name" taken by Vietnamese Buddhists when they become monks and it comes from Thích-ca Mâu-ni or Shakyamuni, the Buddha). Thich Nhat Hanh comes from Vietnamese Rinzai lineage, but today he is said to no longer represents any kind of contemporary Vietnamese Buddhism. Sadly, he is also not allowed to freely return to Vietnam despite being one of the world's greatest living Zen masters.

Another Vietnamese monk who came to be known around the world was one Thích Quảng Đức. It was not his teachings that brought him fame but his self-immolation in protest of religious persecution which became a major event in the end of American support for the South Vietnamese government. A large memorial park was recently constructed at the intersection of Cach Mang Thang 8 and Nguyen Dinh Chieu in District 3 where Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire. Today, as Tibetan monks self-immolate in increasing numbers, also in protest of a certain government, they might learn a thing or two about PR from the Vietnamese.

But like other waves of Asian immigration before, the post-Vietnam War flood of Vietnamese into the US eventually led to temples in maturing Vietnamese communities everywhere in the country. I believe these temples mostly serve to memorialize ancestors and as community centers now but some do serve to teach practical Buddhist teachings that can be useful to more than just Vietnamese immigrants. Today they don't hold the cachet that, say, Japanese-style Zen centers have. But I am, with the help of some good friends, gradually discovering the traditions in Vietnam that have been passed down and were able to foster such great masters of whom Thich Nhat Hanh and Thich Quang Duc are only two.

Thien Vien Truc Lam, Da Lat.

Syndicate content
© 2010-2014 Saigonist.