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The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

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Centuries of animism, ancestor veneration, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc., have deeply etched the cultural influences in Vietnam. Each of these religions has affected the Vietnamese culture so that at the present time behavior patterns and customs subtly, or obviously, reflect these concepts. The Vietnamese do not make the distinctions between secular and sacred as clearly or precisely as do most Westerners. Therefore the total life of the Vietnamese peoples is much more affected by religious concepts than seems to be the pattern in America. The primary or basic religion of Vietnam seems to be that of Animism. Animism is the religious faith of nearly all the tribes-people, or as the French called them, Montagnards. Traces of Animism are found also in most of the other major religious faiths in Vietnam today.

Animism, currently called "People's Religion" by some, is a belief "in spirits." These spirits may be those of deceased persons or inanimate objects such as stones, rivers, mountains, trees, etc. The basic core of Animism is the belief that spirits by appeasement can be used to create good, or pleased so that they will not create harm, danger and trouble. Moreover, each person has a spirit without which sickness and death would soon occur. This spirit continues to exist even after death has claimed its possessor. The death of the person creates a demand for the provision of the needs and desires of the on-going spirit. Unattended or dissatisfied spirits may become angry, bitter, or revengeful. They may seek to re-enter the present life which will create havoc and harm in numerous ways.

Because of the spirit's ability to continue an independent existence, it must be cared for properly. As spirits are associated with people, Animists perceive them to be greedy, deceptive, unpredictable, and possessing every trait known to man. Normally, the departed spirits of the good do not create too much concern if the proper rites are performed at the appropriate times, especially those rites which will send them happily on their way to the "spirit world."

However, those people who die violently cause great fear as their spirits may be embittered by such a fate and create havoc to individuals, families or communities. Violent deaths include accidents, war, those killed by tigers, women who die in childbirth or die childless, or those whose bodies are not recovered and properly buried or cremated.

Animists seem more anxious to placate angry or evil spirits who pose constant danger than to seek the favor of the happy or good spirits who may help them. In this sense, fear of the evil wins out over honor toward the good. Because of such concepts, animistic rites become methods which utilize fetishes, blood sacrifices, symbolic designs, magic words, taboos, etc. These are techniques which cause the spirits to do the will of the worshipper.

The animist does not view himself as a helpless or passive victim of the invisible world. He views himself as one who by use of the proper religio-magic formulae may achieve his own goals. The various spirits to be placated are from human, animal and inanimate sources. The animist expends much of his thought, effort, energy, and wealth in religious observances designed to channel the powerful forces to his benefit and in accord with his own desires.

To the animist all existence is one and the same thing, and has no permanent divisions or distinctions of animate and inanimate, human or non-human. Everything past and present is contemporary. This requires that all rituals must follow the prescribed pattern to avoid discomfort to the spirits. Living in fear as he does from birth to death, the animist is almost obsessed with religious observances as he seeks to placate one spirit or the other. He seeks to avoid offending any spirit that may cause trouble.

Animism is basically non-ethical and non-moral. The aim of the animist is not to have his character transformed or changed. It is to create the proper atmosphere so that spirits will comply with the will and wish of the animist. Therefore he does not hesitate to utilize any means which will provide him the protection which he desires, since these are merely means

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whereby he may relate to his world in a meaningful manner. This is especially true in the more backward areas where Animism is yet untouched by other religious concepts. The animist in his continuous power struggle with the invisible world grapples for the best advantages so that he may avoid that which seems otherwise certain and dreadful.

The animist has a pantheon of spirits which range from those in man to those in birds, animals, rocks, trees, streams, etc. He is constantly on the lookout for those who demand immediate attention, and the situations which cannot be ignored with impunity. Because this search is aided by religious "personalities", the sorcerer, magician, or shaman, these persons occupy positions of peculiar importance, power and influence. Since these persons have prestige and special powers in the mind of the animist, special care must be taken by Americans in dealings with them, in discussions about them, or in encouraging courses of action not agreeable to them.

Blood sacrifices, either of fowl or animals, may be used for both fertility and ceremonial rites. They are performed at childbirth, weddings, funerals, etc., and may be offered to either good or evil spirits as the occasion demands. Despite the objections of the French previously, and the Vietnamese currently, some of the animistic tribesmen are believed still to practice the sacrifice of human beings for the puberty rites for young men and also as supreme offerings of appeasement to spirits troubling individuals or communities. The identity of these spirits is determined by the sorcerer through appropriate rites. (These are described in some detail in THE PEOPLE OF THE TRIBES OF SOUTH VIETNAM, a companion study soon to be published.)

Blood sacrifices of various kinds may be offered to the spirits for protection, health and prosperity, events relating to birth, marriage, death, drought, warfare, choosing a new field, building a house, planting a crop, harvesting that which has been grown in the swidden-patches, etc. It is through such sacrificial rites that the Vietnamese animist seems to find order and meaning in his life, and they provide that which is essential to integration and sanity.

The simple animist places great emphasis on omens which may be in dreams or signs. These are believed to be sent by spirits to warn of future evil or good. If the animist sees the track of a certain animal on his path in the jungles, it is indicative that if the traveler continues his journey, he will surely meet the "evil one" himself. He must therefore return to his home or village and consult the sorcerer to determine when it will be safe to continue his trip, or if his plans must be radically changed. If during a wedding, a dog sneezes, the animists of Vietnam believes this to be a sign that the marriage is not a wise one. Normally the ceremony is halted immediately. If the couple insists on completing their wedding, some terrible fate is believed to await one of them. The tribesman on the way to his fields may notice a bird perched on a nearby bush or tree, and he will carefully look to see the direction in which it flies. If it goes to the left, friendly spirits are warning him of impending danger, making it necessary for him to retrace his way home immediately.

The animist perceives of sickness, disease and death as being spirit-related, so that treatment is given to appease the spirit rather than directly to cure the ailment. Because death claims such a large number of children in Vietnam, especially among the primitive tribesmen, the fear of evil spirits causes parents to give their children "nick-names" while their given names are kept in the strictest of confidence. The use of such nick-names is an attempt to fool the evil spirits so that they will not seize the child and take away its spirit. Sometimes little boys are actually nick-named after female organs as the parents believe this will surely fool the bad spirits. They are sometimes named after the various animals so that when they are called, the lurking evil spirits will not recognize that the children are being addressed and will not harm them. Many of the children have nick-names that when translated sound unsavory to Americans, but when it is recognized as a defense procedure by parents, it can be appreciated. Especially is this true when it is realized that three grown children out of ten births is considered fortunate among some of the Vietnamese peoples.

Sometimes little boys are dressed as girls to fool the spirits who would prefer boys. Their hair is often cut so that the spirit will be fooled. The long hair is believed to hide the place where the child's spirit actually resides and under this cover the evil spirit cannot find it.

The head is believed to be the residence of the "spirit". The older folk and those less acquainted with Americans, may be disturbed if a stranger pats their children on the head since this may be viewed as an attempt to steal the child's spirit. This concept of the residence of the soul or spirit is widespread and it is often found among the other major religions in Vietnam. Those acquainted with this almost natural

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reaction of Americans to children may view the matter quite differently from those who have learned about Americans from antagonistic sources. The communists, for example, carefully study ways to use the various religious beliefs as means of preventing success in the joint Vietnamese-American efforts to bring peace to Vietnam.

Quite frequently mirrors are placed by the doorway of a home, or placed within the house so that they reflect anyone entering. This position is carefully chosen in order to cause an evil spirit to become frightened when it sees itself in the mirror and not enter the home.

Because of the belief by many that sickness and death are caused by spirit activities, jokes dealing with these topics are considered shocking, irreverent, and could provoke evil spirits. The Vietnamese may smile at the joke for politeness sake, but esteem for the American may be lessened.

Beliefs arising within Animism give rise to the demand that proper disposal of the dead be made to avoid creating a wandering spirit. It is the same religious concept that encourages the mutilation of corpses by the enemy. This has psychological impacts often not fully appreciated by the Americans. It is this same fear that causes afterbirth to be taken some distance into the jungle by the tribespeople and buried quickly lest it attract evil spirits who will then cause the baby's death.

Among some of the tribespeople, it is fear of the spirits which causes them to build their houses in a certain direction with doors on only one side so that the evil spirit who always travels in one direction cannot enter home. It is a similar concept that causes a number of Vietnamese to place the various red papers which represent the god of the threshold or doorway on or near the doorposts to frighten evil spirits. This belief also underlies the custom practiced by many folk who avoid carrying a small child across the threshold. Instead they carefully hand it across the threshold to prevent evil spirits entering the house with the baby and taking its spirit while it is unguarded. This fear of evil spirits accounts for the strings often seen about the wrists and the necks of small children to guard against evil spirits. Fear of spirits also accounts for the wearing of fetishes, charms, etc. Perhaps this is not too much different from the customs of many Americans (who may be superstitious in spite of their religious teachings, while the animists is superstitious because of his religious beliefs).

Within many ethnic Vietnamese homes, forms of Animism are quite evident. If sickness occurs, it is not unusual to have the shaman, the medicine man, etc., come to give treatments. If the illness is that of a small child, the question may revolve about an aunt that died childless, or an ancestor who desires that his bones be given a more desirable location. In such cases the Taoist or Buddhist bonze or even the shaman or sorcerer, etc., is just the one to ascertain the answer. For a small fee, some rice, a bit of tobacco, a chicken, or some betel (acreca) nuts, a ritual is performed and the answer discovered. If it is the ancestor's spirit who wants the bones reburied, this can be done. If it is the maiden aunt's spirit which is troubled and creating the problem, the solution may be to make little paper images of children and with a bit of paper money, burn them. This sends them off to the spirit world where the spirit is made happy, and the child is made well.

Sometimes treatment given to the ill is that of acupuncture (hot cups are used to create vacuum burns or needles inserted about the body). This treatment transfers the felt pain of the patient, and is used sometimes to draw evil spirits out of the patient's body. Similar medical treatment has also been used in the Western world of Europe and North America and still may be found in other parts of the West.

Among the animistic tribespeople barriers are often erected along the pathways leading to the village in order to keep evil spirits from entering. These are carefully placed in accord with the sorcerer's advice in order to be effective. It is vitally important to keep the evil spirits from the village lest they bring sickness, hunger, harm, danger, or even death to its residents. Sometimes the barricade may simply be a board or bamboo fashioned in place across the path: it may consist of amaze of barriers along part of the path so that several turns must be accomplished to enter the village. The tribesmen believe that human beings can figure out the maze, but that evil spirits do not have the reasoning ability. Sometimes the approachway will feature quite elaborate temptations to draw the spirit aside so he will forget his mission, or it may feature attempts to frighten the spirits instead.

Fear creates various burial customs among the people. It is fear that causes a tribe to bury its dead with exposed feet, or others merely to place the body in a deep grave left open so that the spirit can return to the village. Fear causes some tribes to tend the graves carefully until a set time. Then after a ceremony of buffalo

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sacrifice and wine drinking, the grave is completely abandoned. Fear of spirits causes some animists to place their dead relatives parallel to the side of their houses while awaiting burial. A stranger who dies is placed perpendicular to the sides of the houses to prevent his spirit from becoming confused with that of a dead inhabitant.

Within Animism, fear seems to be the dominant theme as it is the constant companion of its adherents. Among the tribespeople who are not Christian, fear determines who one will marry, where his crops will be planted, where and how his house may be constructed, and may determine his source of water, etc. It is the attempt to deal with this overwhelming concern that creates the belief called Animism. Its presence is so strong in Vietnam that few escape its influence entirely. So while the animist may not have a formal creed or doctrine, he cannot be classified as non-religious. Religious beliefs control him much more than most Americans are affected by their faith. Since man is controlled by his thought patterns, his behavior is in accord with his value system. It is imperative that the Navy/Marine Team understand the value systems of Animism, if friendship is to be developed, or if lasting assistance is to be shared.


Malinowski, Bronislaw, Magic, Science and Religion, Garden City, New York; Doubleday and Company; 1948

Nida, Eugene A. and William A. Smalley, Introducing Animism, New York, Friendship Press, 1959

Nida, Eugene A., Customs and Cultures, New York, Harper and Row. 1954

Hart, Donn V., Phya Anum Rajadhon and Richard J. Coughlin, Southeast Asian Birth Customs, New Haven, Human Relations Area Files Press, 1965

Parrinder, Geoffrey, Worship In the World's Religions, New York, Association Press, 1961

PERSONAL RESPONSE  PROJECT FILES: Chaplain Corps Planning Group, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D. C. 20390 This activity has field notes, transcribed interviews, on-site observations of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. These are records of the ways and means by which the religious beliefs of indigenous peoples affect their value systems, taboos, and daily behavior. The gathered materials and information are shared and checked with external authorities on the area as well as with indigenous religious, cultural, political, economic and educational figures of the country or area discussed.

Savani. Major A. M., Images et Visages du Sud Viet Nam (Images and Aspects of Viet-Nam). Saigon: Imprimerie Francaise d’Outre-Mer, 1955

Schrock, Joanne et al: Ethnographic Study Series: Selected Groups in the Republic of Vietnam, Prepublication Copy. FOUO. Washington. D. C. SORO (now CRESS, The American University) 1965-1966

The Montagnard Tribes of South Vietnam. (Les Traits characteristiques dans les Moeurs et Coutumes des Tribus Montagnards au sud du Vietnam). Direction de l’action Sociale pour les Pays Montagnards. Washington, D. C.: Joint Publications Research Service, 13443, April 13, 1962.

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The ''Spirit House'' is a common sight in   Vietnam
The ''Spirit House'' is a common sight in Vietnam

An elaborate spirit house in the garden   of a Saigon Buddhist temple
An elaborate spirit house in the garden of a Saigon Buddhist temple

The Sacrifice of a water buffalo to   appease troublesome spirits
The Sacrifice of a water buffalo to appease troublesome spirits

Grave of a tribesman in the I Corps   area
Grave of a tribesman in the I Corps area


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