I just came back from volunteering in Vietnam. I spent two weeks in Hanoi teaching English at the Hanoi’s School for the Blind and I’ve had the most incredible time of my life.
Without delving into personal anecdotes (all of which are highly emotionally charged), let me get straight to the point.
Vietnam is a communist country all right. You can feel it in the airport on arrival, with the stringent immigration checks, with the red flags and banners and the single face of Ho Chi Minh on all of the paper money.
This also means that a significant proportion of people are atheist. However, this is completely meaningless in the context of Vietnam. Scandinavia is a place where there is a significant atheist population, for example, but it does not mean quite the same things as in Vietnam. The atheist population certainly indulge in a personal worship of the figure of Ho Chi Minh, much like the rest of the population, but they have no real need of the supernatural in the religious sense. They go about their daily lives appreciating traditional supernatural stories and so forth without believing in one concrete religion.
In Vietnam, at least in the North which was where I did my tour of duty, the main religion is overwhelmingly Buddhism. I have to admit I profess a certain bias in favour of Buddhism. It’s a non-materialist religion. It strives towards personal enlightenment. Mediation has clinically beneficial effects on the mind and body. It is a religion which does not merit the stain of the title ‘religion’.
In the temples, people do in fact pray to their ancestors. They leave them symbolic offerings in their households, on a shrine. Some even leave offerings to Uncle Ho.
The difference with praying to an ancestor – something practically real and tangible and worthy of your respect – and praying to someone who may or may not have walked on water 2000 years ago is self-evident. The worship of the ancestry is a symbol of the utmost respect towards your heritage, what makes you unique, what makes you as a person.
On top of this there is an incredibly deep rooted culture of respect. Confucianism, a life philosophy based (in a crude and possibly misled nutshell) on respect to your parents, teacher and authority, combines with Buddhism to give what I would consider actually a very healthy (clinically demonstrable, no less) way of life which enshrines real moral values as sacred.
Then there are petty cultural differences, such as not kissing too omniously in public, lest the girl’s parents be judged as bad educators. That one was hard to attend to – I actually said, and I quote, “Fuck cultural relativism” on several occasions, in a hushed voice to my pretty friend and proceeded to break all the Vietnamese respect rules in the book. Of course, I did this in hiding so as to not profess disrespect towards the girl’s parents.
But all and all, I have to say I felt a strong feeling of envy. I did not in any moment feel the need to convert to Buddhism – I have my own life philosophy which works great for me. However, I cannot but profess the deepest and utmost respect for Buddhism – more notably the version practiced in Vietnam, which is less stringent on as to who can achieve personal enlightenment, almost the Libertarian offshoot of Buddhism.
Also worth mentioning is Caodaism. A very modern (in the sense of new) religion, Caodaism takes elements from the major religion to give a very kitsch and technicolour display of religion synthesis. In the Holy See you will find exhultations to Saint Victor Hugo and Saint Charlie Chaplin – this is an actual religion.
I say it’s worth mentioning because, although a very minority religion, it is a living example of a religion founded within recorded history and it puts all the other major religions and their dogma into perspective.
A final small note, which may be taken badly: Islam is practically non-existent. There is a small strain of Baha’i faith which is an offshoot of Islam – one could say it’s the most updated Abrahamic religion. Despite an existing relegation of the woman in Viet society to one or two rungs lower than the man (give me one example of widespread matriarchialism), aesthetically speaking, not seeing any women covered up in submission and oppression was a small cherry on the top.
My trip to Vietnam was beyond description. It broke so many records and was so much more than I had expected.
My positive outlook on Buddhism was but a small shard of my experience in Vietnam. The personal stuff, however, I’ll keep to myself.
Ed: In the future I anticipate I’ll probably make many references to my trip to Vietnam and I ask of you not to take it as traveller’s arrogance in advance. Thanks! 😛