Freedom of Religion: Country Studies - Vietnam

Vietnam Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 6; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 5.



Although it is ethnically and linguistically distinct from China, Vietnam was greatly influenced in its history by more than 1,000 years of Chinese imperial rule that began in 111 BC. The ouster of the Chinese in the 10th century AD and Vietnam’s subsequent resistance to Chinese domination fostered a strong sense of Vietnamese nationalism. France colonized what is known as Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) in the second half of the 19th century, but was forced to withdraw in 1954 as a result of an intense guerilla war, leaving behind separate governments in South and North Vietnam. The war that followed, in which the United States sided with the non-Communist south, ended with the unification of the country under the Communist north. The north’s severe repression of the south caused one of the worst refugee crises since World War II.

The united Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a one-party Communist state similar to the People's Republic of China. It has an oppressive police apparatus, controlled media, government domination of religious institutions, and limitations on individual liberties. Workers and peasants alike are generally exploited and have little ability to represent their interests independently. There have been many religious influences on Vietnam (Buddhist, Confucianist, Taoist, Catholic, and Protestant) but very few periods of true religious freedom. South Vietnam harshly suppressed religious groups believed to represent a threat to the government. North Vietnam expelled foreign clergy and established full political control over all religious organizations. After the North’s victory in 1975, the Communist government imposed its full control over religion in the south.

Also similarly to China, Vietnam reformed its economy under a policy it calls doi moi (renovation), which allows aspects of a free market and seeks to attract foreign investment. Since 1986, its nominal GDP has grown nearly nine times to $186 billion, ranking it 55th in the world according to the International Monetary Fund’s 2014 estimates. But growth has slowed considerably in the last three years and the government has failed to reform the state-owned enterprise sector. Per capita income remains low. In a country of nearly 92 million people (2015 official estimate), nominal GDP per capita was $2,171 per year, or 131st in the world.


The Chinese Millennium

The Vietnamese, ethnically related to Southeast Asians, were strongly influenced by interaction with the Chinese to the north. In 208 BC, an early Viet kingdom in the northern Red River delta region was conquered by a Chinese general, who established his own kingdom. The area was then taken over by China's Han dynasty in 111 BC, the beginning of a millennium of Chinese rule. During this time, imperial administrators developed the country's roads, ports, and irrigation and also imposed a strict Confucian system of law and government. Chinese elites cooperated with local ruling classes to establish a thriving agricultural maritime trade, opening the region to Indian influence and the spread of Buddhism. several unsuccessful rebellions against Chinese rule, a local general, Ngo Quyen, finally overthrew the Chinese in AD 939 and established an independent state.

Vietnamese Dynasties and Rebellions

After several unsuccessful rebellions against Chinese rule, a local general, Ngo Quyen, finally overthrew the Chinese in AD 939 and established an independent state. Political instability led to another Chinese invasion attempt but it was rebuffed and the more stable Ly dynasty was inaugurated (1009–1225). The country was renamed Dai Viet and Buddhism was declared the state religion. Dai Viet expanded steadily southward along the coastal plain, a process that continued under the succeeding Tran dynasty (1225–1400), which also fended off Mongol invasion attempts from the north in the 13th century. In 1407, the Chinese Ming dynasty was invited to quell a peasant rebellion, but a former court scholar named Le Loi led another rebellion to reclaim Vietnamese territory and establish a new dynasty.

The Le dynasty was the longest in Vietnamese history, formally lasting until 1788. Already by the 16th century, however, the country was divided between two warlord families, the Nguyen in the south and the Trinh in the north, who both pledged allegiance to the Le dynasty but engaged in prolonged civil war for control. In the famous Tay Son rebellion (1771–1802), peasants rose up to end the warlords’ high taxation for war, overthrow  both regions’ ruling classes, and redistribute the land and wealth of. The rebellion, led by the three Tay Son brothers, defeated and killed the Nguyen and Trinh families. But after dividing the country into three provinces, famine and disorder weakened their rule. A French-backed military force led by Nguyen Anh, a survivor of the Nguyen ruling family, seized control of the country in 1802. He assumed the name Gia Long and created a new Nguyen dynasty. He moved the capital of his new dynasty to Hue and renamed the country to its present name, Viet Nam.

French Expansion

Gia Long's rule reestablished the privileges of major landowners and imposed onerous taxes, forced labor, and obligatory military service on peasants. Neo-Confucianism and other aspects of the Chinese state system were adopted, while Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions were abolished. The imperial government also began to crack down on the growing numbers of Roman Catholics, converted by French missionaries. Although the French had backed Gia Long's rise to power, French and Catholic influence were seen as a threat to the Confucian regime. Imperial authorities began executing and expelling  local Christians and missionaries, who appealed to Emperor Napoleon III of France for assistance.  He ordered an invasion in 1857 and by 1862, Tu Duc, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, ceded the south region to the French. By 1883, French protectorates were extended to neighboring Cambodia and northern and central parts of Vietnam. The four territories were organized as the Indochinese Union in 1887. Laos, the remaining territory in Indochina, was added in 1893. Vietnamese initially accepted colonial rule. . . . The policies of French governors, however, quickly alienated the Vietnamese population.

French Colonial Rule and Resistance

Some Vietnamese initially accepted colonial rule since the Nguyen emperors had failed to protect the people  either from foreign invasion or from a series of deadly natural disasters. Catholic Vietnamese, persecuted under the imperial government, also welcomed French control. The policies of French governors, however, quickly alienated the Vietnamese population. French administrators replaced the existing bureaucracy of Confucian scholar-officials while ; French settlers, known as colons, displaced Vietnamese peasants by taking over concentrated landholdings. The French reorganized the economy to expand agricultural production and extract raw materials. Rice, minerals and rubber became leading exports. Local industry was discouraged so that Vietnam would be a market for French-made products.

Armed resistance movements started to emerge, initially with the aim of restoring the precolonial system but soon adopting European-inspired republican, nationalist, and communist ideas. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh, educated in Paris, joined colleagues together to create the Revolutionary Youth League, which later became the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). The Communists launched an unsuccessful peasant revolt in 1930–31, but survived the subsequent crackdown and continued to organize armed resistance. When the Imperial Japanese Army occupied Vietnam in 1940, it retained the French administration, now under orders of the pro-Axis Vichy government. Ho Chi Minh formed a new resistance force called Viet Minh that united his Communists with other groups around the goal of national liberation. In 1945, the Japanese dispensed French administration altogether and established an "independent" Vietnamese puppet government under the hapless Nguyen holdover emperor, Bao Dai.

Ho Chi Minh

 Independence, Division, and the First Indochina War

The Viet Minh took control of the north and parts of the south at the end of World War II and announced the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with its capital in Hanoi. But the Viet Minh faced resistance from armed non-Communist groups in the south and then fell under temporary postwar occupation in the north by Chinese nationalist troops. In the south, occupying British forces ceded control to French soldiers loyal to the Free French Government and these retook many Viet Minh–held areas. In early 1946, Ho Chi Minh agreed to incorporate the Democratic Republic of Vietnam into the French-led Indochinese Union. Southern Vietnam was made a separate republic.

The Viet Minh quickly rebelled against the French in the north to begin the First Indochina War in 1946. As the conflict continued, the French unified central and southern parts of the country under Bao Dai as the Associated State of Vietnam, which was nominally independent. The Bao Dai regime was recognized by the United States, Great Britain, and other anti-Communist powers, while the Viet Minh government established in the north was recognized by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The French, even with US financial assistance, lost control of the countryside to Viet Minh guerrillas. The capture of the strategic French outpost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 at the cost of 25,000 Viet Minh fighters convinced France to end the war. A cease-fire agreement negotiated in Geneva divided the country at the 17th parallel. French forces and the Bao Dai government withdrew to the south and the Viet Minh retreated to the north. Scheduled elections leading to a single national government were never held.

The Two Vietnams and the Second Indochina War

In the North, Ho Chi Minh consolidated his control. He imposed a communist political system, forcibly collectivized agriculture, introduced an industrialization program with Soviet and Chinese aid, and crushed internal opposition. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh supported and equipped a national liberation movement in the South called the Viet Cong with the aim of uniting the country under his communist government. In the South, Bao Dai's prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, installed a nationalist and anti-Communist government supported by the US. In 1955, a referendum was held that made Diem president of a new Republic of Vietnam and removed Bao Dai as head of state. Diem also used authoritarian tactics to maintain control. Over eight years, he ordered the arrests of nearly 100,000 suspected Communists and sympathizers, suppressed religious sects in the countryside, and cracked down on Buddhist political dissent in the cities. These actions provoked fierce opposition but did nothing to halt the advance of the Communist-led Viet Cong. A US-authorized military coup ousted and killed Diem in 1963, which led to a series of short-lived governments.

Starting in the late 1950s, the US steadily increased its contingent of military advisers and pilots assisting the South Vietnamese army. In 1965, a reputed attack on US naval forces by the North Vietnamese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin prompted President Lyndon Johnson to ask Congress for a resolution authorizing the escalation of US military forces. The US began heavy bombings in the North and deployed large numbers of combat troops in the South. At the height of the war, there were over a half million US troops in the country. But in 1968, Communist forces launched a coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in the South on the New Year, or Tet, holiday. As with Dien Bien Phu, the Tet offensive led to heavy losses by Communist forces and in this case the territory that was captured was quickly retaken. But the scale of the campaign eroded the American public’s support for an already controversial war that the US appeared not to be winning. As opposition to the war grew, the US agreed to negotiations and began a gradual troop pull-out even before an agreement was reached. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords formally ended the war and nominally guaranteed independence for the South in exchange for full US military withdrawal. But the North continued to support the Viet Cong’s military campaign until the South Vietnamese government collapsed in 1975. government's coercive attempts to transform South Vietnamese society led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II.

Post-1975 Vietnam

The reunification of the country under a new name, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, superimposed the North’s communist government on the south. There followed a campaign of repression, similar to that carried out in the North after 1946, to consolidate the North’s control of the South. The repression campaign included the forced relocation of millions of people, the internment of hundreds of thousands of others in "reeducation camps," and the reorganization of the economy around socialized agriculture and industry. The government's coercive attempts to transform South Vietnamese society led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II, as roughly one million people fled the country by land and sea over the next decade.

The communist economy, however, deteriorated to the point of collapse. In 1986, the government launched a reform program called doi moi similar to that undertaken in China to encourage foreign investment by allowing private property and independent economic activity. As in China, Vietnam’s reforms helped propel economic growth and reduce poverty but the Communist Party retained a tight grip on political power. The Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu explained the party’s ruling philosophy in 1999  to the Central Committee Plenum:

Our people won't allow any political power sharing with any other forces [than the Vietnamese Communist Party]. Any ideas to promote "absolute democracy," to put human rights above sovereignty, or support multiparty or political pluralism . . . are lies and cheating.

For a brief period, the Vietnamese government eased repression in response to international pressure on human rights issues, but such reform policies appear to have been directly tied to government efforts to obtain membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Following accession to the WTO in 2007, the government increased the arrests and harsh sentencing of dissidents, especially bloggers, democracy advocates, and independent trade union activists. The government also heightened internet censorship and resumed disruption of independent religious activities (see below). In economic policy, as growth slowed and economic reforms stalled, the government continued to suppress independent labor activity and to maintain a low-wage system to attract international investment.

Freedom of Religion

As noted above, the history of religion in Vietnam, as in most countries, was characterized by state efforts to impose certain beliefs and practices on the population and repress other beliefs and practices. Religious pluralism emerged as a result of differing state religions and practices over centuries, the spread of Christianity by missionaries, and the relative tolerance of religious freedom under French colonial administration, including nationalist religious sects that opposed French imperial rule. The communist government set out to co-opt and control religious institutions and has generally repressed independent religious practices and religious freedom as a whole.


Confucianism, a set of ethical and spiritual beliefs that developed in tandem with the Chinese imperial system, was the official religion during the 1,000 years of Chinese rule that began in 111 BC. Buddhism, which increased in influence as a result of trade during Chinese rule, was adopted as the state religion in the 11th century after the country gained independence from China under the name Dai Viet. Buddhism remained the principal religion thereafter. In the 19th century, however, the Nguyen dynasty under Gia Long imposed a strict form of Confucianism (called neo-Confucianism) and repressed other religions.

Roman Catholicism was introduced by Portuguese missionaries beginning in the mid-16th century. As the French gained influence in Indochina, the Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes established a mission and gained numerous converts. Rhodes was expelled in 1630 by Emperor Trinh Trang for fear of growing Catholic influence, but other missionaries were tolerated. By 1841, the Catholic Church reported a total of 450,000 converts. Emperor Napoleon III of France invaded Vietnam in response to requests by missionaries to prevent a slaughter of Catholics by Gia Long. Under direct French rule, Vietnam was generally a place of religious pluralism with tolerance for Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and traditional religions. French tolerance extended to political offshoots of the main religions that opposed both colonial rule and communism, including the syncretic faith Cao Dai (a blend of Catholicism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism founded in 1926) as well as the neo-Buddhist sect called Hoa Hao (formed in 1939). These religious movements adopted firm nationalist stances that put them at odds with the colonial authorities.

After Vietnam was divided in the 1954 Geneva Agreement, there continued to be religious pluralism in the South, but successive authoritarian governments repressed religious activists, especially the Hoa Hao Buddhists, who dissented from the government and often supported the Viet Cong. Incidents of Buddhist monks carrying out self-immolations in protest of government repression influenced American public opinion against the war. In the North, Ho Chi Minh’s consolidation of power included the wholesale repression of religious practices and institutions. The communist government forced religious institutions to express loyalty to the government and abide by its control, including approval of religious appointments and activities. This control over religion was extended to the South after the North’s victory in 1975.

Official Religion in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

The constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam pledges respect for freedom of religion as does the 2004 Ordinance Regarding Religious Belief and Religious Organization. The Ordinance declares that "the State guarantees freedom of religious belief and of religion for its citizens." As in other Communist countries, however, such legal guarantees of human rights and freedoms are trumped by Marxist-Leninist principles of "democratic centralism" and the supreme authority of the Communist Party over all political and social affairs. Government priority is given to the goal of social conformity as laid out by the Communist Party. Individual rights are set aside in the fulfillment of state objectives and official directives. Vaguely worded provisions in the constitution cancel out human rights pledges by prohibiting behavior that undermines national unity, defames public officials and policies, violates existing regulations, or otherwise challenges the political supremacy of the Communist Party. For example, Article 205a of the penal code states:

Any person who abuses freedom of speech, of the press or of religion, or wrongly uses the rights to assembly, association or other democratic rights to encroach upon the interests of the State, social organizations or citizens shall be subject to . . . non-custodial reform for a period of up to two years, or to a term of imprisonment of between three months and three years. factions of religious groups are denied registration and must practice their faiths outside the law.

The Vietnamese government established a central administrative office to govern all state-sanctioned religious institutions;  under the 2004 Ordnance it was renamed the Office of Religious Affairs. The Office regulates all registered religious institutions in their use of property and resources and ensures that each religious organization registers any formal activities, as well as branches, with the local, provincial, and national authorities. There are many registered religious institutions, including Buddhist and Christian groups and the syncretic Cao Dai sect. But these are either government-created or government-controlled versions of religious organizations. Even the Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious institution with six to eight million adherents, traded away much of its autonomy, particularly over clerical appointments, in order to continue its public presence in the country. The officially registered religious organizations agree not only to accept the government's authority over its internal affairs but also to formally affiliate to the Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for social and political movements linked to the Communist Party. Still, adherence to religion is high. Up to ninety percent of the population professes religious belief, with 50 percent identifying as Buddhist, seven percent as Catholic, approximately 2 to 4 percent Cao Dai, and 2 percent each as Protestant and Hoa Hao, among other faiths.

Unofficial Religion in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Independently organized religious groups are denied registration and must practice their faiths outside the law. These include the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), some Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups, and many Protestant congregations that refuse to accept the political requirements for official registration. Most independent Protestant worshippers are believed also to be ethnic minorities. These unofficial religious groups are denied the right to maintain educational centers, train clerical officials, and operate places of worship. Leaders and individual members of these groups have been imprisoned; congregants have been pressured to renounce their faith or switch their affiliations to registered churches; and local officials have mounted campaigns of general harassment against private religious services. In one well-known case, five Hoa Hao members were imprisoned in An Giang province in 2000 for planning an unauthorized gathering to mark the anniversary of the death of the sect’s founder. Four of the five members had also signed a letter protesting government abuses. They received sentences of one to three years in prison for "having abused their right to democratic freedoms, disturbing social order, and opposing public authorities." Ethnic H’mong and other ethnic minorities living in highland areas have reported frequent police harassment and attempts to force them to renounce their Protestant faith.

Current Issues

In 2011, the 11th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party elected the head of the Central Military Commission Nguyen Phu Trung, as its General Secretary. The ascendance of Trung, a long-time party leader who was trained in the Soviet Union, reinforced the control of the security and military services over Vietnam’s politics and governance, and signaled the continuation of a hard line, intolerant policy against political or social dissent.  As the 12th Congress approached in January 2016, it was reported that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who had advocated greater reforms to increase foreign investment (including Vietnam’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership), was challenging Trong for the general secretary position. But Trong was re-elected to another term as general secretary and Dung is being forced to retire, again signaling that there would be little movement towards political reform.

Trong’s hard line has been evident in a crackdown on freedom of expression and belief. Thirty-eight bloggers were arrested in 2012 and twice that many in 2013, including Vietnam’s most famous blogger, Pham Viet Dao, charged with “abusing democratic freedoms.”  New government decrees enacted in 2013 and 2014 gave the state sweeping new powers to restrict speech on blogs and social media. Harsh penalties were enacted for social media and internet users who engaged in “anti-state propaganda” or professed “reactionary ideologies.”  The crackdown continued in 2014. Here is one case reported by Freedom House (2015 Country Report):

In February, the government arrested eight activists, including several prominent bloggers, for minor traffic offenses in an act of intimidation intended to halt a group of 21 individuals on their way to visit arrested human rights lawyer Nguyễn Bắc Truyển. In August, a court sentenced three of the activists — defenders of religious freedoms Bùi Thị Minh Hằng, Nguyễn Văn Minh, and Nguyễn Thị Thúy Quỳnh — to jail terms of between two and three years. Roughly 33 people who tried to attend the trial were detained. . . .

Freedom House reports that the authorities are holding “dozens” of prisoners for reasons connected to their religious beliefs. Overall,

Religious freedoms remain restricted. All religious groups and most individual clergy members are required to join a party-controlled supervisory body and obtain permission for most activities. Those who fail to register their activity with the state are often arrested and harassed. . . .

Human Rights Watch reports similarly that for 2015 “Vietnam’s record for civil and political rights remained abysmal.” It lists dozens of people arrested for defending human rights and expressing their beliefs. Two cases are indicative:

In February 2015, the People’s Court of Dong Nai province put rights activists Pham Minh Vu, Do Nam Trung, and Le Thi Phuong Anh on trial for “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state,” an offense under penal code article 258. They were sentenced to 18, 14, and 12 months in prison, respectively. . . . In September, police in Thai Binh province arrested former political prisoner Tran Anh Kim for “activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” under penal code article 79. Tran Anh Kim had recently finished a five-year, six-month prison sentence in January 2015, also under article 79.

Vietnamese officials did meet with Pope Francis in 2014 to “discuss religious freedom and Catholicism in Vietnam.” The government also allowed the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, to meet with various groups of religious leaders in Vietnam in July. But at the end of his visit, Bielefeldt reported that “serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Vietnam.” This is reflected in a proposed new law on religion, which retains all the government’s administrative controls and oversight on religious institutions and activities and fails to protect independent religious sects and practices (see Economist article in Resources). The US State Department continued to designate Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" in its Report on International Religious Freedom. (See Resources for links to UN and US State Department reports.)