Apocalypse Now? Hao Hao Buddhism Emerging from the Shadows of War

Philip Taylor. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. Volume 12, Issue 3. 2001.

Hoa Hao Buddhism, founded in the late French colonial era is, like the other religions of ethnic Vietnamese in the Mekong delta, an eclectic and creative approach to imagining existence in this newly settled region. This paper investigates the context in which this faith evolved and explores its main characteristics. These include its settler colonialist worldview, synthesis of diverse cultural currents, universalist outlook and construction of a moral community. It concludes by exploring the religion’s contemporary relevance, uneasy relationship with the state and the perceived challenges faced as the integration of the delta into broader economic and cultural structures continues.

An enduring image of religious syncretism in Southeast Asia was provided by early twentieth century ethnographer and Catholic missionary Father Leopold Cadiere, who characterised religious observances among the ethnic Vietnamese as like a jungle: prolific, dense and entangled. He also drew on imagery from geology to describe the influences in terms of manifold layers and deposits (Cadiere 1989 [1944]:1). His naturalistic metaphors characterise Vietnamese religion as marked by rich diversity and plurality rather than orthodoxy, purity and order. A problem with his analysis is that his analogies are ahistorical, as if these traits are ‘endemic.’ And despite his appreciation of the wealth of Vietnamese religious life, by construing his subject matter as natural, Cadiere belittled the impact of the institutionalised and textual ‘great traditions,’ such as Buddhism. With respect to this latter, Cadiere applied his naturalistic schema more rigidly, considering Buddhism to be a spring from which Vietnamese draw only for the most part in passing (Cadiere 1989[1944]:6).

Cadiere’s assertion that there are no ‘real’ Buddhists among the ethnic Vietnamese illustrates the need to explore his ethnography itself as ‘situated knowledge’ (Haraway 1988). His sixty-two years of residence in the country gave him unparalleled insights into popular practices, yet his twin vocations as a colonial era orientalist scholar and missionary profoundly shaped his idiosyncratic and exclusionary delineation of the religious field (Mabbett 1989). Other commentators writing at other times have drawn different lines around religious practice, delineating the ‘soul’ (hon) or ‘essence’ (ban sac) of Vietnamese culture as fragile and contrasting it with ‘external’ (ngoai) influences construed as ‘incompatible’ (khong thick hop) or even hostile. Although studies of Vietnamese religion make almost obligatory reference to syncretism and borrowing in one form or another, the tendency to essentialise and to draw boundaries has indeed been powerful. Images of division, conflict and mutual incomprehension certainly became more marked as religion along with all other aspects of life got sucked into the vortex of military and political strife that spiralled through Indochina in the late twentieth century. In consequence, for a long time the potential for appreciation of the more inclusive aspects of Vietnamese religion has seemed bleak. Rather, religion became associated with the manoeuvres of militarised ‘sects,’ manipulation by the state or other political parties, assassinations, mass protest movements, fiery immolations, religious persecution, imprisonment, petitions and international human rights appeals.

Apparently exemplifying these exclusivist and conflict-prone tendencies is the Hoa Hao Buddhist religion (Phat Giao Hoa Hao), most of whose adherents live in the Mekong delta in the South of Vietnam. One of the less well-known movements of the colonial and postcolonial era, the Hoa Hao Buddhists have received only cursory anthropological attention. Their movement features most prominently in the writings of police agents, journalists, historians and political scientists interested in the social divisions and political dimensions of a society embroiled in revolution and war. In these accounts the Hoa Hao ideology appears as an agonistic creed, forged out of a clash of worlds. Social scientists have declared its ‘traditionalist’ orientation alien to Europeans and Vietnam’s communists alike.4 Considered a traditional reflex, a substitute, a void-filling response to cultural destruction or as a refuge from political activism, the Hoa Hao is a religion that diagnoses not fluid borrowing but traumatised rigidity, conflict between worlds, the embrace of the apocalypse, the impossibility of peaceable solutions and the futility of worldly action.

Despite the consistency of these accounts and given the movement towards normalisation and regional integration in Vietnam one is led to ask whether the notion of irreducible difference does not indeed diagnose an unduly rigid and pessimistic orientation towards intercultural relationships on the part of some analysts. To better comprehend the Hoa Hao, one must go beyond the conflictual history to which these sources attest, and the epistemological priorities it has thrown up. This has become possible due to improved opportunities for ‘outsiders,’ be they foreign tourists, urban pilgrims, or domestic tourists and traders, to travel in the region and meet and talk with people who adhere to the Hoa Hao faith. Believers too have travelled far and wide and have new opportunities to relay their ideas, including Internet sites that describe the history and philosophy of the faith and advocate greater religious freedoms for Vietnam. My own relatively easy communication with followers of the faith in markets, ports, at festivals and in homes when travelling in Vietnam, as well as contacts made via the Internet and through e-mail communications have led me to a perspective on the religion that contrasts with that found in the written record. Some of the most noteworthy aspects include the religion’s practices of assimilating, communicating with and borrowing from other creeds as well as its social activism and engagement in political and economic activity.

While these dimensions represent to some extent responses to new circumstances, it is clear that they have strong antecedents, which have been neglected in studies of the religion. This essay attempts to redress this, re-interpreting the historical record and incorporating my own ethnographic description. Placing the religion in the context of the deeper history of the colonisation of an ecologically and culturally distinctive region helps to explain the religion’s syncretistic elements, the significance of universalism and the apocalyptic dimension, the religion’s integration with parallel normative projects and its leaders’ bids for power. Refining and broadening the definition of this religion in this way also helps better answer the question: how will this religion find a place for itself in the contemporary political system and respond to the challenge posed by the Mekong delta’s further economic and cultural integration?

Recasting the Hoa Hao in History

The Hoa Hao religion was founded in 1939 late in the French colonial period. In the first decade of the religion’s existence, the Japanese occupied Indochina, national independence was declared, the French re-invaded, anti-colonial war broke out and the US entered the melee. In 1947 Huynh Phu So, the religion’s founder was reportedly assassinated and his followers became embroiled in Vietnam’s bitter wars of decolonisation. The early scholarship on the Hoa Hao, articulated in these fraught militarised conditions, not surprisingly situated it in the context of Vietnam’s clash with ‘the West.’ Initially the tendency was to locate the movement at the historic fault line of traditional peasant and colonial-capitalist formations. Theorists in the Durkheimian tradition such as Wolf (1969) and McAlister and Mus (1970:84) characterised the religion as a traditionalist response to the disintegration of Mekong delta society under French colonialism and its regime of export agriculture. The later saw the religion as a ‘substitutive’ movement, attempting to achieve the reintegration of Vietnam’s collectivist rural order, which was fractured by colonialism, providing new cultural moorings to replace those destroyed during the colonial period.

On the other hand, Vietnam’s Communist leaders and theorists, who considered themselves as modernists, nationalists and liberators of the nation from French rule, have regarded the Hoa Hao as a ‘feudalistic’ (phong kien) and ‘superstitious’ (me tin) hangover, even if ultimately amenable to being integrated into the socialist state under the leadership of the Communist Party. As the region of Indochina most extensively made over and exploited by capitalism’s impact, the delta theoretically should have been fertile ground for the rise of the self-identified ‘proletarian’ communist movement. Nevertheless, it was the ‘feudalistic’ Hoa Hao religion that thrived in the capitalist social relations, political rivalry and cultural exchanges in this region in the late French and early post-colonial period. Social movements such as the Hoa Hao that were shaped by this intense encounter might well have been expected to become something of a driving political force of the postcolonial era. Yet it was Vietnam’s Communist Party that eventually came to power and in doing so dealt to the Hoa Hao religion a severe blow.

These perspectives, which place great weight on the historical disjuncture of French colonialism, do not do justice to the historical reality in the southern regions of the country. Indeed agrarian capitalism was particularly intense in that region. Prior to the French, however, the newly settled frontier region of the Mekong delta did not match the image of ‘traditional’ Vietnam that theorists evoke to draw such contrasts. The narrative of catastrophic confrontation, of a ‘traditional’ society challenged by ‘modernity,’ is markedly Eurocentric. Nevertheless it has also been a feature of nationalist historiography, which has drawn heterodox places, experiences and meanings together to constitute the nation as a homogeneous subject of history (Taylor 2001). Countering this tendency, Hy Van Luong (1992) has shown that the nation’s communist movement owes much to the socio-cultural system pertaining in the centre and north of the country. Those who have delved into the genealogy of the Hoa Hao religion see it in a similar way as a local subculture reflecting a particular regional history (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983; Brocheux 1995).

Hue Tam Ho Tai’s detailed portrait of this religion makes sense of it in terms of the Mekong delta’s distinctive past as a frontier region. She situates the Hoa Hao within the Buu Son Ky Huong tradition, a loose collection of apocalyptic folk sects which she interprets as a peasant response to the vicissitudes of life in a remote and newly settled region (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983). According to Hue Tam Ho Tai, this religious tradition’s millenarian doctrine reflected the difficult ecological conditions of the great natural frontier of the delta. Emerging during the catastrophic cholera epidemic of the 1840s, its apocalyptic message was a response to instability and privation. Nguyen Van Hau (1970) too describes the Buu Son Ky Huong faith as a pioneering tradition. Originating at the periphery of Vietnamese court influence and supposedly shunned by the imperial elite, the apostles of the faith are portrayed as an authentic grassroots tradition. On the margins of the Sino-Vietnamese world and absorbing influences from non-Vietnamese faiths and ethnic groups, the Buu Son Ky Huong religion was seen as a distinctive local ‘subculture’ (Brocheux 1995:189). These theorists situate Hoa Hao Buddhism in an older local tradition, exploring continuities in the pre and post-colonial era. In Hue Tam Ho Tai’s view, the Buu Son Ky Huong worldview emerged out of a catastrophic confrontation with nature, pronounced social unrest and cultural ‘anomie.’ Almost 100 years later, when Master Huynh Phu So founded Hoa Hao Buddhism, it was again during calamitous change, the traumatic dislocations of the colonial era, which saw this religious tradition remerge. In other words, the revival of religious millenarianism was a pre-patterned localised response to the social rifts and cultural crisis induced by French colonialism.

It is vital, however, to see the religion not only as a response to crisis but also as a vehicle for profound social and cultural change. One cannot neglect that these early religious communities were themselves agents of such social and political changes as the radical displacement of the Khmer occupants of the delta by the Vietnamese state. The political context for the emergence of this faith was the Vietnamese court’s annexation of Khmer lands, demarcation of the new border and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia (Chandler 1996). The Buu Son Ky Huong religion emerged during a movement of ethnic Vietnamese settlers into the area, who displaced the Khmer and provoked conflicts to the extent that the king had to issue often tokenistic edicts that they not infringe on Khmer land (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983). Although the Vietnamese may have been a minority, during this time the Court actively assimilated groups such as the Chinese and Khmer and established Vietnamese as the dominant ethnicity in southern Vietnam (Choi Byung Wook 1999). The critical social ‘amorphousness’ and cultural ‘anomie’ attributed to the western stretches of the delta of the mid-nineteenth century, are in effect retrospective projections onto the region of the values of mainstream Vietnamese culture, whose supposed ‘deficit’ allow theorists to anticipate the emergence of a ‘restorative’ creed.

Although portrayed as a peripheral, grassroots cultural alternative to imperial orthodoxy, the Buu Son Ky Huong faith was closely implicated in the Vietnamese court’s colonialist venture of the mid-nineteenth century. Several details in Hue Tam Ho Tai’s account call into question this religious tradition’s peripheral standing vis-a-vis the culture of the Vietnamese court. The founder, the Buddha Master of the Western Peace (Phat Tay An), was the son of a Vietnamese canton chief. He became a labour recruiter for the state in its campaign to settle the Mekong. He used amulets magically to counter suspected Chinese saboteurs, who were believed to have planted evil spells in the region to the detriment of the Vietnamese. His successor commanded an army unit that put down a Khmer uprising against Vietnamese rule (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983:15). The Buu Son Ky Huong’s emphasis on indebtedness to country and to compatriots resonated with the Vietnamese court’s contemporaneous efforts to ‘Vietnamise’ this ethnically heterogeneous region (Choi Byung Wook 1999). This possibly explains why one of the first people claiming to be an avatar of the Buddha Master was a local man who also claimed that in spite of being Cambodian he was really Vietnamese in spirit (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983: 41).

The Buu Son Ky Huong’s apocalyptic vision, such as the prophesised appearance of the Future Buddha, and the election of people who gathered at the Dragon Flower (Long Hoa) festival to a state of blessedness, may indeed be linked to the influence of culturally marginal doctrines like Amidism in this far-flung region of the country (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983; Do My Thien 1995). Yet it can also be seen in terms of the court’s vigorous efforts to colonise Khmer lands. The pioneering settlements, which the founders of the Buu Son Ky Huong religion construed as a future Buddhist paradise, were opened with court assistance. The spiritual allure of imminent salvation was materially backed by the provision of capital outlays such as seeds, tools and cash advances, which was possible because the court gave tax reductions, and access to land titles for recruiters who were able to bring in new settlers and open new land (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983).

In many ways French colonialism can be seen as continuous with, if not intensifying an older process of Vietnamese settler colonialism. In the French era, the ethnic Vietnamese settlement of the delta accelerated dramatically. Many people left other regions of the country to settle the areas of cultivable land opened by mechanised dredging. French colonisation enabled the ethnic Vietnamese to consolidate their hold on both lands and positions at the expense of the ethnic Khmer. Vietnamese cultural institutions such as communal houses, language schools, newspapers, associations and religious organisations, expanded in influence during the French colonial period (Brocheux 1995:136).

The Hoa Hao religion was a significant force for consolidating the hold of Vietnamese culture in the delta. Chinese villagers who met the founder of the faith when he travelled though their village on his way to school told me the Master’s following was chiefly among the ethnic Vietnamese. His teachings, which were written in a poetic style of Vietnamese, made reference to the mythic origin figures of the Vietnamese people. The ethnic Khmer and Chain who have a presence in the Mekong delta also see the Hoa Hao as an ethnic Vietnamese tradition. Khmer residents in the western delta told me that they were displaced from their lands by the Hoa Hao in 1945 during that group’s struggle to attain dominance over the communists in the struggle for national independence. Certainly, when the Hoa Hao took part in the anti-colonial struggle, they did so in the name of a tradition of Vietnamese national sovereignty. The Hoa Hao venerate patriotic Vietnamese historical figures such as the anti-colonial hero Nguyen Trung Truc and indeed two of the debts of gratitude enjoined upon Hoa Hao Buddhist believers are to one’s country and to compatriots. Hoa Hao followers have told me that the black silk pyjamas worn by the faithful are a symbol of the Vietnamese farmer and many wear their hair long in what they say is the traditional Vietnamese style.

The Hoa Hao Buddhist religion emerged in the French period, part of a longer-term process of colonisation of the Mekong delta. It is of limited value to view it as an attempted restoration of the ‘status quo’ or alternatively, as an ‘outmoded’ feudal legacy. The Hoa Hao religion, like Communism and the Cao Dai faith, is a project of settler colonialists for whom the French colonial interregnum in Indochina only added another layer to an ongoing process of colonial political domination and of cultural assimilation whose principal local beneficiaries have been the ethnic Vietnamese. Hue Tam Ho Tai is undoubtedly right in tracing the origins of the Hoa Hao religion to older structures, yet I would argue that one can find in this ‘tradition’ a more dynamic and politically engaged history. Hoa Hao Buddhism is the religious expression of an ethnic Vietnamese experience of pioneering, land reclamation, physical and cultural transformation of the landscape, consolidation of state rule and assimilation of other groups into the Vietnamese cultural world.

Redrawing the Geographical Context

Most accounts of Hoa Hao Buddhism locate the religion in a ‘remote’ geographical setting, employing images that subtly reinforce arguments made about the peripheral, ‘traditional’ or ‘otherworldly’ character of the religion. One of the pervasive tropes of the Mekong delta is of a closed society, its villages ‘small worlds’ (Hendry 1964), people’s minds bounded not by the bamboo hedges of the Red River delta settlements but by relatively restricted opportunities for movement and communication due to low technological capacity. Although ethnographers such as Hickey (1964), Rambo (1973) and Cummings (1977) have indicated the society of the Mekong to be open and loosely structured, even a sympathetic commentator such as Hue Tam Ho Tai refers to the Buu Son Ky Huong religion as the product of a closed, isolated peasant world. The founder of the religion, Master Huynh Phu So is depicted as a villager at heart and his followers simple farmers (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983). These days, it is common for the residents of Vietnam’s urban areas to romanticise about the Mekong delta as a place of nature where traditions have remained largely unchanged (Taylor 2001). Many urban Vietnamese also think of the Mekong delta as remote, as Vietnam’s ‘Wild West.’ The religious tradition out of which the Hoa Hao religion grew is sometimes considered an adaptation to a demanding environment, of hills with names like ‘Forbidden Mountain’ (Nui Cam), jungles, and nature considered largely as an obstacle. In this vein, Hue Tam Ho Tai refers to the Seven Mountains (That Son) region as ‘inhospitable’ and ‘notoriously wild’ (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983: 12). The Buu Son Ky Huong faith is described as having been a cultural expression of communities that were relatively cut off from wider social and cultural movements. The conception of this landscape as ‘remote’ supports the common depiction of the Hoa Hao religion as one of inwardness or other worldliness.

If one switches the features used to sketch a backdrop for the emergence of the religion, from the handful of limestone outcrops to the more ubiquitous waterways of the region, one instantly gets a vastly different image. Phu Tan (formerly Hoa Hao) village, birthplace of the religion’s founder, lies on the banks of the Mekong River, one of mainland Southeast Asia’s major communications routes. Most Hoa Hao followers live along this and other waterways, some of which run right by the Seven Mountains. To the south, connected by a canal built early in the nineteenth century is the seaport of Ha Tien, since the 1700s a regional centre for commerce, learning and cultural exchanges. The inhabitants of the area have long sailed, poled and oared their way along the delta’s vast network of channels, which, in the pre-French era linked them to Southeast Asia’s expanding markets. For centuries their home has been an important crossroads on a major trade and passenger route between Saigon, Phnom Penh and other Mekong River ports. In 1939, when the Master promulgated the faith, his home and adjacent riverside settlements were bustling service centres. Hoa Hao village was located on a motorised passenger launch route to Saigon, and beside an important cross-river ferry. Markets and industrial centres were found both upstream and downstream and ships on the way to Cambodia frequently stopped over in adjacent river ports like Tan Chau. To this day, the Hoa Hao are great travellers and traders and virtually all make a life from a river which is at the same time a home, a resource and a transport artery connecting their homes with distant locales.

The geographical quality of marginality that is conventionally attributed to this religion together with narratives of its history as catastrophic, creates an inescapable sense of foreboding for those who would contemplate its future, especially given the vogue to characterise contemporary reality as globalised and ever-changing. Yet one must be wary of the stereotypes through which it has been portrayed. Indeed most Hoa Hao adepts reside in a rural region, but one that has long been differentiated, changing, connected and integrated with broader structures. It is also a region of relative plenty, whereas depictions of the landscape as harsh have led to a tendency to regard episodes of conflict and struggle in the Hoa Hao’s history as typical of its relationship to the environment and other groups.6 Such views, albeit only partially true, may lead some to conclude that the time for such a religious ‘subculture’ may be past, that it is dysfunctional in a time of peace and possibly unlikely to survive in a truly national community (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983:172) or a globalised world. In contrast to such a bleak scenario, it is impossible to overlook the syncretic aspects of the religion as well as its engaged dimension and the worldly orientation of its followers.


The Hoa Hao Buddhist faith has often suffered in comparison with the Cao Dai religion, which, with its eclectic range of saints, teachings and rites drawn from many religious traditions and its baroque taste in architecture, is generally considered one of the most ambitiously syncretic religions in Vietnam (Huynh Ngoc Trang 1992). This comparison has been pursued to the extent of regarding the Hoa Hao as ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Protestant’ Buddhists: exemplified by modesty in living, simplicity of ritual, a largely privatistic orientation and no priesthood (Popkin 1979:202; Wolf 1969:194). Socially, the religion is portrayed as an austere sect positioning itself nationalistically, in contrast with foreign interference, providing a critique of social corruption and countering religious decadence. Add its much-noted militaristic history, an unswerving dedication to its founder and singleminded antipathy to communism and the fundamentalist tag is virtually unshakeable.

Portrayed in such terms, the Hoa Hao religion seems an unlikely candidate for investigating the question of religious syncretism. Take for instance the household focus of the religion and the simplicity of the altar. These are often adduced as evidence that Hoa Hao Buddhism is a form of ‘fundamental Buddhism’ (Keyes 1977:218). However, the impulse may have been not to strip down Buddhism but indeed to augment it. One Hoa Hao adept told me that the household focus of the religion had been borrowed from Cambodian Theravada Buddhism. Whereas typically among the Vietnamese, the Mahayana monastic tradition involves life-long vows-one leaves one’s family (xuat gia) for the Sangha permanently-the Theravada tradition of the Khmer requires that men ideally spend a period of time as a monk before proceeding to life as a householder. For its part, Hoa Hao religion combines the two kinds of Buddhism into one orientation: prescribing that all should strive to become monks for life but doing so at home and supporting themselves rather than turning into a caste of specialists permanently dependent on the community.

From this perspective, the household orientation is less the radical simplification of a religious tradition than a borrowing from another tradition, that of the neighbouring ethnic Khmer. The emphasis on simplicity can also be attributed to influences from Chinese popular religion, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, described by Hue Tam Ho Tai (1983) and Woodside (1976) among others. In addition, the Hoa Hao religion represents an interesting case study in the Islamicisation of Buddhism. Huynh Phu So’s imprecations against idolatry are commonly linked to his puritanism and doctrinal purging of superstitious or erroneous elements from the Buddhist faith (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983:148). For their part, Hoa Hao adherents have told me that the proscription on displaying Buddha statues on the household altar is borrowed from Islam’s proscription on the worship of images. For these reasons too they say, the Hoa Hao Buddhist flag bears no pictures.

This influence owes much to the presence of a significant Islamic community in the local area. Islam was brought to the Mekong three hundred years or so ago by Malay and Javanese traders. A large community of ethnic Cham converts to Islam live in close proximity to Hoa Hao village. The surrounding area is full of mosques and its residents number many devout Muslims. Huynh Phu So, the founder of the Hoa Hao went to school in Tan Chau, in a heavily Muslim area. This was a thriving trading and manufacturing centre where local Muslims engaged in the manufacture and trade of textiles. They were and still are a relatively well-travelled, multi-lingual community, connected to Malaysia, Java and other parts of Islamic Southeast Asia, including Muslim settlements in Cambodia, through trade, familial and religious links.

The influences from Islam are numerous, as evident in the Hoa Hao’s religious practices, doctrine and architecture. One of the most evident forms of this is the approach to prayer. Hoa Hao followers say that like Muslims but unlike other Buddhists, they orient themselves in prayer in relation to a fixed point. Believers recall the Master’s enjoiner, ‘When the time of worship comes, if we are away from home, let us turn westwards to pray to Buddha (because the original land of Buddhism is India, West of South Vietnam).’ Preaching houses (nha giang dao), another innovation explicitly linked to Islam, were formerly used to call people to prayers three times a day. Although their use was banned by the new regime in 1975 they were also used to chant the Sam Giang, the poetic holy scriptures composed by the master, as well as to explicate the meaning of his religious and social philosophy. These towers, still standing, are two or three storied structures with a small room for preaching at the base and speakers mounted on the top. Hoa Hao followers sometimes refer to the structures as ‘minarets.’ They have no residential quarters, unlike the pagodas of the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists of the region. A number of the towers, such as the one located by the Mekong River in Tan Chau town, have ornate sculpted decorations in an Islamic style and domed roofs.8 Smaller and simpler versions of these are located in every hamlet where the Hoa Hao live, just as in the adjacent Chain settlements one finds small mosques in every residential cluster.

In the mix of influences that have shaped the Hoa Hao worldview one needs to consider not only ‘Oriental’ elements such as Theravada and Pure Land Buddhism or Islam, but also elements often contrasted to the ‘traditional’ elements of the religion, which are merely more recent additions such as modernism, nationalism and humanism. While Huynh Phu So is regarded by most commentators as a traditionalist, and indeed many of his teachings support such an interpretation, the Master also had a well-defined modernising vision, evident, for example in his imprecation against superstition, ‘Superstition is a sin conjured by our lack of logical reasoning. Without logical reason, we cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Partaking and surrounding ourselves with superstitious beliefs, we blind ourselves from the natural reality of life. Other modernist innovations that his followers have pointed out include the Master’s suggestions to direct funds away from pagoda building into community works, his simplification of rites, his call to limit the amount spent on commemorative festivities and his exhortation to engage in self-improvement. In a like way, although the religion is sometimes characterised as ‘anti-Western,’ it has indeed been open to a range of different influences, from Marxism (Brocheux 1995:189) to US-style modernisation ideology. Similarly, the Master’s exhortation to fight enemy invaders is regarded by some followers as a reaction against French uses of religion as ‘exoticism,’ his engaged metaphysics an innovative rejection of colonial neo-traditionalist ideology. These different ideological strands were not adhered to in exclusion of others but synthesised in an original way. For example, the combination of nationalist sentiments with the cult of heroes, the concept of a supreme being and US civic religion is found in this statement made by a contributor to a Hoa Hao Buddhist journal in the USA on the prospects for the democratisation of Vietnam:

I am praying to a higher power and to the sacred soul of the land, to the souls of heroes who have fallen on behalf of their beliefs and for the defence of the nation, so that they can prod and move and defeat this wave of atheism which is currently washing over Vietnam so that our people can welcome the light of Freedom and Democracy. (Nguyen Huynh Mai 2000: 170)

Universal Aspirations

As localities are ‘produced’ increasingly by reference to global flows, processes and images, and because these latter are articulated variably through localities (Appadurai 1995), one might understand the process of ‘localisation’ as a particularly important variety of syncretism. On the other hand, Tsing has questioned whether ‘globalisation’ should indeed be apprehended in the singular or if globalism is not an ideology privileging the perspective of just a few localities (Tsing 2000). In the interests of exploring globalism in the plural, it is worth touching briefly on one of the distinctive features of the Mekong delta’s settler colonialist religions and ideologies: their appeals to universalism and global validity. The Hoa Hao and Cao Dai faiths as well as the different varieties of Marxism that have had a presence in the delta, have all embraced the breaking down of particularities: be they ethnic groups, religions, nations or languages. All have consciously sought to integrate parallel trends, resolve conflicting interpretations and achieve general validity. Characteristic of ‘ideologies that promise no less than cosmic renewal and the total and lasting transformation of man, society and nature,’ the Buu Son Ky Huong tradition’s message of universal salvation is regarded by Hue Tam Ho Tai as having been a response to socio-cultural crisis in an amorphous undifferentiated rural society (Hue Tam Ho Tai 1983:10). This interpretation underscores her view of the religion as the local product of a peasant society. To take a very different tack, the striking vein of universalism in the Hoa Hao mindset can be seen as the result of several factors quite at odds with a construction of the Hoa Hao as a merely local phenomenon. Briefly these include:

  1. The political philosophy of the Vietnamese state, which saw itself as a centre of the world.
  2. Settler colonialists’ strategic appeals to protection by this centre.
  3. The impact of Islam and varieties of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, along with Catholicism, Humanism and other transcendental philosophies.
  4. The influence of French colonial, Soviet, Maoist and U.S. imperialist visions.
  5. The requirement of cross-cultural intelligibility thrown up by the communicatively open society of the Mekong delta.

These influences have come together to fashion among Hoa Hao Buddhists a powerful sense of their broader significance. Analytically this means that it is of little value to maintain a distinction between ‘local’ and ‘global’ culture. The problem with seeing Hoa Hao as the localisation of a ‘world’ religion such as Buddhism is that central to the Hoa Hao faith is an unswerving conception of their faith’s universality. Hoa Hao followers with whom I have spoken position their home at the epicentre of world Buddhism, the Buddha having re-incarnated as Huynh Phu So. Many believe that Hoa Hao Buddhism spread from Vietnam to the rest of the world, following the Master’s extensive overseas travels bringing peace and benefit to all. In each land he visited the creed has been adapted to the local customs and is called by a different name. Nevertheless all these local versions flow from the one source (nguon) the Master’s birthplace in the Mekong delta. Like many of the creeds and religions in the region, the Hoa Hao also work images of globes into their iconography: an aesthetic expression of universalism reflecting an imagining of the spatial condition as global. This symbol has a mnemonic function as one of the four injunctions of the Hoa Hao faith is to recognise one’s debt to humanity. Yet it is also a reminder to followers that the propagation of the Hoa Hao faith is considered a sacred mission in order to reform mankind. This value is also reinforced in the prescribed colour for the altar cloth and flag, which is brown. As brown is considered the combination of all colours, it is used to symbolise human harmony and the connectedness and interdependence of all people.

The Apocalypse and Prospects for Integration

Hoa Hao Buddhism is generally considered an apocalyptic religion: believers are held to anticipate the impending destruction of the world and seek refuge provided by faith. Hue Tam Ho Tai describes this as an older complex, whose quietism alternating with outbursts of millenarian violence was symptomatic of an ‘ideological ecology of unrest’ (1983:viii). This illuminates the history of violence in which the Hoa Hao have been involved. Yet one might sketch an alternative image of the faith as neither a quiescent refuge nor a radical rejection of the here and now, but as politically and normatively engaged with transformational projects as significant and diverse as settler colonialism, modernist reformism, nationalism, socialism and export capitalism.

The violent history of the Hoa Hao is sometimes depicted as the way a subsistence-oriented society responded to the social dislocations provoked by the commercialisation of agriculture. Yet to depict this religious tradition as otherworldly or marginal ignores its inextricable association with the Mekong delta’s rise as an economic powerhouse. The Hoa Hao are today some of the most successful producers in the delta’s export economy. Members of the religion have responded successfully to post-war shifts in the economy. To imagine followers of the religion as being outside capitalist structures or as culturally prone to resort to violence as a way of resolving their problems neglects these profoundly worldly dimensions of the faith. Like the French colonial state whose focus on export agriculture led to studies on the attributes of the Vietnamese farmer (Gourou 1955), one of Master Huynh Phu So’s concerns was how to incite farmers to self-improvement. His advice to farmers (khuyen nong) was a standard topic of his proselytising tours. Now that the Communist regime, like the French, is trying to extract bumper rice harvests out of the Mekong delta, some authors in Vietnam have emphasised that religions like the Hoa Hao can be a valuable adjunct to economic activity (Pham Bich Hop 1999).

Such authors portray the Hoa Hao at core as a religious tradition of simple, industrious, agricultural workers. Yet the earliest followers of the Hoa Hao were not just landless peasants impoverished by capitalism but small holders and those working in transport, light industry and trade. The leaders of the Hoa Hao faith were recruited from schoolteachers, itinerant drivers and motor coach and river launch conductors, people on the nodes of the most important communicative pathways of colonial society (Brocheux 1995:129). Today, some of the most cosmopolitan people in the delta, boat captains, traders, cafe owners and physicians, belong to this religion. I have found members of the faith, like many residents of the Mekong delta, to have wide horizons. They are informed about and engaged with current developments, interested in news of the outside world, focused on social work, improving the physical infrastructure of their locale and the building of a moral community. Not uncritical of a world of commercial relations, many are also critical of a climate of naked economism that reigns in their homeland, stressing the role of religion as a counterweight. Several members of the religion have expressed concerns that government control is weakening their religion’s ability to sum up life and counter ‘superstitious’ (me tin) or heretical interpretations, not to mention act as a moral counterweight to cultural dissipation, yawning disparities of wealth and the rise of crime and of ‘social evils’ such as prostitution. Some commented to me that local people had lost their self pride and identity as a result of the political restriction of the religion and now thought only of personal enrichment and the purchase of consumer goods for flashy self-advertisement.

Certainly, the Hoa Hao faced severe restrictions on their religious and political activities after 1975, in part because of their previous armed opposition to Communist forces. In 1975 all administrative offices, places of worship, and social and cultural institutions connected to the faith were closed, thereby halting public religious functions. Preaching towers were boarded up or rededicated as taxation or security offices. The lack of access to public gathering places contributed to the Hoa Hao Buddhist community’s isolation and fragmentation. Those who sought to gather independently of the officially-sanctioned association were arrested and imprisoned. A tentative easing of control on the religion began in 1999. There were, however, crackdowns in the face of demands that the government speed up this process., In 2001 there were again serious protests and arrests; a female member of the religion reportedly committed self-immolation to protest against restrictions on religious freedom.

One of the ways of denigrating the undeniable success of groups such as the Hoa Hao in staying relevant in contemporary Vietnam is to label them as ‘political’ rather than religious in nature. The authorities dismiss the sect’s protest activity as not in keeping with a religion. Yet an undeniable feature of the Hoa Hao faith has been its challenging relationship with the secular authorities, including the French, the South Vietnamese regime and the Communists, whose bids for legitimacy have extended over the Mekong delta. No quiescent Buddhist faith, members of the religion have engaged in political indoctrination and borne arms. Members of the Hoa Hao community abroad situate the emergence of the Hoa Hao in the colonial era within a narrative of loss of Vietnamese imperial power. These images hearken back to an idealised political order, the loss of which calls forth an alternative to fill the gap. This is how the founder of the faith, Huynh Phu So, presented matters in the late 1930s, and it is how Hoa Hao Buddhists still argue for a platform today. Some overseas Hoa Hao groups describe the religion as a movement of revolt, depicting the Hoa Hao as a tradition of grass-roots struggle, and nationalism a potential weapon against communism (Ly Dai Nguyen, 1999; Nguyen Long Thanh Nam, 2000).

Today many members of the Hoa Hao still consider themselves engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. On the other hand, there is a discernible stirring of optimism within Vietnam about the religion’s future prospects. Some of the followers with whom I spoke in Vietnam believed that the religion has recently secured limited recognition because of the large number of Hoa Hao believers who are in the local party and state administration quietly pushing for change. According to this view, the Communist Party in the south is actually a tool for quietly advancing the aims of the Hoa Hao movement. An extremely effective political campaign has been waged by a number of overseas-based Hoa Hao organisations, who post news about political events in Vietnam to the international community on several very active Internet sites and project information back into Vietnam by e-mail and other means. Protests and actions by members of the Hoa Hao to achieve greater freedom and recognition for their religion continue to take place in Vietnam and abroad. Of a less revolutionary order of activity, members of the faith are also very active in health care provision, community development activities and philanthropy. Such activities in accordance with the Master’s injunction to social engagement represent a viable and promising basis for the Hoa Hao to secure broader political support.


The Hoa Hao religion has only begun to emerge from the shadows of war and political repression, to gain the attention of journalists, web surfers and domestic and international tourists. It is hardly surprising therefore that the available commentary on Hoa Hao Buddhism reflects the concerns of those who apprehended the religion through the lens of past conflicts. In some quarters, the faith is still regarded as a survival of an outmoded socio-economic system, a normative response to the traumatic impact of French colonialism, a hoped for alternative to the communist movement, or a victim of such forces. The types of questions asked of it are zero-sum and apocalyptic. Will it survive or be destroyed? Will it successfully resist or perish due to state repression? These sets of questions reflect markedly the concerns of an earlier era and are inadequate for comprehending the contemporary concerns of the religion. Today, movement and exchanges between people and across borders are easier, ideas flow more freely, the market has emerged as a new pre-occupation. Yet our tools for understanding the Hoa Hao religion remain poor, based as they are on limited data and addressing only a narrow set of concerns.

My own discussions with members of the religion both in Vietnam and elsewhere have brought to light a different set of emphases and a more wide-ranging set of concerns. Vietnam’s complex and bloody wars of de-colonisation are over and the passage of time has allowed attention to be focused on the nation’s own colonialist history. Improved physical access to the area has enabled a better appreciation of the ecological conditions in which the religion developed. The climate of increased movement and exchange has brought into focus the question of borrowing and influences rather than the issues of conflict and incomprehension. Economic exchanges within Vietnam and abroad are in full flow, and Hoa Hao followers are deeply engaged in marketing activities. The Internet takes the dimension of political engagement to new levels as members of the religion joust quite effectively with the government in securing new publics and developing transnational networks.

Considered a local grassroots religion, there is no denying that this is a faith whose growth has been in tandem with the consolidation of the state, sharing to some extent its assimilationist concerns. Its potential, therefore, to work with the current regime must be recognised. A syncretic creed, product of a communicatively open region, it is likely to absorb some of the state’s ideological concerns but is also likely to influence critically the way the state operates in the region. Given that the intensity of communication throughout the Mekong delta is increasing due to its increasing global integration, the religion is likely to continue to assimilate and be transformed by other ideological currents. These processes might be considered as continuous with a history that I have argued is more dynamic and cosmopolitan than some theorists have recognised. The relative amorphousness of the religion also gives believers a certain amount of doctrinal leeway to define their own tradition, even though a lack of clarity as to what constitutes the Hoa Hao religion could possibly also lead to conflicts. However, for the same reason Hoa Hao Buddhism is not likely to succumb to external threats or lose its ‘essence.’ Undoubtedly, its followers will be key players in the economy, society, community development and politics of the Mekong delta for the foreseeable future.