Understanding the religious beliefs of Vietnamese people can be a bit confusing for new arrivals, partly because there seem to be so many different religions and partly because they are often mixed up together. This is further complicated by the fact that in a communist society everybody is officially atheist, which is clearly not the case in Vietnam.
Historically, the great influences on the country were Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism from China, Hinduism and Islam from Cham culture, Theravada Buddhism from Cambodia and Thailand and Christianity from European missionaries who attempted to convert the local populus.
It is rare to find people who follow just one of these belief systems to the exclusion of all others, and it is typical of Vietnamese that they worship their ancestors at a shrine in their home but will also offer incense to the Buddha when they visit the temple and celebrate animistic beliefs in local festivals.
Mahayana Buddhism is the most common religion, with temples dedicated to it throughout the country, though south of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta, Khmer-style Theravada Buddhist temples predominate. Around two thirds of Vietnamese are thought to be Buddhists.
These beliefs are almost invariably intertwined with an adherence to Confucian ideals and Taoism. Confucius emphasised the importance of duty and loyalty, both to family and to the state, a point that has been harnessed by the communist government to demonise self-interest and to encourage everyone to work for the common good.
Taoism is not an easy philosophy to grasp, though its central belief concerns the duality of life, and this is where the notions of yin and yang, or complimentary opposites, originate. Taoism reveres a huge panoply of gods, among whom the Jade Emperor has precedence, and this is why you may see images of different characters on altars around Vietnam.
Christianity took root in Vietnam during the 16th century and its followers now number about 10 per cent of the population, a significantly higher percentage than any other Southeast Asian country apart from the Philippines. The great majority are Catholic, although there is a significant number of Protestants among the ethnic minorities of the Central Highlands.
Just to complicate things, there are two other religions unique to Vietnam which also have a strong following in certain parts of the country. One is called Hoa Hao, a Buddhist sect that tries to simplify worship so that individuals have a more direct experience when worshipping. It has over a million adherents, but is limited to the area around Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta.
The Cao Dai religion almost sounds like a spoof of all religions, yet it is taken in deadly earnest by its practitioners. Established in the 1920s, it tries to fuse both secular and religious beliefs of East and West, and counts among its saints Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill.
There are around two million Cao Dai adherents in the country and their temples or churches are always brightly decorated with the symbol of the all-seeing eye of the Supreme Being prominently displayed. The main site is at Tay Ninh near Saigon and is one of the most popular spots for tourists to visit around the city.