Spiritual heritage and the question of post-war reconciliation in Vietnam

Tam Ngo

- completed -

This project focuses on how aspects of identity politics are reflected in and re-worked through contemporary reconstruction and recollection of these traditions’ myths of origins and legendary materials. More importantly, using the religious discourse as a lens, this project aims to address the larger question of Vietnam’s post-war reconciliation, between living and dead population as well as between its atheist ideology and forever dependence on spiritual and religious consolation. Due to a century of successive wars Vietnam’s landscape is filled with millions of displaced human remains which causes the utter concern for a population which maintain a great fear of “bad death” and the strict observation of secondary burial. The frenzy of bone finding missions have taken place all over Vietnam have opened up moment and occasion for grievances of war lost and past sufferings, which were not generally allowed under the Vietnamese state’s control of post-war emotion. Despite of the alleged honor of martyr sacrifice the Vietnamese state also fails to provide its population proper aid in this search for war death. This leaves the people no choice but to turn to spirit communication, a traditional and popular method to locate and identify war death. Banning the employment of such method, as the Vietnamese state did for some time, puts the state such direct confrontation with its grievous population that it has to soon loosened control over what it once deemed “superstitious” and instead encouraged scientists to find scientific reasoning to such practices. This state’s compromise comes with its new consequence; a twisted marriage between spiritual and sciences which turned scientists into spirit medium and illiterate spirit medium into lecturers in scientific seminar.

This project explores various aspects of the booming spiritual industry in Vietnam. In particular, it zooms onto the revival of a number of folk religious practices in Vietnam such as the complex and ambiguous reemergence of ‘spirit writing’ as well as the intervention of a new religious movement, the Ho Chi Minh religion, both as the lattest addition to the market. Spirit writing were banned by the state as superstition until recently, after they were employed as a method to communicate with the deceased communist leader Ho Chi Minh in the early 1990s, this tradition is revived and practiced by a large portion of Vietnamese population within and outside of Vietnam. However, both the revival of spirit communication and the invention of Ho Chi Minh religion are watched carefully by the state and provokes skepticism among the more secular part of society. As a response, practitioners have begun to adopt the concept of ‘spiritual heritage’ in an attempt to gain respectability and legitimacy.

One part of the project, the fieldwork research and collection of material about the emergence of the Ho Chi Minh religion has been completed through the collaboration with the Center for Research and Promotion of Cultural Heritage (CCH) in Hanoi (Vietnam), directed by Professor Nguyen Van Huy and with Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Kenneth Young Professor of Sino-Vietnamese History at Harvard University. In the next phrase, while writing up, more material needs to be collected through fieldwork research among Vietnamese population in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.

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