Monday, June 6, 2011

Vietnam – A communist country with (limited) freedom of religion

A typical joke you hear about a communist country:

"A potato farmer to a minister: Our harvest this year will be so good that the pile of potatoes will reach the knees of God.

Minister: Remember that in our country, we no longer believe in god.

Potato farmer: That’s okay. Remember in our country, we no longer have potatoes."

I heard this story/joke for the first time in the U.S., just a couple of weeks before my departure to Vietnam to do my practicum. The person who told me is one of the co-founders of the foundation that I am working with in Thai Binh province. I was preparing my heart and soul that the people in Vietnam would be pretty much atheist people.

But the reality is very different from what I was told. As a person who had never visited a communist country before, I am presented with somewhat an existence of a belief in higher power/existence. In the building where I live, there is an altar where people present food and other offerings. In Indonesia, the country where I am from, this altar is very common in Hindu society in Bali Island. And most of the times, people will relate a presence of an altar with Buddhism.

Ten days after staying in Vietnam, I was taken to an event at a pagoda in the province to celebrate a new statue of Buddha from Thailand. I was amazed by the number of people attended the event. Most of them were elderly women, although I also attended a Buddhism lesson for the young people in the evening after the celebration.

And just two days ago on Sunday, I had the chance to attend a mass at a Catholic church in the province. Interestingly, the church segregate the seats between women and men (in the picture, the women are sitting on the left-hand side and the men are sitting on the right-hand side).The church itself was built 3 years ago by a wealthy family in the area. I have attended Catholic masses before as I attended a Catholic school when I was in middle and high school. I have to admit that the mass in Vietnam is a lot simpler and far less movement than the masses I have been to.

Despite the existence of places of worship, I was also told that whatever present in the Vietnamese society, they have to be first approved by the government. Vietnam is an interesting country to study as it embraces communist principles, while the people are allowed to choose their religions, of course, only from those that are authorized by the higher authority.

Santy Otto in Thai Binh, Vietnam (MS in Development Management)

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