The three are among numerous foreigners having demand to and practicing their belief and religion while living and working in Vietnam. Their stories about their daily religious life in Vietnam have inspired us to produce this megastory, featuring foreign people of different culture and religions maintaining their spiritual life in Vietnam – home of multi-ethnic cultural identities and religions itself.
At a Sunday noon in a full house in a small lane of Dong Da district, Hanoi, Heather McClellan, a 36-year-old American freelance artist and her husband and four kids are happily preparing for the lunch together as it is the once-a-week chance when all family members are able to enjoy together. Before eating, they close their eyes, perform the ritual prayers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), thanking God for the means and peaceful life.
Heather and her husband, Richard McClellan, a business consultant, have settled down in Vietnam for six years. It was not difficult for them to find the community of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hanoi when they arrived in the capital city in 2013. And over the past six years, while in the Southeast Asian country, they have maintained their routine of read scripture and praying every day coupled with going to church and learning the Gospel every Sunday.
Heather said wherever her family lived they have always maintained their religious routine as a way to gain comfort living abroad and help them deal with sickness away from home.
“The Gospel really creates the environment no matter where we go because it is part of our family’s continual routine, and an interesting part of my children development because it helps them recognize that you have to adapt to the environment wherever you are living,” Heather told the Vietnam News Agency. “Living and practicing our religion in Vietnam is a great experience. It creates the community and allows us to have comfort when we are homesick.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was introduced in Vietnam by American soldiers during the resistance war against American troops.
After the war, American soldiers returned home, however, many other Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints followers still gathered in groups and practiced their religion in Vietnam without a legally registered personality or organisation. The religion was officially recognised in Vietnam in May 2016.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to do good deeds to society and develop a healthy lifestyle for themselves. Therefore, one of Heather’s priorities is making sure her children learn the Church’s teachings continuously wherever they live. Daily religious practice and praying hours together keep her family’s tradition, enforce their bond while creating a healthy environment for her children’s development so that they can become good members of the religion and good citizens in the community.
“I think that aspect of the Gospel in our daily routine is really an important part of what allows my children to become good members of the Gospel and good citizens in the community,” Heather said.
The LDS Church is among small religions, with just around 17,000 members around the world.
Heather said she has witnessed a surge in the number of LDS Church members in Vietnam, reaching about 1,000 currently, mostly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. There was only one branch with 40 members in Hanoi in 2014. The figures are now four branches with nearly 500 members.
LDS is one of religious organisations recognized under Vietnam’s legal framework created by the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, the first of its kind with major new contents, specifying the right to freedom of religion and folk belief for foreigners residing lawfully in Vietnam.
“More missionaries have come to Vietnam to teach the Gospel. More people, including Vietnamese learn about the Church and show their passion and love for the Gospel,” she said.
LDS is one of numerous religious organisations officially recognized after Vietnam’s 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, the first of its kind with major new contents, specifying the right to freedom of religion and folk belief for foreigners residing lawfully in Vietnam.
According to Nguyen Van Thanh, Head of the Religious Affairs, under the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the law issuance with its new major contents related to the right to religious freedom of foreigners residing lawfully in Vietnam a breakthrough, as these contents had not been mentioned in any previous related legal documents.
As of the end of June 2017, Vietnam has recognised or granted operation registration certificates to 41 organisations of 15 religions with about 25.3 million followers, accounting for 27 percent of the population.
Among the recently-recognised worshipping places and organisations, many are foreign establishments. The surge was buoyed by a recent adjustment of Vietnam’s legal framework on religious affairs, with the Law on Belief and Religion being a milestone.
Douglas Phan, from America, whose Vietnamese name is Nguyen Quoc Quan, said he doesn’t know much about the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, but he believes that it’s not until the Law issuance that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members can come together, share their belief, experience and grow and learn the religion together freely.
“I don’t know much in detail what that law is and exactly how it affects, but I trust the Government is always understanding and accepts what we are doing here. The government is very welcoming, and respect us, we are really grateful for this” Quan said.
Serving as a missionary, (aka Big Brother) in the LDS branch in Hanoi, Donglas Phan said as foreigners, the branch’s members have a full participation with Vietnamese congretation and have a wonderful time and experience in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Travis Howard, also a Big Brother in the Church, said the Law is really helpful to many religious people in Vietnam, especially foreigners, thus giving them a more favourable condition to practice their religion and help more people understand about their practice.
“It is a wonderful experience, and open for us to practice here, share our religion here in Vietnam. I am very grateful for what the Government did to us. How they allow us to organize and practice and share our belief,” Travis Howard said.
Travis, whose Vietnamese name is Nguyen Cao Tran, said the religious community wants to make sure that the members understand all regulations and law on religious practice in the country, follow, respect and honour the Law because the God’s teaching is all about being good to each others and good individuals in society.
Remarkably, the number of branches and members increase, almost one new member every week, including Vietnamese people.
Douglas Phan and Travis Howard are among dozens of LDS missionaries who have come to Vietnam to teach the Gospel, contributing to the church growth in a country where as many as 60,799 dignitaries and 133,662 religious workers have been welcomed over the past five years to work at 27,916 places of worship of different religions nationwide.
Heather’s husband, Richard, said they were excited to see old faces again and new members every time they returned to Vietnam from America. He said he believes many of them find comfort living in Vietnam so much that they call the country home away from their home./.
For Muslims, Ramadan is an important celebration when they show their spiritual dedication and personal growth. These days, the Muslim community in Vietnam is joining their fellow believers around the world, happily celebrating the event.
Khalil Urrasman, a Pakistani businessman who has lived in Hanoi for more than 10 years, told the Vietnam News Agency he was happy to welcome Ramadan in Vietnam where locals are very friendly and even non-Muslim Vietnamese join his community to celebrate the festival.
“We have a great experience here in Hanoi with our Muslim family. A lot of Muslim people, friends come here and join us, particularly in the Ramadan month,” said Khalil Urrasman. “Many Vietnamese people said ‘Happy Ramadan,’ or ‘Have a blessed Ramadan’ to us. They are very friendly with us, foreign Muslims,” he added.
Home to 16 different official religions, Vietnam has more than 95 percent of its population practicing a belief or religion. With its traditional open culture, Vietnamese people accept and welcome different foreign religions and followers.
More than half of Vietnam’s 96-million population is Buddhist, while Islam has just around 72,000 followers. However, in Vietnam, there is no state religion and all registered religions can be practiced without any discrimination.
Doan Hong Cuong, 65, who has spent nearly 30 years of his life taking care of the Hanoi-based Al Noor, the only mosque in northern Vietnam, said he has never seen any conflict between either Muslims and non-Muslim people or non-religious people in the neighbourhood.
“Those who don’t know much about Islam may associate Islam with terrorism or violence as they hear it on TV or violent situations in other countries in the world. However, nothing like that ever happens here,” Cuong said.
Cuong said Muslims are often thought of to be subject to many strict rules. However, those who learn about Islam know the religion is all about peace, and those rules tell followers to abstain from sexual relations and sinful speech and behaviour. In the end, the religion wants its followers to do good deeds and doesn’t ban them from enjoying themselves.
As for Urrasman, over the past decade living and working in Hanoi, he has developed a good connection with Vietnamese non-Muslim people around him.
“Vietnamese non-Muslim people enjoy and learn a lot about our Muslim people. They like the community of Muslims,” Khalil said.
Islam is one of the world’s major religions, with more than 1 billion followers. However, it is one of the minor religions in Vietnam, with just about 72,000 Muslims. The figure includes 100 Vietnamese and more than 300 foreign Muslims in Hanoi.
The Muslim community in Vietnam observes the same Muslim rules and disciplines as Muslim communities across the world do, praying five times throughout the day: in the morning, at noon, late afternoon, sunset and early night. However the Friday noon prayer is the most important weekly ritual when about 200 Muslims, mostly foreigners, gather at the Al-Noor Mosque on Hanoi’s Hang Luoc Street for praying.
Foreigners like Urrasman, coming from different countries and backgrounds, gather at the mosque, pray together and have a good time, and call each other family.
“When we came here, we meet a lot of new people from the Muslim community living in Vietnam. We may not know each other and come from different countries but we can talk with anyone confidently, offer any kind of help, support each other for everything,” he said.
Vietnam is home to 89 mosques and Muslim worship places nationwide, mainly in the south. For Urrasman, the fact the Muslim community in Vietnam observes the same rules with Muslims around the world is also among important factors that help him find it more comfortable in his religious routine.
“When it comes to religious practice in Vietnam, everything makes me feel like home, with Koran Holy Book available in English, Arabic and Vietnamese here at the Al Noor mosque,” he said.
Khalil said with their proximity praying together, shoulder to shoulder at the Al Noor mosque, facing towards the Islamic Holy land of Mecca: ”Muslims from different cultures, backgrounds and nation develop unity, giving them peace and comfort living abroad”./.
Victor Selengia, a Tanzanian businessman having lived and worked in Hanoi for two years, is among regular attendees at a Mass in English held every Sunday at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Grand Church) in Hanoi. Selengia said it is very helpful for him to be able to attend the Mass in English in Vietnam’s capital city where he once thought language would be a problem for him in terms of religious practice.
“It’s really good to go to the church in a different country. I go to this church every Sunday. When I have any difficulties in life, I come to the church and talk with the priest. The Lord is there for me,” Victor said.
Vietnam is becoming increasingly welcoming to foreigners who want to live, study and work in the country, as well as visit. This includes Catholics who wish to maintain their religious practice routine.
Therefore, hosting Masses in foreign languages has helped foreign Catholics fulfill their religious practice while in Vietnam.
Love Letter, from the Philippines recently visited Hanoi for the first time. As a tourist, however, the first thing she did when arriving Hanoi was not search for a famous tourism destination. Instead, she searched for a nearby church to attend a Mass on the weekend.
After mere minutes of searching online, Letter found Masses available in English at several churches in Hanoi, which, she said was beyond her expectations as they are in foreign languages.
“I had no difficulties at all finding a Mass at this church. I am even more happy to know that the priest will preach in English, which is really good for me, as a foreign tourist. I really appreciate it,” Love said.
Attending the English Mass at the Grand Church, with preaching in English and the ritual procedure hosted in uniform as in any other countries worldwide, Letter said she finds the prayers very friendly and comfortable while she had a chance to view the church, one of Hanoi’s renowned tourism attraction.
“The church is very nice. The English Mass is enjoyable. The atmosphere, feeling inside very solemn, a good way for pray, the way you practice your rituals inside,” said Love Lette.
Catholicism was brought to Vietnam by French missionaries in the 17th century. Over the past century, Vietnamese Catholicism has developed strongly, becoming the second biggest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
In addition to masses for Vietnamese Catholics, weekly masses in foreign languages have been held at different churches across the nation to serve increasing demand for religious practice among foreigners and tourists.
Selengia found the Catholic ceremonies and ordinances at the Grand Church uniform for the faithful as in other countries. Procedures such as the rituals, the private moments for praying and receiving communion from the priest were similar.
“God is with you as long as you have the faith. The most important thing is the Lord keeps us safe from sins. Praying helps you be well in whatever you do and stay out of sins,” he said.
The first mass in English was hosted in Cua Bac Church in Hanoi 20 years ago. Nowadays, weekly Masses are available in both English and French at Duc Ba Church in Ho Chi Minh City, Cua Bac Church and the Grand Church in Hanoi. The number of foreign attendees has steadily increased.
Likewise, Anuk Fernando from Sri Lanka, who attended the Mass in French at the Grand Church, said the only difference from the Mass at his home is there are a lot more people of different cultures in the church.
Over the past year living and working in Hanoi as a business consultant, sometimes Fernando attended French Mass at Cua Bac Church, just a few kilometres from the Grand Church. He enjoyed the Mass of the same process and routines as in any other countries he has been to.
According to the General Statistic Office of Vietnam, Catholicism has about 10 million followers, making up more than nine percent of the population. Catholicism is the second biggest religion in Vietnam, after Buddhism at nearly 50 percent of the population.
The network of churches has been built and preserved across the nation. Statistics shows that as of the end of 2018, there were over 4,500 churches nationwide, with more than 4,000 priests.
Vietnam has a consistent policy of respecting and ensuring the right to belief and religion freedom of Vietnamese people at home and abroad. The country also pays focus on international religious cooperation, considering the work a cultural bridge that helps strengthen people-to-people diplomacy between Vietnam and religious nations.
Over the past years, thousands of priests have been sent to the Vatican to study and returned home to serve the demand for religious practice among Vietnamese practitioners as well as foreigners living and working in Vietnam.
According to Nguyen Van Thanh, Head of the Religious Affairs Department under the Central Committee of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, dignitaries and followers have played the role of religious ambassadors to strengthen the relationship between Vietnam and the Vatican and other Catholic nations, while contributing to the development of their home nation.
“In his teachings, ex-pope Benedict XVI advised Vietnamese Christians and dignitaries at home and abroad to practice their religion while contributing to the nation’s building, unity, and welfare,” Thanh said.
The Government’s efforts to create a favourable condition for religious activities reflects Vietnam’s determination and efforts to realise its commitments related to religious freedom and human rights while strengthening the nation’s great unity, Thanh added.
The exchange on religious affairs has given international friends an insight into Vietnamese religion freedom and cultural identity, stepping up people-to-people diplomacy and tightening bilateral friendships and multi-faceted cooperation while showing Vietnam’s responsibility with the international community.
With a traditional open culture, Vietnamese people accept and welcome different foreign religions and followers as long as they serve the motto “Living a good life and enjoying a lofty religion”./.
The 16th UN Day of Vesak 2019 was hosted by the Vietnam Government and Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (SBV) at Tam Chuc Pagoda in Kim Bang district of Ha Nam from May 12 to 14. The event welcomed 1,650 delegates from 112 countries and territories worldwide and more than 20,000 Buddhist followers and visitors from all walks of life.
Themed “Buddhist Approach to Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Sustainable Societies,” the event offered opportunities for State and religious leaders around the world to unite and share their common interest and passion for peace, sustainability and cooperation for the world, contributing to realising the UN’s goals.
The Day of Vesak, recognised by the UN General Assembly on December 15, 1999, aims to celebrate the thrice-sacred event of the life of the Buddha Gautama (birth, enlightenment and death) and to acknowledge the core values of peace, humanity and wisdom in Buddhism, one of the world’s oldest religions.
Leaving a good impression on foreign friends
Enjoying the festive atmosphere for the first time in his life as a delegate to a Vesak celebration, Most Venerable Bhikkhu Chunming Chen from Taiwan (China) was deeply impressed to see so many people from around the world gathering for the UN Day of Vesak 2019 in such peace and safety in Vietnam.
“I am very impressed that the Vesak 2019 is able to gather so many people from countries around the world. Attending here, I feel that you bring more peace to the world, because many countries join together, enjoying the peaceful and safe atmosphere,” said Chumming Chen.
Bhikkhu Chunming Chen was among thousands of international delegates who gathered for the celebration of the Lord Buddha on the 16th UN Day of Vesak 2019. He said he was struck by the tranquil landscape of Tam Chuc Pagoda, and how well Vietnamese Buddhist followers of different sects, and non-religious people get along with each other.
“This is the first time I have visited Vietnam at a Vesak festival. Before I came here, I thought different Buddhist sects in Vietnam would have different traditions and rituals. But I have to change my idea when I see them all unite and enjoy the joint rituals and religious activities together,” said the Taiwanese delegate.
Attending the UN Day of Vesak, holding their religions and belief near and dear to their hearts, it’s easy for delegates and visitors to get along with each other and find a conversation starter, no matter which political, religious or social background they come from.
Before the event in Ha Nam, Bhikkhu Chunming Chen and Chairrudin Kuslan from Indonesia were strangers. They met each other, found common of interests in Buddhism at the festival and became friends. Bhikkhu Chunming Chen said he believed they would stay friends, keep in touch and support each other.
“Being Buddhists, I believe it’s our pre-destity that brings me and Mr. Chairrudin Kuslan together. Though we speak different native languages and come from different nations, we shared our ideas and passion for Buddhism,” said Chunming Chen.
For Vietnam, whose more than half of its 95-million people follow Buddhism, hosting the UN Day of Vesak 2019 was a gold opportunity for the country to show the world its peace, hospitality and tolerance.
Welcoming thousands of international delegates and followers of different religions and well as non-religious visitors on the occasion, the host country took advantage of the event to introduce the beauty of its peaceful landscapes and friendly people, well as Vietnamese Buddhist culture to international delegates by offering a varied activities during the four-day celebration.
The activities included free tours to renowned religious and cultural tourism locations, namely the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay; the Trang An Landscape Complex – the world’s mixed cultural and natural heritage and Bai Dinh Pagoda in Ninh Binh; Sa Pa district’s Fansipan Mountain – the “Roof of Indochina” - the 3,143 m mountain.
Highlighting values of friendship and harmony among the outcomes of Vietnam’s hosting of the Vesak 2019 celebration, at the event’s closing ceremony, Most Venerable Phra Brahmapundit, President of the International Council for Day of Vesak (ICDV) described the celebration as a great success and attributed it to the hospitality and generosity of the Vietnamese Government, dedication of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha and warm welcome of Vietnamese people.
“Vesak 2019 celebration has been a great success. You have set a higher standard of Vesak celebration this time, from our observation. During the conference, we have a full cooperation, not only with the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha but also with the Vietnamese Government. It’s what we need to keep in mind,” said Most Venerable Phra Brahmapundit.
The ICDV President called the event a wonderful time together for delegates, saying, “We all have had a good time and a good memory of Vietnam.”
“Anyway, we will have to go home, but this time not empty-handed. We learned a lot of values from each other at the conference. We have met new friends, made new commitments to bring out a sustainable society,” he added.
He called on participants to stay in touch afterwards, join exchange programmes in each other’s countries and work together.
“I believe that we will continue manifest what we have done to preserve our friendship, humanity and cooperation. It would mean a lot to our work here,” he said.
The UN Day of Vesak has the sigfinicance beyond a religious and cultural festival, sending the long-lasting message of the Lord Buddha on peace, harmony, tolerance and kindness to all people, he underlined.
Vietnam supports for the UN’s activities
Vietnam put forth the theme “Buddhist approach to global leadership and shared responsibilities for sustainable societies,” for the 16th UN Day of Vesak, showing its effort and dedication to gathering international contributions to realizing the UN’s goals to be achieved by 2030.
Highlighting the theme of UN Day of Vesak 2019 that reflects the UN’s 17 SDGs, Most Venerable Phra Brahmapundit said the festival was not only a chance for Buddhist followers around the world to celebrate, but also aims to serve all people by advocating for sustainable development and addressing global challenges such as environmental pollution, climate change, education and more.
“We have formed Buddhist partnership contributing to realising the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, thus promoting world peace, harmony, and improvements for all people,” said the ICDV President.
The President of the International Council for Day of Vesak also praised the outcomes of the UN Day of Vesak 2019 in Ha Nam, saying they have made significant contributions to realising the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“We gather here today to talk about global issues and how to address them, whether they are conflicts among people, culture, religions or territories,” he said. “In the end, we want to send a message of preserving peace, traditional values and the environment for a better future.”
Likewise, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the theme and agenda of the UN Day of Vesak 2019 has demonstrated the Government’s commitments to implementing the UN Millennium Development Goals, while promoting Vietnam as a peaceful and friendly nation.
“The agenda of the celebration reflects the goals of the UN’s Agenda 2030 for sustainability, prosperity, ensuring that no one will be left behind, which the Vietnamese Government has committed to realise,” said PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
With support from the Vietnamese Government, the host nation welcomed a record high number of State leaders, dignitaries, and representatives from international organisations gathering at Vesak Celebrations in Vietnam. They include Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli; Myanmar President Win Myint; Indian Vice President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) Venkaiah Naidu; Chairman of the National Council (Upper House) of Bhutan Tashi Dorji; and 1,650 delegates from more than 570 foreign delegations of 112 countries and territories, along with more than 20,000 Vietnamese Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, and followers.
The event also drew United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, UNESCO General Director Audrey Azoulay, and Founding President of the UN Vesak Day’s Organisation Board Pra Brahmapundit.
Delegates’ concensus on the event’s theme as well as their participattion showed their honour for the Lord Buddha and desire to uphold Buddhist philosophy to reduce conflicts, pains and sorrow, establish peace, friendship, co-operation and development among nations for the peace and prosperity of all people worldwide.
Alongside opening and closing ceremonies, its programme included one domestic and five international workshops on issues like responsible leadership for sustainable peace, Buddhist approaches to family issues, healthcare, education, morality, responsible consumption, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Buddhism.
Vietnam respects for freedom of religion
The UN Day of Vesak 2019 was hosted by Vietnam for the third time, following 2008 and 2014. Together with previously-hosted religious and international events, the festival has helped improve Vietnamese Buddhism’s role in international integration and affirmed Vietnam’s position for UN activities in all fields.
With the Ha Nam Declaration, the 16th UN Day of Vesak highlighted Vietnam’s respect for the people’s freedom of belief and religion and the favourable conditions created for religions to be practiced in line with legal regulations and showed Vietnam’s wish to be a friend and trustworthy partner of international friends.
The Vesak 2019 has also proved that Vietnam is a responsible member of the international community and the UN in promoting peace and harmony among religions and cultures.
In an interview with the Vietnam News Agency, Dr. Bui Huu Duoc, head of the Buddhism Department of the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, said the success of the UN Day of Vesak 2019 celebration helped improve Vietnamese Buddhism’s role in international integration and strengthened the VBS’ cooperation and friendship with the world Buddhist community.
It also confirmed Vietnam’s focus and respect for cultural, ethics values of religions, including Buddhism, while showing its policy on international cooperation and integration.
With huge support from the Government, the UN Day of Vesak 2019 received a great number of high-level delegates, particularly state leaders from 112 countries around the world, much more than any previous hosts of a Vesak Day, according to Bui Huu Duoc.
“The figures do the talking. It reflects the active support of the Vietnamese Government in the nation’s religious affairs in general and Buddism in particular, while affirming the crucial role and participation of Buddhism in the international community in connecting religious nations together,” Duoc said.
According to Dr. Bui Huu Duoc, the Buddha-honouring festival not only gathered Buddist delegates, but also those from other religions such as Catholics, Cao Dai, other religions and non-religious delegates, who share the wish to honour the value of peace, friendship, cooperation and improvement.
Vietnam has 53,000 religious dignitaries and 28,000 worshipping places. There are more than 8,000 religious festivals in the country each year.
The country has hosted many major international religious events such as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017 and the United Nations Day of Vesak for the third time this year, Duoc noted.
The UN Day of Vesak 2019 conveyed a message of world peace, unity of humankind, and sustainable development, while hosting the celebration has promoted the image of Vietnam as a peace-loving and tolerant country./.