2 Vietnamese Sects Risk Disappearing From U.S. as Youths Abandon Old Beliefs


Two religious sects with several million followers in Vietnam are in danger of becoming extinct in the United States, brushed aside by young Vietnamese Americans whose lifestyles clash with the groups’ teachings of traditional cultural values.

The Hoa Hao, who number about 2 million in Vietnam, and the Cao Dai, with about 4 million followers there, are confronting dwindling numbers in the United States and a generation that grew up speaking English, watching television and playing with computers.

“Young people are just not interested in the religion we grew up with,” said Thuong N. Dang, vice president of the Cao Dai Diocese in California and a member of a Garden Grove temple. “But language is the biggest problem. Our children can’t read the teachings because they don’t speak or write Vietnamese.”


Dang and other elders of both sects fear that their religions will disappear within the next generation, a casualty of peace and assimilation rather than of war.

Scholars who have studied both religions say that Vietnamese Americans will lose an important part of their cultural history if they never learn about the contributions made by the Hoa Hao (pronounced hwa how) and Cao Dai (pronounced kow dye) to modern Vietnam.

In Orange County, home to the largest number of Hoa Hao Buddhists and Caodaists outside of Vietnam, leaders of the sects are trying to reach young Vietnamese to keep the religions alive.

Local leaders estimate that each group has at least 1,500 followers in Orange County. There are also Cao Dai and Hoa Hao followers in Texas and the Washington metropolitan area.

Both sects started out as religious movements and secret societies but played political roles in the development of Vietnam after World War II. They influenced the formation of almost every Vietnamese government between 1945 and 1965, especially in what later became South Vietnam.

Caodaism, an amalgam of Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, relies on seances and mediums for instructions from God. Caodaists believe that God chose the Vietnamese to found “a novel religion” to unite all of the world’s religions. Caodaism has several branches and a bureaucratic structure.


Hoa Hao Buddhists reject organized religion and practice a form of Buddhism that frowns on temple worshiping and religious leaders. Followers believe that the founder of their religion, a peasant from the Mekong Delta, had healing and mystical powers.

Professor Chung Hoang Chuong, director of the Vietnam-American Studies Center at San Francisco State University, said the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai will become extinct in this country unless the sects make the scriptures relevant to the young.

“People are confused about how to adapt Western ideology to the old belief system. You’re talking about applying the principles of Hoa Hao and Cao Dai to young people who grew up with MTV and American football,” Chuong said.

Chuong and Professor Hue-Tam Ho Tai, who teaches Sino-Vietnamese history at Harvard University, said that many young Vietnamese Americans find the religions irrelevant. If the young are apathetic about the religions, Chuong said, the parents are partly to blame.

“Just going to services with their parents will not be enough to keep the kids interested. Parents have to spend more time with their children talking about their traditions and culture,” Chuong said. “Nowadays, Vietnamese kids find that they have very little in common with the elders.”

In a move to meet young people on their own turf, both sects have turned to the Internet to reach Vietnamese American youth and teach them about the religions.


Dr. Hum Duc Bui, a general practitioner and prominent member of the Cao Dai community in Southern California, posted one of the Web pages. Bui and his wife, Dr. Hong Bui, who specializes in infectious diseases, were raised as Caodaists. Both of his parents were Cao Dai bishops. But none of the Buis’ four children practice Caodaism.

One son is agnostic, and another follows Confucius’ teachings. A third belongs to a Protestant denomination. The couple’s daughter belongs to another Protestant church in Northern California and ministers to college students.

“I let them choose their own religion,” Hum Bui said. “Our religion teaches us that all religions are one. So, it’s not a big disappointment that my children are not Caodaists.” Jim Bui, the couple’s 28-year-old son, practices internal medicine in Santa Clara. He admires his parents’ “strong beliefs” but said, “they aren’t for me.

“I’ve been agnostic most of my life. I don’t believe in a supreme being and an afterlife,” he said.

Jeannie Lee, the Buis’ daughter, said she disagrees with some of her parents’ beliefs, like reincarnation.

“My beliefs are very different. My mom and dad believe there are different ways to get to God, and I believe there is only one way, Christianity. My brothers and I were exposed to Caodaism when we were children, but we each took a different path,” Lee said.


Thanh Thu Nguyen, a Hoa Hao Buddhist, faces a predicament similar to the Buis’. Her husband is Catholic and usually takes their two children to Mass on Sunday.

“I teach the children the differences between the two religions, and they see me practice my religion. So, they know about Hoa Hao. One day they’ll be able to choose,” Nguyen said in a recent interview at the sect’s meeting hall in Santa Ana, which serves all Hoa Hao Buddhists in Southern California. The hall, a tract home converted to a community building, was purchased with contributions from members of the religion.

But while sect members are determined to preserve and follow the teachings of their religion, life in the United States has also forced them to compromise some beliefs.

Caodaism prohibits divorce, but the religion’s leaders look the other way when a marriage dissolves. Seances, a key part in Cao Dai rituals, are not practiced in the United States because “we know that spiritualism is somewhat alien here,” Hum Bui said.

Hoa Hao Buddhists also have seen a need to worship according to American religious standards. In Vietnam, where the Hoa Hao populate entire villages, their households are identified by altars placed in the frontyard. Members living in the United States who have altars outdoors place them in the backyard instead, where they can pray in private.

Despite theological differences, the sects were political and military allies in the armed conflicts from 1945 to 1975. They also formed alliances with the Japanese during World War II, fought the French and later the troops of the South Vietnamese government propped up by the United States in 1954.


Later, the sects battled the Viet Cong alongside U.S. forces, but not before they had entered into a brief alliance with the Viet Cong’s predecessor and other nationalist groups 20 years earlier.

The Hoa Hao fielded an army of 12,000 and the Cao Dai army numbered 20,000 until both were absorbed into the South Vietnamese military. The sects used to control large areas south and northwest of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

The Hoa Hao and Cao Dai flourished on paradox.

Caodaism is structured after the Roman Catholic Church and includes cardinals and a pope among the religious leaders. The sect was founded in 1926 during a table-moving seance, when members believe that God spoke to the early disciples through a medium. Though Caodaists say their religion’s goal is to unite Christians, Jews and all other religions, the sect’s early leaders admired Hitler and Mussolini.

In the religion, God is represented by an eye, and the Cao Dai’s pantheon of saints includes Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Julius Caesar, Sun Yat Sen, Joan of Arc, Pericles and Jesus.

Unlike the Cao Dai’s complex and bureaucratic structure, Hoa Hao Buddhists practice a simple and ascetic religion, without the benefit of monks, pagodas or religious icons. They scorn monks as lazy and useless and worship at home instead of in temples, which are considered ostentatious. The Hoa Hao believe there are only two kinds of people: those who work and those who do not. Monks are included in the latter category.

Members favor brown rather than red, which is traditionally associated with Buddhism. They believe in the traditional Buddhist teaching of reincarnation and also worship ancestors and national heroes.


The sect was founded in 1939 by Huynh Pho So, a 20-year-old prophet who claimed to be a reincarnation of the Buddha Master of Western Peace. The religion takes its name from Huynh’s home village in the Mekong Delta.

Hoa Hao followers wear amulets with the inscription “Strange Fragrance from the Precious Mountain,” a holy site near the Vietnam-Cambodia border, and believe the amulets protect them from harm and evil.

“Some may find the beliefs of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai strange, but not the people who were raised in these religions,” said Tai, who has written extensively about Vietnamese sects.

“The younger Vietnamese who grew up here may find them strange too. But in South Vietnam, these beliefs helped their parents and grandparents maintain their identity. Here, the younger generation has become hyphenated Americans, and religion is not the focus of their lives.”

Chuong, of San Francisco State University, said it would be “a major blow” if the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao disappear from “the fabric of Vietnamese American culture.”

“The sects appeared because the old traditions were being shaken by the French. They offered a way to hang on to the culture while merging with new beliefs,” Chuong said. “But all of that is being lost today. Hoa Hao and Cao Dai don’t quite fit into the concept of American culture, and, frankly, many parents don’t understand the cultural importance of the religions. For many Vietnamese in this country, Christianity offers the same promises and is easier to understand.”



Fast Facts

Orange County is home to the largest number of Hoa Hao Buddhists and Caodaists outside Vietnam. A brief look at the two religions:


* Holds basic Buddhist tenets of nonviolence, moderation, vegetarianism

* Originated in 1939 by prophet Huynh Phu So in the southern Vietnam village of Hoa Hao, in the Mekong Delta

* Members worship at home, shunning pagodas and monks

* Flowers are offered at pagoda on 15th and 30th of each month and on Buddha’s birthday

* Other beliefs include abstaining from opium, gambling and alcohol


* Holds that God is creator of universe and of all religions; it is God’s will that all religions become one

* Originated Dec. 24, 1925, as a message from God to a group of scholars doing spiritual writing

* Members worship in temples and homes

* Four daily ceremonies, high masses celebrated at midnight on 14th and 30th of each month

* Other practices include sobriety, honesty and avoiding obscenity

* Internal differences split the sect into 12 groups in the 1930s. Largest group built a “Holy See” in Tay Ninh city.

* Sect incorporates the teachings of various religions in its scriptures, but it’s administration is patterned after the Roman Catholic Church.


Sources: “An Outline of Caodaism” and “Hoa Hao Buddhism Biography and Teachings of Prophet Huynh Phu So”