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Hòa Hảo is a religious tradition, based on Buddhism, founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So, a native of the Mekong River Delta region of southern Vietnammarker. Adherents consider So to be a prophet, and Hoa Hao a continuation of a 19th-century Buddhist ministry known as Buu Son Ky Huong ("Strange Perfume from Precious Mountains," referring to the That Son range on the Vietnam-Cambodiamarker border). The founders of these traditions are regarded by Hoa Hao followers as living Buddhas—destined to save mankind from suffering and to protect the Vietnamese nation.

Hoa Hao claims approximately two million followers throughout Vietnam; in some provinces near its Delta birthplace, as many as 90 percent of the population practice this tradition. An important characteristic of this sect is its emphasis on peasant farmers, exemplified by the old slogan "Practicing Buddhism While Farming Your Land." Farm life is considered to be the most conducive to religious practice and self-improvement. Patriotism and willingness to defend the homeland are valued .

Hoa Hao also stresses the practice of Buddhism by lay people in the home, rather than focusing primarily on temple worship and ordination. Aid to the poor is favored over pagoda building or expensive rituals; religious and social ceremonies are ideally simple and modest, and are not to include the food offerings, divination services, and elaborate wedding and funeral customs found in some manifestations of Southeast Asian life. These are viewed as a waste of money which would be better spent helping the needy.

In Hoa Hao homes, a plain brown cloth serves as an altar, at which the family prays morning and night. Separate altars are used to honor ancestors and the sacred directions. Only fresh water, flowers, and incense are used in worship; no bells or gongs accompany prayers. A believer away from home at prayer times faces west (i.e., toward Indiamarker) to pray to the Buddha. Adherents are expected to attend communal services on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month and on other Buddhist holy days.


Huynh Phu So
A pagoda of Hoa Hao

Huynh Phu So faced a great deal of trouble when he began to spread the ideas of his religion, a large part of which was Vietnamese nationalism, a dangerous idea in this time of French colonial rule. He was famously put in a lunatic asylum because of his preaching but supposedly converted his doctor to the Hoa Hao belief. As the popularity of Hoa Hao grew, Huynh Phu So made a series of prophecies about the political future of Vietnam. He said that the "true king" would return to lead Vietnam to freedom and prosperity, which caused most Hoa Hao to support the Nguyen pretender Marquis Cuong De, living abroad in Japan.

During World War II, the Hoa Hao supported the Japanese occupation, as did many other groups, and planned for Cuong De to become Emperor of Vietnam. However, this never happened and the Hoa Hao came into conflict with the Communists both because the Viet Minh were anti-Japanese and because of their Marxist opposition to all religion. During the State of Vietnam (1949-1955) they made arrangements with the Head of State Bao Dai, much like those made by the religion of Cao Dai and the Binh Xuyen gang, which was control of their own affairs in return for their nominal support of the Bao Dai regime. In fact, the control of this government by Francemarker meant that most Hoa Hao opposed it.

When America began pushing for Ngo Dinh Diem to run South Vietnam the most powerful groups to concern them were the Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen and the Hoa Hao, which had formed a small private army under General Ba Cut. O.S.S. Colonel Edward Lansdale used bribery with CIA funds to split the Hoa Hao and in 1956 General Duong Van Minh crushed the Hoa Hao and had General Ba Cut beheaded in public. This was the end of the Hoa Hao as an armed group, some later joining the Viet Cong in opposition to the Diem regime. After the war, the Hoa Hao remained.


Although Hoa Hao Buddhism is officially recognized religion in Vietnam, many members refuse the forceful governmental affiliation which it entailed by official recognition and an unknown number of religious leaders have been detained for this reason. Two Hoa Hao Buddhist self-immolated in 2005 to protest against religious persecution and more recently, after a wave of arrests of Hoa Hao Buddhists, nine more were imprisoned in May 2007.

Scholarly works

  • Ho Tai, Hue-Tam. Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
  • Taylor, Philip. "Apocalypse Now? Hòa Hảo Buddhism Emerging from the Shadows of War", The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2001): 339-354.
  • Nguyễn Long Thành Nam. Hòa Hảo Buddhism in the Course of Việtnam’s History. NY: Nova Science Publishing, 2004.
  • Phạm Bích Hợp. Làng Hòa Hảo Xưa và Này (Hòa Hảo Village Past and Present) Ho Chi Minh City: Nha Xuat Ban Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, 1999.

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