The cultural and religious landscape of Vietnam has undergone striking transformations in the course of the economic and political reforms known as the ‘Renovation’. In tandem with intensification of practice in institutional religions, there has been a sharp increase in non-institutionalized religious activities, ranging from household rites and individual propitiation rites at neighbourhood shrines to local festivals and pilgrimages. Life-cycle rituals (including anniversaries of deaths, ancestor worship, hero worship and religiously mediated ethnic, regional and local identities) have all gained in importance.
One of the most influential discourses on the concept of ‘religion’ in Vietnam is linked directly with the state. Religion has played a part in legitimizing and reinforcing the state and in rebellions against it. The relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘state’ is thus best characterized in terms of ‘persistent ambiguities’ or ‘balanced tension’. It follows that what counts as ‘good religion’ or legitimate beliefs and ‘beautiful customs’ is continuously negotiated by the state, Vietnamese scholars, the media and local ritual actors. This applies particularly to traditions such as the worship of ancestors, legendary heroes and local guardian deities. Even the practices of the mother goddess religion, also called ‘Religion of the Four Palaces’, which had been illegal as superstition due to central rituals of spirit possession, were revitalized and have become an extremely popular ritual practice.
In this project I hypothesized that contemporary ancestor worship was a dense, multi-layered phenomenon, including a double trend of transformation and change on the one hand, and ‘back to the roots’ and ‘return to home’ on the other hand. As a ritual of return to one’s origins, which is focused on the family, the community, commensality and autochthony, ancestor worship has been called the ‘national religion of Vietnam’ as well as ‘Vietnam’s religion of nationalism’. Ancestor worship plays an important role not only in daily life, but also during pilgrimages to specific sites and graves. The notion of ancestors is applied here in the broadest sense, to include not only family and lineage forebears, but also heroes of the distant (mythical) past, local guardian spirits and gods as well as, more recently, deceased political figures and war heroes. The rhetoric used in venerating all of these is similar. Analyzing changes in ancestor worship, understood in this broad sense, can illuminate general processes of transformation at both individual and collective level, because the veneration of ancestors and guardian deities is fundamental to Vietnamese culture and national identity. The veneration of historical personages and legendary heroes and heroines is often characterized as authentically Vietnamese, as it expresses values that are perceived to be threatened by foreign influences. Thus ancestor worship touches not only on the ‘ultimate questions’ of dying, death and mourning, but also makes visible the significance of translocal ritual spaces and their negotiation as an on-going process.