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Heaven's Gate
After years of official atheism, religion hasn't merely survived in Vietnam—it's popping up all over
By ANTHONY SPAETH

For a Vietnamese buddhist monk, Dao Dung has found the equivalent of spiritual paradise. His home is Hung Tich cave, 75 km southwest of Hanoi, known more evocatively as the Perfume Pagoda. Designated a Buddhist pilgrimage site in the late 18th century, the Perfume Pagoda is one of northern Vietnam's most significant religious sites, and Dung is its main caretaker. His only possessions are a thin mat, a book of Buddhist scriptures, an umbrella and a fine-looking rooster. He sits in the lotus position studying scriptures amid gilded Buddhas and clouds of incense—the very image of a contemplative hermit.

Until, that is, the devotees arrive—in a human flood belying the rigors of reaching the natural grotto. Most pilgrims journey three hours by car or bus from Hanoi, followed by an hour in a rowboat down the Yen River and finally a 3 km climb up the Mountain of Perfumed Traces. The pilgrimage season runs from mid-February to mid-May and this year, at its peak, the daily toll of arrivals hit 20,000. "So many people come," says Nguyen Van Trung, a 12-year-old guide at the pagoda, "that it can take all day to reach the cave and back. The path is like a long caterpillar." Says a weary Dao Dung: "It has been very, very busy, a test."

For Vietnam too, such an outpouring of religious reverence is a test. The country's Communist leaders consider devotion to sites like the Perfume Pagoda as mere incense and opium for the superstitious masses. Nonetheless, in the era of liberalized socialism, the government has relaxed restrictions on six religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Hoa Hau, Cao Dai, Protestantism and Islam. This has led to an explosion of religious fervor—along with a proliferation of cults, charlatans, fortune tellers and other fringe elements. "The problem," says professor Do Quang Hung, director of the government-funded Institute of Religious Studies in Hanoi, "is that we don't know how to properly define belief as either religion or superstition."


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To borrow a Buddhist term: is there a Middle Path between accepting genuine religious sentiment and cracking down on the lunatic fringe? China is struggling with a similar dilemma: religion is taking off throughout the country, but Beijing worries that organized religious groups will become subversive. When members of the Falun Gong sect held an unprecedented—and unauthorized—demonstration of 10,000 people in Beijing in April 1999, the group was proscribed and thousands of its members arrested.

There have been no such displays of defiance in Vietnam, at least not yet. After the country was united in 1975, its government became notorious for repression of religion. A more relaxed policy has developed since the economy opened up in 1986 and religion is on a conspicuous rise. Everywhere, pagodas, churches and temples have been hauled out of decades of neglect or misuse. Some had been converted into granaries or even pigsties. Today, they are attracting devotees by the hordes. According to the United Nations, more than 15 million Vietnamese are religious devotees—out of a population of 80 million—including 7.5 million Buddhists, 5 million Catholics and more than 3 million Muslims. There are at least 21,000 places of worship.

The rub is that the authorities are not convinced that those numbers reflect true religious sentiment. The Institute of Religious Studies' Hung says the enthusiasm is more likely an outbreak of formerly suppressed superstition. "Our research shows that only about 40% of people visiting churches, temples or pagodas maintain what you would call genuine religious conviction," he says. Rampant superstition, the government maintains, isn't good for society and only encourages frauds and cheats. Poor families have been broken up or bankrupted by fanatical devotion; communities have turned idle because of faith in local deities; some sects encourage rigid diets and deny worshippers access to medical treatment, often with tragic results. "A few years ago," says Hung, "a case of mass suicide claimed the lives of 40 people. We might be criticized for taking action against this sort of thing, but it is a very serious problem."

The government's newfound liberalism is clearly built on a foundation of mistrust. "Our leaders did not recognize until recently that repression of such a fundamental human need does not equal its elimination," says Tran Quoc Vuong, a respected historian. "Repression cannot be maintained forever." One of Vietnam's historical dilemmas, according to Vuong, is that it never had a national religion to provide continuity. "There has been Buddhism, Taoism, the ancestor worship of Confucianism and later Catholicism. All of these have been mixed together with animism and the worship of many different deities." The current mushrooming of religious sentiment reflects that mixed past, he says, and the conflict with the state is hardly unique to Vietnam. "Look at the history of the world. Spirituality and the struggle between religion and those in power are a continuous theme of human existence." Vuong sees the process as a natural one. "It will take time," he says, "but we will reach an equilibrium."

At the Perfume Pagoda, there's a whole lot of action aside from prayer. To reach the main cave, pilgrims walk past fortune tellers and vendors selling joss sticks, votive foods and fake paper money to burn as offerings to ancestors. The pagoda is surrounded by a hundred lesser devotional sites. But some of the temples are newly constructed and have no history. A few caves are new, having only recently been blasted from the limestone to attract paying customers. Says Trung, the 12-year-old guide: "Stick with me. I know which ones are fake and which ones are real. But don't tell the new monks. They want to make money and will beat me if I expose them." Even Dao Dung is newly religious, having become a monk only a year ago. Previously he was a soldier, but that's a subject he doesn't want to discuss. "Now I have time to read the scriptures," he says, "and I realize it is there that I will find the way to true happiness." Like Dung, Vietnam is on a new spiritual path, which may be every bit as twisty and arduous as the road to the Perfume Pagoda.

—Reported by Huw Watkin/Ha Tay province

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