South Vietnamese adhere to a broad range of religions. Between 70 and 80 percent of the country's 16 million people are classified as Buddhist. It is estimated, however, that a much smaller percentage are actually practitioners. Roman Catholics comprise roughly 10 percent of the total population. Usually found in and around the country's urban centers, the Catholics are products of Vietnam's contacts with Europeans. Two so-called politico-religious sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, have attracted large segments of the rural population, particularly in the Mekong Delta.* For the most part, the scattered Montagnard tribes worship animal forms and have no organized religion, although many have been converted to Christianity.
Fundamentally, South Vietnamese society is rural and agrarian. Over the centuries the Vietnamese have tended to cluster in tiny hamlets strewn down the coastal plain and across the Mekong Delta. Usually composed of a handful of closely knit families whose ancestors settled the surrounding land generations earlier, the hamlet is South Vietnam's basic community unit. Next larger is the village which resembles the American township in function in that it encompasses a number of adjacent hamlets. The Vietnamese people have naturally developed strong emotional ties with their native villages. "To the Vietnamese," it has been said without exaggeration,
*Founded just after World War I, the Cao Dai claims more than one and a half million faithful in South Vietnam. The religion incorporates elements of Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, and large doses of spiritualism. Its clergy, headed by a "pope," is organized in a heirarchy modelled on that of the Roman Catholic Church. The extent of its borrowing is suggested by the fact that adherents count the French author Victor Hugo as one of their saints. Politically, the Cao Dai moved sharply in the direction of nationalism during the 1940s, organized its own army, and fought sporadic actions against the French and the subsequent French-controlled government of Emperor Bao Dai until suppressed by the Diem government in 1954.
Like the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao is peculiarly Vietnamese. In the late 1930s, a Buddhist monk named Huynh Pho So began a "protestant" movement within the worldly, easy-going Buddhist faith then prevalent. His followers, whose ranks grew rapidly, called themselves Hoa Hao after the village where Phu So began his crusade. Like the Cao Dai faithful and Catholics, they tended to live apart in their own villages and hamlets concentrated in the very south and west of Vietnam, primarily along the Cambodian border. Intensely nationalistic and xenophobic, they were under constant attack from the French, Japanese, and Viet Minh, and by the late 1940s had recruited a large militia which was subsequently disbanded. Today their overall membership stands at about one million.
"the village is his land's heart, mind, and soul." 3 Given the rural nature of the country it is understandable that the inhabitants of the villages and hamlets have retained a large degree of self-government. "The laws of the emperor," states an ancient Vietnamese proverb, "are less than the customs of the village.'' *
Overlaying this rural mosaic are two intermediate governmental echelons-the districts and the provinces. The district, the smaller of these political and geographic subdivisions, first appeared in Vietnamese history following the earliest annexation of Tonkin by the Chinese in 111 B.C. It remained in use and was extended down the Anna-mese coast and into Cochinchina by the successive Vietnamese dynasties which came to power in the ensuing centuries. Provinces, larger geographic subdivisions, eventually were superimposed over groups of contiguous districts, thus adding another echelon between the reigning central government and the villages. This structure remained in existence under the French after they took control of all Vietnam in the late 19th century. In order to make their administration more efficient French colonial authorities modernized the cumbersome administrative machinery and adjusted provincial boundaries. It is essentially this French-influenced structure that exists in South Vietnam today. Still, after years of use and modification, the system seems somewhat superficial as traditional self-rule of the villages tends to nullify the efforts of provinces and districts to govern rural areas. Often the central government's influence is unable to seep lower than the district headquarters, particularly in more remote areas.
While South Vietnam is predominantly rural, it does possess several important urban centers. As might be expected, these are found primarily in the densely populated Mekong Delta and along the coastal lowland. Saigon, the nation's capital and largest city, presently has a population estimated at 3.5 million. Located slightly north of the Mekong River complex and inland from the coast, the city dominates the country in both an economic and political sense. Saigon has excellent port facilities for ocean-going ships, although such traffic must first negotiate the tangled Saigon River which leads inland from the South China Sea. Da Nang, located on the Annamese coast 84 miles below the northern border, is the country's second largest
Page 8 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)