Vietnam's Lady Liberty

A village flourishes thanks to the goddess of markets


The village of Co Me sits on a traditional smuggling route about 19 miles north of Hanoi, capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It's also host to a popular phenomenon that embodies two traditional enemies of communism: religion and the market.

The village's main attraction is a temple in honor of the goddess Ba Chua Kho—a deity based, according to one story, on a real person in the 11th century who masterfully maintained supplies during an invasion by the Chinese. Around the time of the lunar new year, thousands of people come to the shrine. They come from all over Vietnam and, now, from all over the world to honor her and seek her blessings and guidance.

Although many people (including Vietnam's increasingly pro-market government officials) see economic freedom as independent of freedom of conscience, the goddess powerfully tells a different story. At the same time Ba Chua Kho provides meaning and order in the lives of Vietnam's citizens, she has unleashed a wave of creative anarchy that has proven stronger than the country's systems of social control.

At the temple, supplicants bring fruits and stuffed roosters, beer, sweets and rice. They burn incense and papers bearing drawings of things they hope she'll send their way: gold, money, cars, houses, and even cell phones. Many who come are asking for loan approvals, others for promotions, permission to travel, health, or children. Seven shrines, no waiting—except during festivals.

The streets to the shrines are lined with booths creating a "corridor of capitalism." Which is only fitting: Ba Chua Kho is the goddess of business and of prosperity. She is the Lady of the Treasury, and while there are other goddesses in Vietnam with that title, Ba Chua Kho is the most popular—a deity with impressive market share.

Here pig farmers rub shoulders with tycoons in pinstripe suits, business-card-carrying communist party officials with returning, newly prosperous refugees. Even veterans of the wars of national liberation, the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong, are there, though most who come are traders. Vietnam's communism, like China's, is rapidly becoming strictly nominal. There is a stock market, advertising and a Western-oriented tourist trade.

The goddess provides help in matters of ethics as well as economics. The transition to a market economy, which began with the Doi Moi reforms of 1986, has also been a source of moral chaos in the absence of a stable, functioning system of law. Many come to the temple to make amends for questionable dealings like bribes or tax avoidance as well as making a rite of confession. Her place here is called the "market economy shrine" and is regarded as the best of many sites in Vietnam to pray for guidance and prosperity.

Le Hong Ly of Hanoi's Institute of Folklore studies describes the phenomenon this way in a 2001 paper:

In the process [of liberalization], a figure long associated with the fertility of the soil, the Lady of the Granary, has been transformed into an emblem of the new market economy. She is now the Lady of the Treasury, keeper of a vast, symbolic banking system.

The banking system attracts and is sustained by outsiders many of whom come far away. Yet…Co Me has has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams…while retaining its basic agrarian character. It has also succeeded in retaining its communal solidarity and identity by reaffirming the role of the elderly men and women in the management of village affairs and verifying tribal customs through ostracism….

They have created employment for everyone from teenagers to senior citizens and even to people in adjacent areas. New sources of income have become available to all the families in the village. Household income has doubled…The rise of household income has been accompanied by a renewed village solidarity because the temple related services have been organized in such a way as to promote community spirit.

Over 200 elderly women help in prayers for a fee, and there is a lively trade in services at booths owned by families. Le further observes that an "important factor in the growth of religious practice is the rapid expansion of the market." The shrine donates money to village projects such as hydroelectric power and welfare programs.

Not coincidentally, freedom of religion has accompanied increased freedom of trade. In the wake of the Doi Moi reforms, religious shrines were renovated and religious festivals revived. By 1989 the Co Me temple became an official recognized historic site. This market goddess is the emblem of this transition.

While the government wisely refrains from overtly criticizing the religion, there are newspaper accounts calling it humbug—which have, ironically, boosted attendance at religious festivals by generating publicity. The Lady of the Treasury's most generous boon has been bestowed upon the villagers of Co Me, whose now-bustling home had beeen long mired in poverty.

Ba Chua Kho, like our own Lady Liberty, is the embodiment of an ideal, an icon whose popularity reveals a widespread passion for the freedom she represents. Halfway around the world, pilgrims to the festival of the Lady of the Treasury are responding to the same impulse felt by those of us who are stirred by the image of that goddess who stands with her torch raised in the harbor.