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Lesson Plans

LESSON PLAN #1: Family Altars in Vietnam


1. Identify the major religions practiced in Vietnam, and the basic tenets of each religion. Understand that Vietnamese (as indeed most Southeast Asians) rarely believe that these religions are mutually exclusive.

2. Identify the main components of a family altar, and the use or symbolism of each item.

3. Explore the impact of the Cult of Ancestors on family life in Vietnam.



--Have students read John Whitmore's "Cultural and Religious Patterns" (from photocopied packet received at workshop), either at home as homework or in class. Spend some time leading the class through a discussion of the following questions. The amount of information you will need to provide will depend on what else students will have read about religion in Asia or Vietnam.


1. What is "animism"? Why would people in an agricultural society be likely to worship animals, spirits of nature, and even the spirits of their ancestors?

2. What does the diversity of religion in Vietnam suggest about the type of history Vietnam has had? (I am thinking primarily about the fact that traders and invaders have criss-crossed Vietnam for centuries, but the students may come up with other ideas.)

3. Compare the religious diversity in Vietnam with the religious diversity in the United States. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Can you think of possible explanations? (I am thinking here primarily of the fact that many people in Vietnam follow more than one religion at the same time, while in the U.S. that would be rare. But in both countries religious diversity is rarely a reason for serious conflict.)

--Now have students read Phung Thi Hanh's "The Family in Vietnam and its Social Life," either as homework or in class. Give a brief lecture, based on information from the TEACHING ASIA workshop, about family altars, and Cult of Ancestors. Discuss the following questions in groups or as a whole class.


1. Why do you think Vietnamese use family terms as ways of addressing all people (p. 78)? What might you learn about Vietnamese society from this one fact? (I am thinking 1) that until recently, most Vietnamese spent most of their lives in small villages where everyone knew everyone else and 2) that hierarchal relations are very important, and these terms allow those hierarchies to be expressed in every conversation.)

2. What were the traditional reasons for the roles described for men (father) and women (mother)?


3. The author has a reason for reaching the conclusion she does. Why do you think she has reached that conclusion? (I think because she believes the traditional Vietnamese family is a valuable institution, and she wants to demonstrate that it can survive in the modern world.) Might you use the information in this article, and other things you have learned about modern Vietnam to reach a different conclusion?

--Use the same headings in the "Family in Vietnam" article, and the information learned so far in this unit to compare and contrast family life in the United States (or some other country the students are studying) with family life in Vietnam. This activity can be done in small groups in class, or as homework.

--Watch one of the videos you viewed during the TEACHING ASIA workshop. Discuss the following questions, or have students write their answers.

1. Are family altars and Cult of Ancestors still important in Vietnamese society? How can you tell?

2. What impact did the Vietnam War have on traditional Vietnamese religious beliefs and practices, as far as you can tell from the video?

3. What meaning(s) do you think family altars have for Vietnamese today?

--Ask students either to describe or actually construct a personal family altar, using the objects which they would find personally important but keeping in mind the symbolism of various elements in Vietnamese family altars. How are the students' altars different than Vietnamese altars? Why?




1. Understand the cultural and economic importance of rice in Vietnam. OPTIONAL: Make comparisons to the equally important role of rice in other Southeast Asian countries.

2. Identify ways in which the critical role of rice influences the everyday lives of people in Vietnam.

3. Identify ways in which industrial and economic developments may change the role rice currently plays in Vietnamese culture and economy.


--Begin class by asking students what grain (or food, if you think it will work) is the most important one in American society. Continue asking until they say "corn" or "wheat." Elicit answers to the following questions:

1. What physical conditions are required to grow corn or wheat for a living? (Answers: lots of relatively flat land, temperatures above freezing, fertile soil, predictable and not too heavy rainfall.)

2. What are all the different ways in which we consume wheat and corn in the United States? (Answers: WHEAT: bread, cereal, crackers, macaroni/pasta, rolls, cakes, cookies, etc. CORN: tortillas, tortilla chips, on the cob, creamed corn, cornbread, corn muffins, cereal, popcorn, etc.)

3. Ask how many students eat rice regularly, and in what ways they eat rice. Use their answers as a transition to a brief lecture about rice as the most important grain in Vietnam. --Lecture to class, briefly and based on the lecture you heard at the TEACHING ASIA workshop, about the role of rice in Vietnam's economy and culture.

--Show one of the videos of which you saw clips in the TEACHING ASIA workshop. Have the students write a paragraph, or discuss in small groups, how the video demonstrated the importance of rice to Vietnam's culture and economy. Alternately, have the students write a description of one or more parts of the process of rice cultivation based on what they have learned and seen.



1. Collect (or ask students to collect, if feasible) samples of the different forms in which rice is consumed in Vietnam, and find recipes which use rice in these different forms. If possible, make some of the dishes which use rice in forms Americans don't typically see. (Recipes are attached for your information, or for them to use if none are available in your area.)

2. If studying Native American or African countries in the same term, collect stories about the origins of the main food eaten in those countries (i.e., probably corn and peanuts?) and compare the stories for similar and dissimilar elements.

3. Using information they've learned, and images from the video, have students write short stories, or a skit, about everyday life in a rice-growing village in Vietnam. You might talk about possible points of tension surrounding rice cultivation, such as the very hard work everyone has to do during transplanting and harvesting, or how dangerous drought could be.