Under French colonial domination, Vietnamese society underwent dramatic social, economic and cultural changes. Many traditional Oriental values and institutions were replaced by imported Western doctrines and solutions. With respect to the economic life, the bulk of rural population in the South suffered acute deprivation. Moreover, Vietnamese peasants and tenants were largely unable to successfully resist the conditions of virtual servitude under which their European and domestic landlords had demanded their labor services. In fact, peasants found themselves in a deadlock, both economically and socially. Since no viable pattern of resistance against the conditions of servitude was available for rural cultivators, they saw no ways of escape. It might be argued that the rural population of the South was disorganized and lacked institutions, which would have allowed them to make collective demands and also would have given them opportunities for upward social mobility. The Vietnamese peasants of the South, in larger measure, lacked such organizations. Hence, they made attempts to use traditional patterns of religious groupings, such as non-orthodox sects, in order to defend their interests.
Correspondingly, the masses of peasant cultivators viewed the emergence of Hòa Hảo Buddhism as a way of escape from a contemporary social and religious stalemate. Peasants believed that Huỳnh Phú Sổ, the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, was in fact an architect of revitalized Buddhist values. These revived values would have allowed them to break the deadlock and revitalize the traditional social equilibrium and ideological consensus.
The preaching of Huỳnh Phú Sổ and the sutras of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism gave Southern peasants an ideological alternative and totally different social perspective. They were no longer helpless individuals subject to abuse and mistreatment by landlords and colonial officials. On the contrary, they became members of a religious and social community, which was capable of sustaining itself and defending its members. In short, shared religious values gave peasants a sense of security and purpose. Finally, farmers and tenants were able to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Prophet Huynh Phu So, founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism
It should be pointed out that Hòa Hảo Buddhism was not a totally new religion. It was a direct extension of pre-existing Bửu Sơn Ký Hương tradition. Nonetheless, the emergence of a new religious community in 1939 gave peasants a new perspective and a new faith. Moreover, being a continuation of a local tradition, namely the Bửu Sơn Ký Hương, Hòa Hảo Buddhism was perfectly adapted to the social and ideological environment of Southern rural areas. There was little doubt that Huỳnh Phú Sổ preached those ideals and values which peasants already cherished in their hearts and minds. Therefore the evangelizing activities of Huỳnh Phú Sổ, which were carried out in the simple language of rural cultivators with little - if any - education, perfectly suited the unsophisticated audience.
It should be added that through the 1930s, propaganda efforts by political cadres of the Indochinese Communist Party were not successful among Southern peasants. Communist agitators failed to convince many rural cultivators because they used an unfamiliar language and propagated theories, which were remote from the social realities of the Mekong Delta. It might be argued that Communist propaganda came into conflict with the important traditions of the South. Its dogmatic narrowness, and its uncompromising hostility to the values deeply rooted in the mind of the rural cultivators of the Mekong Delta, made it unacceptable to many peasants.
Generally speaking, the anti-French movement in Vietnam developed in a variety of organizational forms, including political parties such as Quốc Dân Đảng, Duy Dân and Đại Việt in the North, and reformist religions such as Caodaism and Hòa Hảo Buddhism in the South.
Political movements of the South were influenced by secret societies such as the Heaven and Earth Society, which had been introduced into Vietnam from China in the late 17th century. The secret societies often functioned as militant and clandestine religious groups. These close-knit Chinese quasi-political organizations, among other things, allowed members to make collective demands and band together to defend their interests.
Moreover, in the course of the French conquest, ties between the South and the Imperial Court in Huế were severed and hence Southern society lacked the leadership necessary to sustain itself. Correspondingly, peasants of the South tended to support reformist religious organizations, which were viewed as capable of providing spiritual and social guidance.
Despite numerous doctrinal and ritual differences, Hòa Hảo Buddhism and Caodaism, which emerged in the South in 1926, still had many common features. Both doctrines were anti-colonial, both developed late in the colonial era and appealed to the lower strata of colonial society, notably the rural populace.