Hoa Hao claims approximately two million followers throughout Vietnam; in some provinces near its Delta birthplace, as many as 90 percent of the population practice this tradition. An important characteristic of this sect is its emphasis on peasant farmers, exemplified by the old slogan "Practicing Buddhism While Farming Your Land." Farm life is considered to be the most conducive to religious practice and self-improvement. Patriotism and willingness to defend the homeland are valued.
Hoa Hao also stresses the practice of Buddhism by lay people in the home, rather than focusing primarily on temple worship and ordination. Aid to the poor is favored over pagoda building or expensive rituals; religious and social ceremonies are ideally simple and modest, and are not to include the food offerings, divination services, and elaborate wedding and funeral customs found in some manifestations of Southeast Asian life. These are viewed as a waste of money which would be better spent helping the needy.
In Hoa Hao homes, a plain brown cloth serves as an altar, at which the family prays morning and night. Separate altars are used to honor ancestors and the sacred directions. Only fresh water, flowers, and incense are used in worship; no bells or gongs accompany prayers. A believer away from home at prayer times faces west (i.e., toward India) to pray to the Buddha. Adherents are expected to attend communal services on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month and on other Buddhist holy days.
Huynh Phu So faced a great deal of trouble when he began to spread the ideas of his religion, a large part of which was Vietnamese nationalism, a dangerous idea in this time of French colonial rule. He was famously put in a lunatic asylum because of his preaching but supposedly converted his doctor to the Hoa Hao belief. As the popularity of Hoa Hao grew, Huynh Phu So made a series of prophecies about the political future of Vietnam. He said that the "true king" would return to lead Vietnam to freedom and prosperity, which caused most Hoa Hao to support the Nguyen pretender Marquis Cuong De, living abroad in Japan.
During World War II, the Hoa Hao supported the Japanese occupation, as did many other groups, and planned for Cuong De to become Emperor of Vietnam. However, this never happened and the Hoa Hao came into conflict with the Communists both because the Viet Minh were anti-Japanese and because of their Marxist opposition to all religion. During the State of Vietnam (1949-1955) they made arrangements with the Head of State Bao Dai, much like those made by the religion of Cao Dai and the Binh Xuyen gang, which was control of their own affairs in return for their nominal support of the Bao Dai regime. In fact, the control of this government by France meant that most Hoa Hao opposed it.
When America began pushing for Ngo Dinh Diem to run South Vietnam the most powerful groups to concern them were the Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen and the Hoa Hao, which had formed a small private army under General Ba Cut. O.S.S. Colonel Edward Lansdale used bribery with CIA funds to split the Hoa Hao and in 1956 General Duong Van Minh crushed the Hoa Hao and had General Ba Cut beheaded in public. This was the end of the Hoa Hao as an armed group, some later joining the Viet Cong in opposition to the Diem regime. After the war, the Hoa Hao remained.