The San Chay People of Vietnam

Although the Vietnamese government officially claims freedom of religion, Christians are viewed as enemies and are treated accordingly. Christians in Vietnam face severe persecution. Many Vietnamese pastors are currently imprisoned in brutal labor camps for "re-education."

Approximately 120 people groups live in Vietnam. One of these groups, the San Chay, immigrated to Vietnam from China in the early 1600s. After learning how to grow wet rice, the San Chay settled in small villages. Today, nearly 150,000 San Chay live in Vietnam and speak a variant of the Thai language.

In addition to rice, the San Chay also raise cattle and poultry for meat and religious sacrifices, gather products from the forests and grow a variety of subsidiary crops. Fish are often raised in the rice paddies.

Villages consist of several families, which are divided into many branches. Although discouraged by communist officials, each San Chay village is ruled by a Khan Thu or headman. The headman's job is to settle differences, maintain harmony and represent the village to the outside world. Despite the privileges and responsibilities attached to his position, the headman is often quite poor.

Prior to the 1945 revolution, the San Chay possessed their own land; however, French colonization caused many San Chays to become tenant farmers.


The San Chay worship a multitude of gods associated with nature and famous ancestors. Most villages have temples for the worship of spirit gods. A basket of bran along with a few sticks of incense can be found at the main entrance of each San Chay household in honor of the buffalo deity, who is regarded as the "protector of cattle."

One Vietnamese ministry supported by Christian Aid estimates that 90 percent of the San Chay have never heard the gospel. This ministry is one of the first ministries to target the San Chay for formal missions work, and the only one currently working among them. The ministry is also training more than 1,500 native Christians from other tribes. It is considered the largest ministry effort in Vietnam, with 10,000 tribal house churches in its association.

The ministry began working with the San Chay in 1995, and has since planted 100 house churches, with an average of 50 members per church. The remaining estimated 5,000 believers have not yet been organized into churches.

The San Chay are in dire need of discipleship training. The shortage of pastors is becoming a challenge as more San Chay are becoming Christians. The ministry is training five pastors, but meeting with them is a dangerous endeavor, as police constantly arrest ministry leaders and destroy churches. Many times, the ministry will hold meetings inside of a van driven around the city because no other location is safe.

In addition to training, the ministry also distributes Bibles to the San Chay, and is involved in gospel film showings for those who cannot read. Those who possess Bibles do so at great risk. Several San Chay pastors have been arrested by police who found their Bibles. The wives of imprisoned pastors usually do not know where the police are keeping their husbands. Without a means of income, these families are struggling to survive. The ministry has provided some financial help to these families, but is only able to give a small amount.