Ethnic Diversity in Vietnam, Khmer Traditions in line with the Bat Pagoda
By Henry Lilly
Vietnam is a place of variety, to say the least. This can be said about the food, geography, traditions, culture, and ethnic groups of the country. During our time in Vietnam, we have been able to have a first hand look at a number of different ethnic groups of Vietnam through discussions of history, culture, and the arts and by visiting some local pagodas, which was quite different than I expected. One thing that I have learned during this trip is that surprises are around every corner in Vietnam, from the people you meet to the places that you visit.
With an ever growing population that is closing in on 90 million people, Vietnam has 54 different ethnic groups. These groups differ in belief, tradition, customs, and much more. During many of our lectures, the speakers have focused on the main groups of southern Vietnam, which are Khmer, Champa, Funan, Chinese, and Vietnamese. These four groups have been known throughout the centuries to have the longest lineage in Vietnam, but differ in many aspects, especially in religion as well as music. Two of the main groups that differ are the Vietnamese, or Kinh, and the Khmer. Within the religion both the Khmer and Kinh have Buddhist roots but worship two different gods. The Khmer worship the god Therauada, while the Vietnamese worship the god Mahayama. When visiting the Khmer pagodas I found that the monks also wear yellow robes while the Vietnamese monks dress in different colored attire. These are only a few of the differences between these two different ethnic groups. As a group, we were able to visit and focus on the Khmer religion and look more in depth onto the ideology and traditions of the Khmer people.
My first introduction to the Khmer lifestyle and religion was through a lecture on the overall aspects of the cultures of Vietnam. From this we learned about the music and traditions of the Khmer culture. During our lecture, we were graced with the presents of Khmer musicians who played traditional songs as example of their culture. It was honestly one of the highlights of my experience so far. The talent of these so called “amateur” musicians was impressive and gave me a wonderful impression of how artistic and musical their lifestyle and culture really is. My second impression of the Khmer culture was during our experience at the Phu Tan Commune in the Soc Trang Province.
The Phu Tan Commune is a low income area that has the chance to participate in a Heifer international Program. We toured throughout the community and learned about how the projects had effected the families and the area’s economic development. These projects have made a large scale difference within the community. The Khmer community as a whole seemed extremely united. With women’s groups, as well as a community meeting area and committee, it seemed that togetherness as a community was a major priority among the Khmer people. When visiting with the community members I noticed a sheer sense of happiness among them. Even though they had little in material goods, they lived as if they were wealthy in a sense of community belonging. As a complete outsider to this culture, I found this to be extremely profound, especially as they opened their doors to us. Finally, my third glimpse of Khmer culture was found during our visit to the bat pagoda.
At first thought, I believed that the Bat Pagoda was a place of worship to bats, however, this thought was changed immediately as we listened to the lectures by the local conservationists. The Khmer Bat Pagoda is a Buddhist temple of worship that also doubles as a sanctuary for the bats of the area. These bats are important because they are listed upon IUCN Red List of endangered animals in Vietnam. The ones that are mainly at the pagoda are large and small flying foxes. These bats are also considered a hot commodity in Vietnam; each sells for almost five times the price of a chicken on the food market. However, these bats are very important to the Khmer religion and culture. Through acts by Can Tho University, there has been a large movement to save the bats of the pagoda. Saving the bats helps to save the Khmer Culture. When visiting we were able to meet with many advocates of bat protection, ranging from professors to grade school children. This was one of the most surprising moments of the trip. I had no idea that there would be three foot long bats hanging within the trees above the pagoda. It was extremely surprising and interesting, and it was also inspiring. The idea of promoting conservation from the professional level to grade schools is aggressive measure, and was accomplished by the foresight of members of Can Tho University and in particular Mr. Dang, who is himself Khmer and grew up visiting and studying at this Bat Pagoda.
The Khmer culture and religion is an extremely interesting and impressive. With deep and symbolic roots in music and the arts, Khmer traditions run deep among its people. This can be said for most of the ethnic groups of Vietnam. I personally have been greatly influenced by the cultures, traditions and people of these ethnic groups and have found this part of our studies in Vietnam to be one of the most important in my overall experience.