The Khmer in the Mekong Delta

Long before the Vietnamese were even aware of the Mekong Delta the Khmer were already settled there. From the 1st-6th centuries, they inhabited what are today’s border provinces of Kiên Giang, An Giang, Long An and Tây Ninh. But from the 7th century they migrated all the way downriver to the mouth of the Mekong in contemporary Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng provinces. Most of the Delta then consisted of swamps, forests and bogs, with patches of dry land, especially in Trà Vinh and Sóc Trăng, suitable for agriculture.

Today about 70% of Vietnamese Khmer live in these two provinces, far away from Angkor or any subsequent Cambodian capital. Because this part of the Khmer Empire was never of great economic or military importance to the state, the Khmer communities here were virtually autonomous. Yet they remained culturally close to the Khmer heartland. Exquisite ancient sculptures of Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist deities in the museums and thousand-year-old temple ruins attest to the Angkor connection. And when the Khmer Empire adopted Theravada Buddhism, the Khmer at the mouth of the Mekong followed suit. The first Theravada temple went up in Trà Vinh in 1450, twenty years after the first in Phnom Penh.

When Vietnamese migrants arrived in the Mekong Delta from the end of the 17th century, they did not displace the Khmer, but simply cleared swamps and moved into newly reclaimed land. Khmer life and customs, essentially the same as those back in Cambodia, continued with little alteration, even after the Vietnamese became a majority and took political control. The Khmer retained their Theravada Buddhism and today nearly every Khmer village has its own temple.

The Khmer are mainly farmers. Typically, a gate with Angkor-style decorations stands at the entrance to the road leading to the village. The houses often feature thatched walls and roofs, flanking groves or gardens. Temples are the focus of both religious and social life and for festivals and other special events fill with devotees. Guided by a lifestyle of seasonal chores, traditional behavior norms and the tenets of their faith, the Khmer in Vietnam are a warm, polite and friendly people, and hospitable to all who venture to visit them.

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