Vietnam's Khmer bull race losing ethnic flavor

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Phen (R), the only Bay Nui breed at the annual Khmer bull race on October 10, loses after running out of its lane. Photo courtesy of Lao Dong

Several young Khmer men wait on muddy ground outside the fence, looking left and right to make sure the guards are not there so that they can slip in to see the bull race.

A ticket costs VND15,000, or less than a dollar, but most people from the ethnic group cannot afford it, so they either sneak in or find some vantage points to watch it.

Thus the Khmer have been left out of their own traditional sport of Bay Nui bull race, the main entertainment during Dolta, their annual festival to worship ancestors in southern Vietnam, mostly in An Giang, Kien Giang, and Soc Trang provinces.

The race, named after an area with seven mountains ("bay nui" in Vietnamese) in An Giang, has been turned into a commercial sport meant for everyone except those without money.

Not only have tickets been introduced, but also many aspects of the race have been changed -- seven rounds have been cut to one to make it TV-friendly, racers and music players have the names of sponsors on their clothes, most of the racing animals are crossbred.

Two pairs of bulls race at a time.

At a race on October 4, only one animal out of the 64 pairs was an authentic Bay Nui breed, characterized by their short, small structure, thick red fur, and a bone and muscle structure that allows them to run faster than bigger animals of other breeds.

Locals said Bay Nui oxen are crossbred with other breeds these days to be bigger and provide more meat.

The only full Bay Nui animal in the race was Phen, named for its golden color all the way from its fur to toes.

It has raced nine times and won five times, coming second on three other occasions and third the other time.

This time Phen's pair was a crossbreed larger in size and white, and they lost after Phen went out of the lane and was automatically eliminated.

Locals said this rule was added recently.

Chau Soc Khet, a local culture official, said back in the days the animals could continue to race as long as their herder managed to bring them back into the lane.

Khet said the new rule makes the race boring since the remaining contestant could win by walking to the finish line.

Another "boring" change is the reduction from seven rounds to one since the race was taken out of its Khmer village venue.

Originally there were six "dressage" rounds where the herders show off their control over the animals and one race round.

That was reduced to one round each. But since An Giang Radio and Television became the organizer in 2011 there has been just the race round.

Tran Thu Dong, former director of the provincial sports department, expressed unhappiness about the new format, saying an organizer needs to respect the wish of audiences, especially the wish of the Khmer people with regard to what is their traditional sport.

Phan Thi Yen Tuyet, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said she watched the event during a visit to An Giang and was angry at how it has been mangled.

"An agricultural festival closely attached with the traditional Dolta of the Khmer people has been cut from its root and turned into a competitive sports event for Vietnamese people." She was referring to the Kinh, the country's predominant ethnic group.

Tuyet warned about further loss of tradition since the province plans to make the race a national festival equivalent to the annual Do Son bull fight in the northern city of Hai Phong.

Clearly, An Giang authorities do not appear to be worried about losing the cultural core of the festival.

In 2009 agricultural experts and students from Can Tho University asked to work on a project to preserve the Bay Nui breed by multiplying the few remaining animals.

The An Giang authorities leaders agreed at first but later said no.

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