Not just white boys. Vietnam’s religions

14 Jan

Not just white boys: the final part of my previous email ended with a reference to the ‘white boys’, mainly Americans, who killed and died in Vietnam. But black boys came too and – for reasons obvious to anyone who’s thought about the way race, class and the military interrelate – in disproportionate numbers. The backpacker grape­vine has it that the reception Vietnam gives black westerners is distinctly cooler than that accorded their white counterparts. (One of many idiocies of seventies political correct­ness was the notion that to be racist you must be white; a delusion that made black-on-brown communal viol­ence, Birm­ing­ham 2005, a nasty surprise to sections of the British left.)

Vietnam’s religions: the main one is Buddhism but just as Vietnam, long and narrow, strad­dles North East and South East Asia, so does its Buddhism divide along the same geo­graphic lines into the south’s more devotional Theravedan brand as practised in Burma, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia; and the tougher minded Mahayanan brand of China, Tibet, Korea and Japan. Mahayanan Buddhism is the well-spring from which Zen, so beloved of western intellectuals, arises. It would be interesting to know whether those heroic monks who protested America’s presence by dousing themselves in petrol and striking a match (in those days religious/political martyrs were content just to kill themselves) came from predominantly Mahayanan traditions.

In the north are hill tribes who pursue animistic practices. These have their parallels in the south where, as in Thailand, Theravedan Buddhism blends with paganism. (Thanks Bruce for showing me, at a new bus station in Chiang Rai, one of the shrines built where construction takes place, to appease displaced wood spirits. As you commented at the time, such acknowledgments of man’s ecological footprint may not be as daft as they seem.)

Also predominantly in the south are six million Catholics, Vietnam’s largest religious group after the two Buddhisms. (I don’t know whether the paedophile priest scandals of Europe and North America have caused investigations further south. A religion so insistent on celibacy must have its dark corners. The same goes for Buddhists if you ask me. I say check out all orphanages and schools run by celibate monks and nuns!) Also in the south is a smaller group of Protestants. Of all the religious groups, this is the one most identified with support for the Americans.

Last but not least are pockets of Hindus and Muslims, largely in the Mekong Delta, remants of Khmer kingdoms that once ruled there. My previous email spoke of modern Sino-Viet relations only making sense in the millennia old context of the former pushing south, the latter resisting. Well, the Viets are no strangers to land grabbing themselves. But with South China Sea to the east, Gulf of Thailand to the south and such a formidable foe to the north, the only way to go was west – and there you have the main key to Cambodian-Viet relations!

Apologies to those readers who, understandably, prefer tales of personal experience for the greater abstraction of this and my previous email. The way history continues for better and worse to shape the present both fascinates and informs the way I see things. On the other hand there are those who are not only interested, but will take me to task over interpretations of Buddhism, the role of China in Vietnam’s troubled but inspirat­ional history and even – I already had one email to that effect – relations between  Wilson and LBJ. Here’s to healthy debate!

I’m now in Bangkok, where tonight I take a berth on the sleeper train to Chiang Mai in the north, arriving 09:30 tomorrow. I’ve one more Vietnam email to write, documenting my adventures in the Mekong Delta, which did not end with my tussles with a monk over seat space. But for now, Xin Ciao!

(Postscript March 2011: alas, that “one more Vietnam email” about the Mekong Delta never quite got to be written.)

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