Aside from having a common border, Vietnam and Cambodia follow similar traditions and cultures, and even fashion and sports. The ‘Vovinam’ – a kind of martial art – is an essential part of the list. Vovinam is originally a sport of the Vietnamese people. But the Kingdom also recognises and practices it. The techniques used in the sport are close to that of Karate, Judo and Taekwondo. However, rising Vovinam athlete Pov Sokha, has found out that many of the younger generation are not as familiar with the sport as they should be, and desires to expose people to this ancient Vietnamese martial art. The 21-year old martial artist shares her Vovinam experience with Eileen McCormick and Say Tola.
Good Times2: Being a Khmer girl, what has inspired you to learn Vovinam?
Sokha: My grandmother, Doung Samay, used to be a famous swimming and basketball athlete during the 1960s. Until now, she is still involved with sports as she works for the Olympic Swimming Committee. I believe that’s the reason that my siblings and I have also become swimmers. We are inspired by our grandmother. The blood of an athlete runs in me; and, we are not ashamed that we are greatly involved in this physical activity even if we are women. We are, in fact, empowered because of our active involvement in sports.
Good Times2: When did Vovinam come to Cambodia? When did you join the national team?
Sokha: In 2009, Vovinam was introduced to Cambodia. But there was no national team for such sport that time. In 2011, I stopped swimming to purse another sport – Vovinam. I joined the national team and studied the basics of the new sport. I had to endure many physical tests from my Vietnamese teacher. Before I was selected to be part of the team and was chosen to fight on the international stage. I went through several stages of physical and mental exercises to prove my strength and endurance. I was lucky to pass through it all and be one of the members of a team that brings pride to Cambodia in the field of Vovinam.
Good Times2: Was the transition from swimming to fighting an easy undertaking?
Sokha: These two sports are really different from each other. Because I chose to divert my focus and strength to Vovinam, I pushed myself to learn as fast as I can and adapt to the ways of a real Vovinam fighter. However, it was an added challenge that there were no available human resources in Cambodia who I could ask help and advice from. I just kept telling myself that I should continue this new endeavour and help bring light to the sport.
I have learned a lot of lessons from being a Vovinam fighter. I realised that it is very important for girls to learn how to fight. It will surely empower them and help them in times when they need to defend themselves. With Vovinam, I gained both physical and mental power. And I think other girls should, too.
Good Times2: How many competitions have you fought in?
Sokha: I have fought in the SEA Games twice – 2011 in Indonesia and 2013 in Myanmar. I won one bronze medal. I also won one silver medal and another bronze medal during a competition held in Cambodia. I also participated in a Vovinam competition in Myanmar in 2013 wherein I took home two bronze medals. In 2015, I won one bronze medal for another competition. Just last year, I got one gold medal and two bronze medals.
At the Asean Games held in Vietnam, I earned one gold and bronze medals. My recent competition, Vovinam World Championship in India, gave me one gold medal, three silvers and one bronze. Vovinam is not an easy kind of martial art, but I believe my hard work and dedication are paying off.
Good Times2: Your medals clearly prove that you are doing great in this field. What do you usually do to prepare yourself for competitions?
Sokha: Before I join any Vovinam competition, I go for an extensive training in Vietnam for at least one or two months. Us, athletes, find it hard to focus on the competitions we are about to face when we are here in Cambodia. There is just too little financial support for us. The trainings in Vietnam are tough, especially because I am also pursuing my studies. Despite the sacrifices I did and the challenges I’ve been through in this sport, I am grateful that I am earning money and able to help my family as well as myself.
Good Times2: Do you perform any ritual or prayer before the competitions?
Sokha: I believe in the spirit of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chom and Lok Ta Reach in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. I pray to them not to win in my fights but simply to get the nervousness off my system. I always pray for my safety during the fights and during my travels. Whenever I come back from competitions, I always make sure to express my gratitude to them.
Good Times2: Do you see a bright future for Vovinam in Cambodia? What do you plan to do to promote the sport among the young?
Sokha: I am looking forward to SEA Games in 2023. But I am not sure if my body and skills are still suitable for the sport after that time. If I remain energetic and strong, I vow to continue doing this sport. But if my body tells me to take time-off from fighting, I would want to serve as a teacher to those who want to study this martial art. I also want to encourage more girls to get themselves involved in sports, not just Vovinam, as the country currently lacks female athletes in many sport fields. Before, girls are limited to few sports and activities because of the norms of the Khmer society. But things have changed now.
I want parents to encourage their daughters to empower themselves by being physically active.
These sports, as strenuous as they may seem, are good stepping stones for them to gain self-confidence and discipline.