Nghinh Ong Festival is quite common in South Vietnam culture. It is the biggest celebration of fishermen in Southern Vietnam as well.
What is the meaning of Nghinh Ong Festival in South Vietnam culture?
Nghinh Ong Festival is a common celebration in South Vietnam, related to the whale-worship-practice. It has many other names, such as Cau Ngu or the Ritual of Sacrifice Offer to Whale Deity. In each region, you can see the local people use a different name.
However, all of them have one thing in common, which is the significance of the Whale. Fishermen assume that the Whale is a sacred sea-creature and their greatest savior. This has become a well-known tradition in the fishermen’s mind many years ago.
Where and when can you attend this festival?
The parade (Source: Google)
It is an exclusive cultural trait of citizens living in coastal regions, such as Vung Tau Province, Khanh Hoa Province, Ca Mau Province, or Ho Chi Minh City. The festival is a time for not only the citizens to spread the local culture but also the fishermen to pray for safe boat rides, a prosperous life, and long-lasting happiness.
Nghinh Ong Festival is celebrated in a certain time and every region has a different period. In Vung Tau Province, it is organized in the 16th, 17th, and 18th day of the eighth month in the Lunar Calendar. In Can Gio and Ca Mau Province, the annual celebration is from the 14th to the 17th day.
However, it is held on the 15th day of the twelfth month in the Lunar Calendar in Khanh Hoa Province. In Binh Thuan Province, the festival is celebrated on the same day with Yulan Festival.
The legends about the festival
You will have a chance to hear some legends about the Whale when visiting coastal villages in Ninh Thuan or Binh Thuan Province. The citizens here say that it is the incarnation of Guanyin who always saves fishermen from danger.
Guanyin is a bodhisattva. She usually wanders about for pleasure and rescues whoever having difficulties. One day, she is flying over the South China Sea while noticing a great number of fishing vessels trying to survive in a storm. Fishermen are screaming in fear.
Because the scene is so heart-breaking, she decides to save them. Immediately, she tears her clothes and throws the pieces into the sea. Each of them turns into a gigantic fish bringing the fishermen and vessels to the mainland. Those who escape death fall on their knees and give thanks to the fishes.
Bringing the whale to a boat (Source: Google)
After that, they want to build a temple to worship these fishes. But this type of sea-creature is still strange to them and they do not know its name. Therefore, the fishermen call it the “Nam Hai Whale” or “Ca Ong Nam Hai” in Vietnamese due to its enormous size and shape.
In some other regions, such as Khanh Hoa and Phu Yen Province, the legend is a little different but still a good story in South Vietnam culture. Instead of being an incarnation of a bodhisattva, the Whale is a young man whose name Cha Aih Va. He was sent to a remote island by his parents to learn magic from a sorcerer.
After ten years of learning hard, he became a professional wizard. Hence, he wanted to go home and visit his parents. Nonetheless, his master prevented him and explained that he had not seized all of the magic tricks. Missing his parents, Cha Aih Va refused to listen and sneaked off the island.
He transformed into a whale and swam home. When his master found out he was running away, he grew angry and wanted to punish him. He summoned the Nymph and told her to tear Cha Aih Va apart. His remains drifted to the mainland and turned into a swan.
When he returned home, his parents were all dead. His heart was full of grief so he found a deserted island and lived there until he died. Touched by the filial love and sacrifices of the young man, the Creator transformed him into a God to help fishermen. Since then, whenever hearing somebody calling for help, Cha Aih Va always turns into a whale and comes to their rescue.
The traditions and rituals of the festival
The formal procedure of the festival is varied from place to place. Nevertheless, the spirit of South Vietnam culture is always preserved. The festival is usually divided into two parts, one of which is the ritual and the other is the celebration.
Launching the boat (Source: Google)
You will find two common rites in the ritual part. The first one is to parade the Nam Hai Whale on the citizens’ shoulders into a dragon boat. About 1000 people will attend this parade and lion-dance as well as dragon-dance-performers will come with them.
The next ritual after the parade is the sacrifice. The participants will give their offerings to the Whale and pray for a great year as well as their safety when sailing to the sea.
The final part is the celebration, which is quite simple. The fishermen together with guests will enjoy their meals, offering each other some wine, and playing traditional games. All of the activities are aimed at entertainment and celebration – special characteristics in South Vietnam culture.