AsiaLIFE Art Director Thang Pham visited his mother’s hometown to participate in its biggest festival of the year, Nghinh Ong.

Nghinh Ong festivalLike many of Vietnam’s seaside towns, each year Can Gio spends two days honouring whales, who are believed to protect the local fishing fleet, thanking the giant marine creatures for their past assistance and praying for it to continue into the future.

Can Gio is actually an outer suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, just 50 km from District 1. It’s well-known for its mangrove forest and a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve, as well as Monkey Island and Sac forest.

But the best time to visit Can Gio is at mid-Autumn, when Nghinh Ong Festival is celebrated.

Hundreds of Years of Tradition
The purpose of the two-day Nghinh Ong festival is to pray to Ca Ong (the whales) to bring the local fisherman safety, luck and a bountiful harvest. According to the locals, Ca Ong will help any boats stricken by storms or accidents and bring them safely back to land. Fishermen say whenever they see a whale, they know there will be a lot of fish, and it will be a calm day on the water.

The origin of the festival has been lost to modern memory. Can Gio local Khen Le, 57, said: “When we were born, the festival was already there. My parents told us the festival had been passed through many generations here in Can Gio, from our great great great grandparents to our children. Even the oldest man alive cannot be sure about that. Back in our day, we just followed our parents to the mausoleum, where the big bones of a whale is displayed, to watch people performing the ceremony and playing folk games”.

The Old and The New

There are two main parts to Nghinh Ong in Can Gio: le (ceremony) and hoi (celebration). The ceremony is divided into two parts: le ruoc (a procession ceremony) and le te truyen thong (traditional immolate ceremony).

The procession ceremony involves carrying a covered litter, or palanquin, containing a statue of the General of the North Sea through the town to the waterfront, where the dragon boats await.

Along the path of the procession is decorated with lanterns, flags and banners. People line the streets to pray, make small offerings of food and, of course, take photos. As the procession progresses, many locals join to accompany kieu Nam hai Tuong quan to the end of its journey.

After the procession, a ceremony is held in the mausoleum of Thuy Tuong, the general of the sea.

Many solemn and complex rituals are performed, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music.

The celebration includes many events, the most important of which is the parade to the sea. The dragon boat which contains the kieu Nam hai Tuong quan goes to sea with the local fishing fleet and some visiting boats, all decorated with colorful flags.

Once each boat captain has performed a little ceremony to honour the whales and the sea, the hundreds of local people on board boats will drink beer, eat roasted duck, chicken and pork and dance and sing in the hope of attracting good luck for the year ahead. At some point, the fleet turns back and the festival ends back at the port.

During the two-day festival, many traditional folk games are played, including leo cot mo (climb the oil post) and nem banh (throwing ball). People can be rewarded if they win a game.

In the past, the festival was organised by the local people, but nowadays it’s run by the local government. That has meant some traditional activities, such as duck and chicken hunting, boat racing and human chess, is no longer a part of the festival.

This year’s festival, in the first week of October, included some new events, including a food court and performances by famous singers. But the locals missed some of the traditional events and asked government officials to return them to the festival schedule.

Room for Improvement
Nghinh Ong is an exciting and enjoyable festival that offers many insights into a uniquely Vietnamese tradition. However, there is one problem that need to be addressed. While the festival is supposed to honour the sea to ensure its future, the festival-goers on the boats throw all their rubbish overboard.

The cans and plastic bottles left onboard after the boats returned to port were unceremoniously tossed into the water. After praying at sea for luck and good fishing fortunes, the locals then poisoned it with plastic and metal. Hopefully next year the boats will have bins on board to collect the rubbish.

Nghinh Ong is a meaningful traditional festival that needs to be kept and developed so our our children can understand more about their country, Vietnam.

If you missed this year’s festival, don’t worry, you can join us next year. And believe me, you will never forget it once you experience it. The boats are waiting for your footprints.