An annual tradition known as the fisherman’s Tet has legendary implications for their safety and prosperity.
For Vietnamese fishermen, the whale is not a monster (a la Moby Dick) to be feared, but a benefactor to be revered.
The legend goes that before he became king, the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), Gia Long, was once saved by a whale. When he was crowned, he anointed the whole species “supreme mandarin of the south sea”.
Ever since, fishermen along the long Vietnamese coastline never kill or eat a whale but bury it when one is fatally stranded ashore.
They also pay solemn tributes to the Whale Lord every year with the celebration of the Le Nghinh Ong (Whale Lord Welcoming Festival).
The annual traditional festival of Southern fishermen is held on the middle of the eighth lunar month at the tomb of the Water General in Can Gio district, some 50 kilometers from downtown.
The festival is considered Tet (Lunar New Year that is the paramount festival in Vietnam) for fishermen and an occasion for them to pay tributes to the Lord Whale, seeking good weather, bountiful catch, prosperity and happiness for the whole fishing community.
The belief is that whenever they are confronted by tidal waves or other natural calamities in the high seas, the Whale Lord will escort them to their haven.
At present, a 12 meter long skeleton of a whale that drifted ashore in 1991 is enshrined in the tomb of the Water General.
At about 10am on the morning of the 16th day of the eighth lunar month, village dignitaries in traditional outfits and some attired as soldiers of the Gia Long army carry the palanquin of Nam Hai Tuong Quan to the sea in a procession, a fleet of dragon boats set sail, and people burn incense and present offerings to welcome the fleet along the coast.
The richly-decorated dragon boat with flags and flowers welcoming the Water General with an entourage of two hundred boats is an inspiring sight. An altar and a tray of offerings are put in the front of the dragon boat. While joining the procession to sea, visitors are told the story of the Whale Lord.
Thousands turn out to give a red carpet welcome to the Whale Lord who goes on parade in a flower-decked car. The parade includes two beautiful, long dragons followed by shrimps, crabs and fish. Some men in the group walk on stilts.
Along the way, residents place an altar with incense, candles, fruits, and roasted chicken in front of their houses.
Traditional games popular in coastal localities such as tug of war, walking on stilts, sea sports and a wide variety of programs are staged including Hat Boi, the Vietnamese classical opera.
The 2008 Le Nghinh Ong was held from 13-16 September in Can Thanh town in Can Gio district. 40,000 local and foreign visitors flocked to enjoy the opening ceremony of the 2008 Nghinh Ong Festival (Whale Worshipping Festival) on September 15.
This year’s festival, ending the next day, saw a year-on-year increase of 25 percent in the number of arrivals.