The Cau Ngu Festival
Ngu Loc is one of five coastal communes of Hau Loc District in Thanh Hoa Province, located in the Northern Central Coast region of Vietnam. This is the most densely populated place in Vietnam, with traditional fishing and seafood processing providing work. Daily life is shaped by long-standing customs and traditions with coastal characteristics. This culminates in the unique cau ngu (cau means “worship” and ngu means “sacred whale”) festival, held annually from the twenty-first to the twenty-fourth day in the second month of the lunar calendar.
Fishers believe the ocean is controlled by sea gods, and that the sacred whale will always rescue people in danger on the waves. The whale temple and the cau ngu festival are the clearest manifestations of fishers’ devotion to the sacred whale and the sea gods. This festival, the biggest for the fishing community, expresses the desire for a peaceful and prosperous year. It takes the form of community belief activities and a folk festival that sees the convergence of many cultural values. The festival has been performed since the village was established in the Later Le Dynasty (1428–1789); its events have been handed down for generations and it strongly influences the spiritual life and beliefs of the coastal population.
The Most Important Offering
Among the many different ceremonies and offerings, the focal point of the cau ngu festival is the votive dragon-boat (longchau). It is a symbol of the fishery, expressing the special nature of the fishing community. This large boat is made of bamboo, colored paper, and styrofoam, simulating the function and power of the sea gods. It is also a place for people to put offerings with prayers to wish for peace and good luck.
Skillful and good men who are not in mourning are selected to make the votive boat, the processing taking about a month. After it is completed but before the procession rituals, a ceremony takes place to draw eyes on the boat, as it is believed that long chau can only see the sea road clearly if it has eyes. This eye-drawing ceremony is performed at 1 a.m. on the twenty-second day of the month. It also aims to increase the sacredness of the votive boat. After the ceremony, long chau is considered to have a human-like soul.
The Ritual Performance
Cau ngu festival consists of both ceremony and festivity, of which ceremony plays the most important and meaningful role. On the morning of the twenty-first day of the month, at the lucky hour, the celebrant (often a monk or a shaman) strikes a big drum three times, before twenty-four other large and small drums are played. The celebrant begins to pray to invite the sea gods to come and witness the ceremony, receiving them at the main altar.
Two important ceremonies are performed at the main communal altar and at long chau. At the main communal altar, many people in groups, social ssociations, village dignitaries, and heads of different lineages gather at Thanh Ca Temple to begin the procession. The palanquin procession starts very early in the morning from Thanh Ca Temple to the “blessed” place—the main altar. The celebrant respectfully invites the gods to bless the villagers with happiness, fortune, good study and business, safety at sea, and bumper harvests. After performing the ceremony, people of different lineages and visitors come to worship and make offerings to the gods.
Meanwhile, the ceremony at long chau, the symbol of fishery, is reserved for seafarers only. Worshipers make offerings to the sea gods, putting them into the votive boat. At a selected time, the celebrant stands in front of long chau’s head; with one hand he performs a ritual gesture, while in the other he holds three burning incense sticks and writes with them in the air, before reading out the departure warrant. He then raises the incense sticks, reads the proclamation, and leads the procession to the beach; twenty young men follow him, carrying long chau. Villagers go after them along the main road to the end of the village. At the selected point on the beach, the votive dragon-boat is burned to convey the villagers’ wishes to the sea gods.
This festival has a great significance in terms of its spiritual aspect, expressing the uniqueness of the cultural and religious life of the fishers of Ngu Loc. So special is this time that during the festival period they do not go fishing. The festival is also considered a time to create balance in spiritual life for the fishing community in particular but also for local residents in general.
Cau ngu festival keeps alive the traditional cultural space of a coastal community, their customs, rituals, games, as well as other folk knowledge. In addition, it expresses people’s aspiration to live in harmony with the sea. The festival also reflects maritime spiritual beliefs and cultural nuances that need to be safeguarded and brought into play in contemporary life. It is imbued with sacredness (associated with worship of the whale and sea gods), complexity (with many different aspects such as religious activities, rituals, customs, folk performance, food, etc.), and community cohesion.