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Nha Trang's Whale Worship Festival, as Portrayed in This Stunning Graduation Project

The Cầu Ngư Festival, a whale-worshipping tradition that takes place every February on the lunar calendar, has become a source of inspiration for artist Tường Vân’s graduation and illustration project.

Read the article in Vietnamese here.

Tháng hai lạch cúng đức Ông / In February a time of worship
Ai đi đâu đó nhớ mong mà về / Make a trip and return home

Every February on the lunar calendar, generations of villagers from Nha Trang in Khanh Hoa gather at the coastal ward of Vinh Truong to observe a special ceremony called lễ tế đức Ông as part of their New Year celebration. The ceremony is meant to be an occasion for locals to show their gratitude to the sea, and offer their prayers for a season of “calm water and bountiful harvest.” As an homage to her upbringing, graphic designer Tường Vân created a series of illustrations exploring the folktales behind these traditions to bring them to the mainstream.

Vân is an alumni of Van Lang University. In 2018, she graduated at the top of her class in Graphic Design with her Lễ Cầu Ngư illustrations, which received considerable praise from faculty members. The project took inspiration from her affection for her hometown. “I grew up in Nha Trang, and I just thought that maybe I should use my artworks to represent my roots,” she acknowledged. The product of a three-month creative process, the project recapitulates the lively scenes of Vinh Truong’s fishing villages and Nghinh Ông Festival beloved by the artist.

The book is divided into three main sections: Tích Ngư (Tales of Fish), Lễ Đình (Ceremonies) and Hội Làng (Festivities). It derives heavily from traditional material, yet offers a refreshing and modern take on the subject by employing mixed media — an art form that adopts techniques from both photography and illustration. Materializing as curated collages, the Cầu Ngư Festival comes to life on the pages through the visual merging of realistic photographic elements and Tường Vân’s enchanting drawings.

“I figured this combination was a good way to challenge myself. It would have been really bland if I filled the whole book with Photoshop illustrations because drawings by themselves could never authentically capture the beauty and sacredness of the Festival,” Vân shared.

Attuned to every detail, Vân is committed to creating a coherent and comprehensive narrative for all of her hometown’s folklore. In one page, she introduces the readers to Nam Hải Đại Vương (Great King of the Southern Sea), a colossal whale birthed from the robe of Bồ Tát Quan Âm (Bodhisattva/Goddess of Compassion). Expressing their gratitude to the gentle giant for saving seafarers in troubled waters, people worshipped and anointed him as Cá Ông or Đức Ông (Whale God). Emperor Gia Long would go on to give him the noble title of Nam Hải Cự Tộc Ngọc Lân Thượng Đẳng Thần (the Great Holy Protector of the Southern Sea).

Inheriting the cultural wealth of the Cham civilization, Nha Trang natives also worship many other tutelary deities. There’s Thiên Y Ana Thánh Mẫu, a goddess who blesses the land with favorable weather; Bà Tím, a turtle god who warns fishermen of danger; and Mộc Trụ Thần Xà, a mythical and magical snake.

In the next section, readers are introduced to the tradition’s central event, lễ Đình (Đình ceremony), which takes place in Vinh Truong. The ceremony begins at high tide with Nghinh Ông, a ritual to evoke the spirit of the Whale God.

Nghinh Ông’s greatest spectacle is the procession of fishing boats, which consists of the ghe lễ (main boat), ghe dắt (side boat) and ghe Bá Trạo (Bá Trạo boat). Tường Vân’s illustrations highlight the role of Bá Trạo artists, who perform ceremonial theatrics throughout the procession.

Bá Trạo artists through Tường Vân’s illustrations.

In the accompanying description, she gives the reader a glimpse into the mesmerizing performance. Matching the rhythmic beat of the drum, Bá Trạo men belt out shanties, the lyrics of which typically allude to worship of the Whale God, lives of fishermen and prayers for favorable weather and abundant harvest:

Nay bốn vạn ngư dân tề tựu / Thousands of fishermen gather
Một lòng thành khởi lễ cầu ngư / in reverence of the festival for Him

Cầu cho no ấm mọi người / Pray everyone be blessed
An cư lạc nghiệp đẹp tươi mọi nhà / With a good home and life 

Apart from the indispensable Nghinh Ông, there was another ancient ritual called Rước Sắc (Title Ordination) that Vietnamese used to observe in feudal times, where kings would ordain sea gods with royal titles. Here, Tường Vân depicts a scene where the emperor’s messengers in royal attire are bringing his ordination decree to the shrine of one of the whale gods

Many important rituals take place after Rước Sắc as well, such as Tế Chánh, Thứ Lễ, Tôn Vương and Hội Làng. To recreate the austere and enigmatic atmosphere of these events, she used the imagery of incense smoke diffusing into the space of a photo that was taken at an actual shrine.

Tế Chánh is carried out right after the Bá Trạo crew finishes their procession in front of the Whale God shrine. Fishermen believe that the more elaborate the ritual is, the more blessings they will receive from their deity.

Tế Chánh is followed by another ritual — Thứ Lễ, which, as the name suggest, involves Thứ Lễ, a traditional form of theatrical singing where performers praise the Whale God for his good deeds. In folk belief, the Whale God and general Quận Công are two manifestations of the same higher power, so believers must worship both characters.

The final part of the celebration is Hội Làng. It begins with the Tôn Vương ritual, where villagers gather to commemorate the event and make their wishes for another good year of fishing.

Though it might come off as an old-school spiritual practice, the Cầu Ngư Festival is a way for generations of fishermen to show respect for the source of their livelihood, and an expression of their will to overcome hardships and preserve their long-standing profession. Tường Vân hopes her illustrations can support this preservation effort, which in turn will help Nha Trang natives hold on to their heritage, and international spectators to enjoy the cultural significance of these timeless traditions.

Check out more artwork by Tường Vân on her Behance page here.

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