In Ba Ria – Vung Tau, a unique community is keeping the past alive
Gazing from Vung Tau toward Ganh Rai Bay, the dragon-shaped Long Son Island, also called Nua Mountain, stands out amidst the endless tropical mangrove greenery. The island is enveloped by the graceful contours of the Rang and Cha Va rivers. On the East side of Nua Mountain is the Nha Lon (“Big House”) complex, delineated by wavy red tiled roofs. Nestled in a charming setting of mountains and rivers, this is where the followers of the Ong Tran religion convene and worship.
The Nha Lon complex consists of ancient tile-roofed wooden houses of various heights inspired by old Vietnamese temples. They were constructed between 1910 and 1929 without architectural planning. The site of worship covers 7,800m2, featuring a main chamber called the Buddha Pavilion, as well as the adjacent Forbidden Pavilion, the Holy House, the Heaven Pavilion, the Deity Pavilion, the Mother House, and the Long Pavilion. Auxiliary buildings include granaries, storerooms, kitchens, and dwelling spaces for civilians and local clans. The site of worship stands separated from the rest behind a wall decorated by green-glazed ceramic statues of mythical phoenixes and nghe. Together, the Heaven Pavilion, Deity Pavilion, Buddha Pavilion, and the Mother House form a courtyard resembling the Chinese character for “mouth” (口), which is considered an auspicious formation in feng shui. The courtyard provides fresh air and light and holds an underground reservoir and an outdoor pool with a miniature landscape.
The solemn decorations in Nha Lon include traditional wooden plaques, ancestral tablets, altars, chiseled wooden drawers, and couplets. These extraordinary antiques originated from all across Vietnam, demonstrating our handicraft traditions. Decorative themes include the four holy beasts, flowers of the four seasons, lotuses, and rare and sacred plants. The carved designs represent people’s spiritual beliefs. For example, apricot blossoms symbolize the microcosm while orchids represent the sacred. Lotus flowers symbolize purity and nobility and pomegranate flowers happiness.
One noteworthy aspect of the Nha Lon community is that each person plays their part in preserving their traditions. The traditional ceremonies here, while carrying discernible traces of ancient Southern Vietnamese culture, are very unique to the Long Son region. During the Lunar New Year, people still observe customs such as writing couplets, setting up and lowering a bamboo neu tree, and making banh tet. Attracting thousands of visitors each year, the two most prominent festivals at Nha Lon are the Via Ong Festival (on March 20 of the lunar calendar) and the Trung Cuu Festival (on September 9 of the lunar calendar). They feature elaborate practices such as couplet-writing ceremonies and offerings of food and prayers to the founding father of Nha Lon, with meat and vegetarian dishes prepared for separate rites. During those days, hundreds of people help out in the kitchens of Nha Lon to cook and make rice cakes, welcoming guests from all over the country.
The hospitable people of the Nha Lon complex lead simple lives and follow strict routines. For example, they normally wear black ao ba ba, the traditional Southern Vietnamese outfit, tie their hair into buns, and go barefoot. White-haired and -bearded elders with gentle smiles look after the centuries-old buildings. Upon meeting these men, visitors feel as if they are lost in an ancient land. Nha Lon’s residents offer all visitors free food and accommodation. One such resident, Ms. Le Thi Kiem, is a descendant of Mr. Tran (whose real name was Le Van Muu), the founding father of Nha Lon. According to Ms. Thi Kiem, outsiders commonly believe that all residents at Nha Lon worship Mr. Tran as a deity. In reality, however, they do not follow any religion. They simply honor their ancestors and live by Mr. Tran’s legacy to follow the five constant virtues, aiming to be: Kind, Decorous, Honorable, Wise, and Faithful. They hold triannual couplet-writing ceremonies to teach their children how to treat people well and keep the peace. The couplets at the center of Nha Lon read: “Thiên hữu tứ thời xuân tại thủ, Nhơn sanh bá hạnh hiếu duy tiên”. A rough translation would be: “Spring comes first among the four seasons, and filial piety should take the highest priority among the four virtues.”