Hội An Mystique and the Toan Nghê

On the banks of the Thu Bồn River in Hội An, Vietnam is a hidden gem of a place called Nghê Prana Villa & Spa. I accidentally stumbled across it when I needed to stay a couple of nights during a trip to Bà Nà Hills a few months ago (more on this site in a future posting) and let me tell you, it is a real hidden treasure.

The room that I stayed in had a loft with two double beds and a bathroom that could be accessed via a very steep stairway that cannot be traversed carelessly. I literally had to watch every step as I climbed up and down because the steps are not of standard height or depth.

Other than meandering up there once just to check out the space, I never used the loft area at all because there was a perfectly usable king bed on the main floor.

In any case, I only went back to the room at night to crash after a fun-filled day exploring the ancient lands. It’s not because the room was uncomfortable (it’s very nice) or that I didn’t like the interior decoration (I absolutely love it).

View of the bar outside by the pool area.

The reason why I was rarely inside is that I was mostly sitting outside, enjoying the gentle soothing sights and sounds of the hotel grounds and the Thu Bồn River.

It is also quite nostalgic. Nghê Prana Villa is a hotel that looks very similar to Spirited Away’s bath house when viewed at night, evoking that sense of wonder I felt when I first saw Miazaki’s animated movie.

I took the photo above from the inner courtyard area by the pool, capturing the height of the two-story structure of the villa.

View from the far side of the pool area. There are two toan nghê statues facing one end of the pool.

On the other side of the pool, the classic beauty of the environment is revealed. Of note are the two statues situated at the end of the pool. They are known as the famed Toan Nghê, which is what the villa is named after.

Let me tell you a little bit about the Toan Nghê.

Toan Nghê

Close-up of the two statues at the hotel pool’s edge.

Toan Nghê is a mascot based on the image of a dog – a familiar that is considered a close friend and faithful servant of the owner.  It has the body and head of a dog, with claws resembling a dragon to protect their house.

“Why a dog?”, you may question. “Aren’t they supposed to be lion-dragons?”

The answer is surprisingly simple. The ‘foo dogs’ you find standing in front of huge Chinese markets and temples are the lion-dragon hybrids that you are familiar with. The lion-dragon hybrids were introduced into the Chinese community by Buddhist monks and travelers from India, where lions actually roamed. [1]

Historical and present distribution of the lion. [1]

Since the Chinese had never seen lions before, these creatures were considered more mythical than real, and therefore was considered worthy to be guardians for their temples and stately homes.

You can tell the difference between the lion-dragons and the dog-dragons by the curls (or lack thereof) on their heads. In general, most dogs don’t have curly manes and most lions (at least the males do) have a riot of curls around their heads.

The dog’s body is also thinner, in keeping with their skeletal shape. The dogs tend to also have a friendlier countenance whereas the lions are more fierce looking.

As for the Viets, even in earlier times, there had always been a proclivity to include real animals into their pantheon of guardians. Since the dog was (and still is) used as guardians and protectors, it was the dog that was used to portray this very important role.

First appearances of the Toan Nghê dates back to around the 1st century BC, corresponding with the late period of Văn Lang culture to the start of Âu Lạc period.

It is one of over a dozen Phong Thủy (feng shui) mascots that has a very special meaning in the spiritual life of Vietnamese people. For example, the Bệ Ngạn (tiger-dragon hybrid) is the representative of strength and power, and the Tỳ Hưu (horse-dragon hybrid) is the mascot specializing in attracting fortune.

I will get into each of these special mascots in a future posting, but in general, each Phong Thủy mascot, when placed in and around the house, has different functions, depending on the need. 

Two large stone Con Nghê guarding the entrance of the Nghê Prana Villa.

In accordance with mascot phong thủy, the mascot that can neutralize human murderous intent, would be the Toan Nghê.

Our trusty dragon-dogs are also used to guard and protect the house against demonic forces and evil spirits or bad omens from demons wanting to invade the sanctity of our homes.

And just as canines come in a multitude of sizes and shapes, so too do the Toan Nghê varieties. Unlike the lions and tigers and bears who only have one specific shape, dogs come in a variety of flavors.

As apparent in these composite images of doggies from ancient times till now, they are long eared and short eared, pointy snout and rounded snout, fierce-looking and goofy-looking. In short, they look just like the dogs we know and love…only a bit more…dragonified.

According to Phong Thủy experts, placing the Toan Nghê statue in strategic areas within the house will have the effect of warding off and preventing evil spirits from entering and harassing the owners.

Furthermore, Toan Nghê dogs can also neutralize negative air outside the home by limiting the bad energy sources that can wander around the external areas of the dwelling when it is placed in front of temples, pagodas and even your own front gate. 

I have my own pair of Toan Nghê in front of my house, mostly for decorative purposes. There are coyotes and bobcats that wander about the outside of my home, but I don’t think they are scared of the stone dogs.

Of course, in the event that any demonic forces try to invade, they will be there to deal with those pesky little wandering susuwatari dust sprites. [2]

  1. Lion
  2. Susuwatari

One thought on “Hội An Mystique and the Toan Nghê

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s