Mysterious Whale Cult
In April, 2004, a 25m dead whale
was washed up onto a beach at Ben Tre, in the Mekong Delta.
More than a thousand Vietnamese people from all over Vietnam
converged on the site to burn incense and worship the carcass,
and then to use its bones to build a temple.
The story was picked up by a
news agency and spread around the world’s newspapers. Most
treated it as a humorous item, or regarded it simply as bizarre
However, the event was not an
isolated occurrence. Whales and other large sea mammals are
routinely beached or washed up on Vietnam’s 1,400km coastline.
Wherever this happens, the creature is treated with great
reverence and worshipped by local people, particularly fishermen.
of the Whale God
The little-known cult is thought to be linked to the early
Kh’mer and Cham people, and thus predates every established
religion in Vietnam. However, the country has strong animist
roots, so the cult’s origins could be local and even older.
The beliefs centre upon the Whale
God, a powerful spirit that can calm the waves and lead seafarers
to shelter. He is known as ‘ngu ong’, which means ‘Mr. Whale’.
Such a prosaic title is a mark of both fear and reverence,
a god so powerful that even to speak its name is courting
Living whales are revered as
well. Followers of the cult never hunt the large marine animals,
which they regard as giant fish. The carcasses of whales that
have died natural deaths are buried with great respect and
ritual ceremonies. After three to five years, the bones are
exhumed, shrouded and carried to the temple to be worshipped,
as if the creature was a beloved community god.
Whale funerals always attract
large crowds but make the authorities uneasy. Vietnam’s constitution
condemns ‘superstition’, but the whale cult is deeply rooted
in the country’s culture.
Some of the many temples
and festivals devoted to whale worship
There are many festivals associated with the worship of the
whale god. In Vung Tau, there is a pagoda devoted to the deity
and an annual festival in the eighth lunar month. On festival
days, the temples are decorated with flower garlands, while
colourful lanterns are hung during the night. There are also
cultural activities including hat boi (classical drama performances)
and hat ba trao (traditional folk songs).
In Danang, a centuries-old whale
festival takes place in the middle of the 3rd lunar month
each year. The whale temple, as well as all the houses and
boats, are beautifully decorated. The peace offering is conducted
in the first evening at the whale temple by village elders.
Offerings, which do not contain seafood, are distributed while
the oration is read out.
At dawn the following day, a
procession of boats on the sea in a set formation is a ritual
affirmation of the fishermen’s devotion to their Whale God.
At midnight, the official ceremony is conducted as school
children offer incense and the orchestra plays a classical
Founded in 1762, the Thuy Tu
communal house in Phan Thiet city looks like a Chinese temple
and contains a collection of six hundred whale and sea turtle
skeletons. Up to a century ago, whales were frequently spotted
in the surrounding coast of Phan Thiet and fishermen believed
they were Gods of the Sea who guided and protected them. When
a whale died, their remains were brought back and buried in
the grounds. After 3 years, the bones were placed in a pagoda
for worship. On display is the preserved bone structure of
an enormous fin whale that is over 120 years old, 22 metres
long and weighs over 65 tons. The rituals are still practiced
today - the last whale burial was in 2002.
The invisible ‘religion’.
There is remarkably little attention paid to the whale cult
of Vietnam. To the best of our knowledge, no academic studies
of the cult’s beliefs and rituals have been made, and no sources
of information appear to be available. This is surprising,
considering the large numbers of active followers around the
coast from the Gulf of Thailand in the south to Ha Long Bay
and beyond in the north.