Vietnam's 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 behaviour.

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.

The cult 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 danger.

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 opera.

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.

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