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Whale Worship: Exploring the Role of Whales in Vietnam's Coastal Lore

In 1799, the ferocious Tay Son army forced the first Nguyen Emperor, Nguyen Anh, and his troops to flee to the sea. While making their escape, a great storm engulfed the retreating army. As their ship’s mast shivered and the hull shuddered, threatening to break it into splinters, a great whale rose from the depths. It lifted the emperor's boat and carried him and his men to safety. To thank the animal, Anh bestowed upon whales the official title of "Nam Hải Cự Tộc Ngọc Lân Thượng Đẳng Thần," which was shortened to Cá Ông, or “Lord Fish.”

This story, apocryphal as it may be, is not the only such tale of cetacean rescue in Vietnam. Indeed, people up and down the country's coast tell modern-day stories of whales saving stranded fisherman. Mui, the caretaker of a whale graveyard in Phuoc Hai Village near Vung Tau, for example, told me through an interpreter of a time in 2016 when a whale saved his life. He had been out drinking with a friend and on his trip home, their boat capsized. As the waves pushed him beneath the surface, he thought he was about to die. Suddenly, a large whale appeared under him and supported him on its broad back, shifting and rolling as Mui lolled and floundered in the current. When eventually the whale steered the elderly man to the safety of another ship, it came as no surprise to Mui, as he is a devout worshiper of Cá Ông.

A painting featured in Vung Tau's whale temple.

I first learned about Vietnam’s whale worship tradition thanks to a single-sentence caption on a photograph that had been entered in a national art contest. I’ve always been enamored with these ancient, intelligent and spectacularly foreign creatures and was curious to learn more about a religion devoted to them. Some of my friends who are native Saigoneers said they were vaguely aware of it, but didn’t know the particulars nor anyone that actually practiced it. The internet offered some information, but to get a better understanding, I needed to venture to the sea.

I traveled about 20 kilometers from Vung Tau through a small town and down a construction-ravaged coastal road to a stretch of sand near the sea. After passing beneath a welcome banner, I arrived at a large sand field dotted with mounds topped by tombstones. This rather remote spot is a whale graveyard, one of dozens in the country.

A woman arranging offerings in the whale graveyard in Phuoc Hai Village.

A woman – who was placing flowers, fresh fruit, glasses of rice wine and lit incense at each grave – paused to talk with me. She explained that she comes from a family of fisherman, and leaving offerings at the graves of the Ông lụy (whales that have washed ashore) and praying to Cá Ông at the site’s temple help to ensure prosperous catches. The fishermen usually work far out in the open ocean in international waters near foreign coasts, so giving offerings also helps to ensure safe journeys.

Mui, the old fisherman who was rescued by a whale, has managed this graveyard for the past seven years and explained that whales don’t just physically intervene to safeguard against drowning. He recounted an instance of local fishermen working illegally in Indonesian waters. Foreign authorities had appeared in the area and the men were certain they’d be arrested. They shut off their lights and began frantically praying to Cá Ông. Miraculously, they evaded capture and continued on to a very lucrative catch. Mui stressed that while whales were instrumental in defeating Chinese invaders centuries ago, they are not nationalistic. Rather, they will rescue anyone in need. For example, Mui recently heard a story about a whale saving an American ship and bringing it to Russian shores. He also added that praying to Cá Ông can bring one good health and luck in finding a husband or wife.

During her extensive research on whale worship in central Vietnam, scholar Sandra Lantz encountered numerous tales similar to the ones that Mui shared. For example, around 1950, a man named Ly was fishing outside Phan Thiet when an unexpected storm threw his small ship into peril. He quickly began praying to Cá Ông and sprinkled salt and rice into the water as an offering. Within five minutes, the storm retreated, hovering ominously nearby. A whale then came to his boat and shepherded it to within sight of a nearby mountain and safe anchoring.

Lantz also found in her studies a belief that Cá Ông helps fishermen who perish at sea by returning their souls to shore. If the men’s souls can't make it to land, they will forever wander the open ocean as ghosts, but once brought ashore they can attain eternal peace.

Science offers an alternative to acts that are interpreted as instances of cetacean altruism. During storms, whales face difficulties navigating waves and benefit from leaning against boats, using them as steadying fulcrums. Even with the assistance, sometimes the efforts to stay afloat exhaust the animals to the point of death, upon which currents drag their corpses into the shallows. Similarly, whales will often fight predators not out of any devotion to people, but out of instincts to protect their own young.

The Phuoc Hai graveyard is home to more than two dozen mounds of varying sizes, each containing the body of a whale that has washed ashore near the tiny village. Each year as many as 20 whales end up on the beach in the area. In whale worship, there is no specific distinction made between whales and other cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises, and there have been virtually no scientific studies in Vietnam to ascertain which marine animals live in the area. Most of the animals villagers find are rather small – up to 1.5 meters in length – according to the woman I spoke with, so it’s likely that many of them are not technically whales. Moreover, there was at least one tortoise buried in the graveyard, brought in seemingly out of reverence, though not specifically associated with the religion.

A large burial mound in Phuoc Hai Village whale graveyard.

One grave in Phuoc Hai stands out from the rest. An enormous whale washed ashore on December 28, 2017. Mui claims it was more than ten meters long, while the woman giving offerings estimated it was closer to seven or eight meters. As far as anyone can remember, the ten-ton creature was the largest to have ever arrived in the village, and required a crane to bring it to its current resting place. Similarly sized whales have recently appeared on beaches in other areas of Vietnam as well.

Mui explained that during its long life, that particular whale had saved many ships throughout the area, not just in Vietnam, but in Thailand, Myanmar and even Russia. However, after it failed to save an overloaded ship during a large storm, it committed suicide. Intentional beaching is, sadly, how Mui claims the whales find themselves on the village’s shores. Having been unsuccessful in an attempt to rescue a human, they commit suicide out of shame or grief, according to lore.

Alter dedicated to Cá Ông at the Phuoc Hai Village whale graveyard.

Ông lụy are given elaborate funerals typically reserved for humans. People play drums and offer various fruits, meats, liquor, ghost money and flowers. Lantz notes in her research that Ông lụy are placed in bamboo coffins lined with red paper. Before being interred, the coffin is paraded through the streets so people can offer their respects. Whales have even been rumored to visit harbors during these funeral ceremonies to give a final send-off to their deceased brethren. If a whale is too large to move to the graveyard, and a crane is not available, some villages will elect a guardian to watch over the Ông luy until the meat has rotted off its bones and can be more easily transported.

According to some believers, the first person to find an Ông lụy is bestowed with great luck, but only the elderly should bury one, because a human soul that the whale may have brought ashore might still be restless and seek to inhabit a young body. Each grave is marked with a tombstone that lists the date of burial for a given whale, as well as the boat or person that originally discovered it.

Cá Ông altar in Phuoc Hai.

Ông lụy remain buried for three years, a period during which locals like the one I met tend to their graves: replacing offerings and saying prayers. Much like humans, the whales receive anniversary ceremonies 49 and 100 days after their initial burials. Once three years have passed, the bones are dug up and meticulously cleaned. Unlike Vietnamese people’s disinterred remains, which are sometimes kept in the homes of family members, the whale bones are transported to nearby temples, called Lăng Ông, that are specifically reserved for whale worship.

Altar base filled with cetacean bones.

I visited the Lăng Ông in Phuoc Hai, which rests in the middle of the village just a few blocks from the whale graveyard. In one small room, an altar dedicated to Cá Ông festooned with flowers and incense contains two elaborately carved whale statues and the fully articulated skeleton of an undetermined cetacean. A scrum of bones, including at least a dozen intact skulls, fill the altar’s hollow, windowed base. In addition to the altar room, an impressive multi-room structure serves as a community gathering site as well as a place for whale worshipers to pay their respects. A large platform in the center elevates a huge, freshly painted wooden whale statue.

Entrance to the Vung Tau temple dedicated to Cá Ông.

The temple is not dissimilar to many located on coasts throughout the country, including one in the middle of Vung Tau itself that I also visited. According to its management board documents, the temple was built in 1824, while King Thieu Tri and King Tu Duc provided for it with three dynastic investiture decrees in 1845, 1846 and 1850. In addition to two glass cabinets impressively crammed with large whale bones, it also houses an enormous, almost fully articulated whale skeleton and a huge wooden whale sculpture. Several paintings depict whales blurring the boundary between myth and biology.

Thu Hai, a monk at the Vung Tau whale temple. 

Thu Hai, the resident monk at the Vung Tau Lăng Ông for the past 20 to 30 years, explained to me that everyone in the area knows the power of Cá Ông and comes here to pay their respects and ask for prosperity. I talked to him beside a wall covered in aging photographs. The sepia snapshots offered glimpses of whale funerals and festivities going back decades.

In addition to the elaborate funerals, whale worshipers hold annual festivals to honor the marine mammals. The three-day events, which take place on different dates in different villages according to the lunar calendar, feature offerings, prayers, boat races, music and, in some cases, theatrical performances. Different communities celebrate in slightly different ways, but each allows citizens to pay their respects to Cá Ông, pray for loved ones lost at sea, and take a break from normal work schedules. People often wear their finest traditional clothing, decorate their boats and place colorful banners and flags around the city.

Like followers of most other religions, whale worshipers believe in a variety of superstitions. Lantz claims many adherents follow dietary restrictions that forbid the eating of Cá Ông’s assistants – swordfish, shrimp, sucking-fish and giant squid – as well as dog meat, because dogs frighten whales. Similarly, fisherman should not wear jewelry made of claws or teeth as those objects would scare a whale attempting a rescue. If a woman enters a Lăng Ông while menstruating, some believe whales may not save her family’s boats.

At Phuoc Hai Village whale graveyard manager Mui (left) and his friend Ngoc.

I asked Mui about the particular dietary restrictions and he compared them to Buddhist practices of only eating vegetarian food on certain days of the lunar calendar – some believers choose to follow this, and others don’t, with room for personal interpretations. He did add, however, that people are careful not to offer chickens to Cá Ông. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but theorized it dates back to ancient times when the calling of a rooster signaled people to venture into the fields, which left their villages vulnerable to invasion. Thu, the Vung Tau monk, downplayed the idea of forbidden foods or offering requirements at his temple, claiming that whale reverence comes with no such demands.

The origin of Vietnam’s whale worship remains unknown. Some scholars have proposed it was introduced in the area by 4th century seafaring Cham and 10th century Khmer people in southern Vietnam. Hindu animist beliefs which influenced early Cham religions may have helped elevate whales to the status of gods in coastal areas.

Buddhism also offers an explanation. According to one legend, upon witnessing the plight of poor fishermen who were dependant on the tempest-plagued South Sea, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva tore her cassock into pieces and threw them across the ocean. Each piece turned into a whale tasked with rescuing distressed fishermen. Upon noticing that the newly created creatures were rather small and unable to withstand severe storms, the Avalokiteshvara gathered elephant bones from the forest and gave them to the whales. This made them strong enough to complete their duties, and also gave them their Vietnamese name, cá voi (literally 'elephant fish').

If whale worship’s past is unclear, its future is equally uncertain. As younger generations move from fishing villages to large cities and abandon their ancestors’ trade, there are concerns that they will also abandon the religion. Additionally, the radical development of Vietnam’s coasts thanks to roads, housing and tourism projects threatens the very structures that support this tradition. Moreover, climate change is shifting local tides and making the graveyards more difficult to bring whales to.

Whale spinal bones at Phuoc Hai Lăng Ông.

Mui, for his part, disagreed that cultural and socioeconomic changes could result in the demise of whale worship. He explained that people here are proud of the practice, and even if they are no longer fishing in the village, they learn how to properly honor Cá Ông from their parents, who learned it from theirs and presumably will pass it on to future generations. Thu echoed this belief and professed to not having witnessed any decline in worshipers in the Vung Tau temple. Still, it’s hard to imagine the fervor or dedication of current practitioners withstanding generations divorced from ever seeing, let alone being saved by, whales.

While pre-Doi Moi policies resulted in the shuttering and destruction of some whale temples, Vietnam's leaders have recently taken steps to ensure this unique practice continues. For example, in 2013, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recognized the whale festival in Can Gio District outside of Saigon as an example of intangible cultural heritage at a national level. Twelve regional festivals in Da Nang received similar recognition in 2016. Perhaps out of respect for the locals’ beliefs, or for its potential as a tourist attraction, Quang Ngai Province’s Ly Son District has plans to restore a 24-meter-long, 300-year-old whale skeleton and exhibition center with an investment of VND10 billion (US$437,000).

Whale skeleton displayed at Vung Tau Lang Ông.

It is easy to romanticize an obscure ancient beliefs and apply modern or idealist values to them. It would be nice to categorize whale worship as a form of nature worship committed to the plight of cetacean species and the biological health of the seas. Nothing, however, suggests its adherents are concerned with, or even aware of, the cataclysmic decline of global whale and fish populations, let alone solving the problem. Mui claims he has not witnessed a change in the number of whales that wash ashore or a decline in fishing productivity, but his anecdotal observations are hardly definitive, especially in the face of mounting outside evidence. While governments around the world have established hunting moratoriums for many whale species, which has led to minimal increases in populations, their numbers remain decimated thanks to the massive whaling industries of previous centuries.

Perhaps more troubling is the reality that whales, dolphins and porpoises die as a result of the very activities humans request their assistance with. Cetaceans hunt the same fish that people are after, so many of the whales that wash ashore have not, in fact, committed suicide, but instead drowned at sea after becoming tangled in nets.

As I sat sharing shots of rice wine with Mui, I couldn’t help but be conflicted over whale worship. On the one hand, as a great admirer of whales, I too profess a deep and profound respect for the incredibly intelligent and emotionally astute animals and consider them worthy of our time and offerings. But does the religion not also encourage human’s anthropocentric inclinations at the expense of the natural world? Can a person profess to love and honor a creature while doing nothing to protect it? Should we really want these majestic creatures to kill themselves as acts of penance for not rescuing us? Eight billion humans inhabit this planet, but how many whales remain?

Ultimately, it is not my place to say. After speaking with Mui, I visited Cá Ông’s altar and lifted a strand of incense while praying for the survival of the whales, a prosperous future for the village, and my own private successes – aspirations that don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The joss stick’s smoke wafted apart in the air, like a whale song echoing into silence as it navigates up from the murky depths.

[Top illustration by Hannah Hoang]

Related Links:

- [Video] Locals Help Rescue Massive Whale in Nghe An

- [Photos] The Origins Of Caodaism, Vietnam’s Hybrid Religion

- Phu Quoc Fishermen Under Fire for Slaughtering Dolphin

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