A strange and solemn burial took place last Tuesday at the estuary of the Cai Cung River. A large 15 ton, 16 metre whale, which had been named “Your Excellency” by local fishermen, was sadly found floating, dead, 42 km from the coast on Monday.
More than 10,000 people travelled to the locality to mark the burial of the remains and to pay their respects and burn incense.
Dozens of fishermen, using more than ten boats, managed to drag the remains of the huge creature to shore to honour it and pay their last respects.
More than 10,000 people travelled to the locality on Tuesday, to mark the burial of the remains and to pay their respects and burn incense, according to Do Tien Ha, an official of the Vietnamese Coast Guard Service. This is similar to the respect shown when a special friend or honoured leader dies. Plans are now being discussed to build a pagoda or temple to honour the remains.
Whales play an important part in the beliefs of some ethnic minorities in Vietnam, particularly those with long traditions of sea fishing.
Some of these beliefs involve the Whale God, a powerful spirit that can calm the waves and lead seafarers to shelter, and hence the reason why some fishermen pay homage and respect to this huge inhabitant of the seas. He is referred to as ‘ngu ong’, which means ‘Mr. Whale’. This name is a sign of both fear and reverence, a god so powerful that even to speak his name is considered to be tempting luck and danger.
But living whales are honoured as well, and these fishermen never hunt the large marine mammals, 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 in ceremonial cloth and carried to a temple to be honoured, as if the creature was a beloved community god.
Whale funerals always attract large crowds and the whale cult is deeply rooted in Vietnam’s culture.
There are many festivals in different towns and provinces associated with the worship of the whale god. In Vung Tau, there is a pagoda devoted to the deity and a very popular annual festival which takes place 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). These festivals are now considered to be important attractions for tourists, due to the strange fascination which Europeans, Americans, Australians, Vietnamese and others have for these creatures, all of which help contribute to the local economies.
In Da Nang, a centuries-old whale festival takes place each year 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 when the ceremony begins.
At dawn the following day, a procession of boats on the sea in a set formation displays the fishermen’s devotion to their Whale God. At midnight, the official ceremony is conducted as school children offer incense and the orchestra plays traditional music on local instruments.
These beautiful rituals are still practiced today and the last whale burial was in 2002.