Vietnam's whale worshippers

Within shoreline communities, whales are gods of the southern sea.

A photo of worshippers amid incense smoke and neon lights paying their respects to Cá Ông during Phuoc Hai’s whale worship festival.
Worshippers in Phuoc Hai pay their respects to the whale god, Cá Ông [Magnus Graham/Al Jazeera]
Worshippers in Phuoc Hai pay their respects to the whale god, Cá Ông [Magnus Graham/Al Jazeera]

The story goes like this: When Nguyen Van Loc left his grey concrete home on Ly Son Island and strolled towards his glazed blue boat, he anticipated a routine fishing trip - sunrise melting over the horizon, a rice wine breakfast, a slow search for shoals and, if they were lucky, a decent catch.

Yet within a few hours of venturing beyond the island’s offshore reefs, a storm threatened to capsize his plans.

Beneath galvanised skies, fierce winds hastened over the ocean, whipping sea spray into ghouls that lashed against Loc’s boat. Around the vessel, waves churned into steeper and steeper peaks that sent the crew crashing against the deck. Lightning lit up the ocean, shining a torchlight on their fate.

Death, Loc felt, was surely close.

After binding themselves together with rope - so their corpses would be found as one - Loc and his fellow fishermen gripped the boat’s gunwale and prayed for help. As they peered at the heaving sea, remembering ancestors who had fallen before them, a smooth, oblong form appeared, and a wise, barnacled eye stared back at them - as if looking directly into their souls.

The men, however, felt no fear, for it was to the whale god Cá Ông that they had directed their prayers.

As the men cheered in elation, another two whales appeared beside their boat.

Over the next few hours, the three cetaceans steered the fishermen away from a deep-sea death and towards home, where their story would spread through fish markets and restaurants for decades to come.

An illustration of a boat in a storm with a whale swimming next to it.
Nguyen Van Loc and fishermen being rescued by whales [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Upon hearing Loc’s tale, one might be tempted to dismiss his experience as a mind-blowing one-off. A miracle. A rescue of biblical proportions. Yet what’s striking about his story is not its singularity, but how often similar anecdotes surface within Vietnam’s shoreline communities. From southern Phu Quoc Island right up to the coastal city of Da Nang, fishermen habitually beguile listeners with stories of cetacean altruism.

Is there a morsel of truth in their tales? One can only find out by rising at dawn to walk through fishermen’s markets and searching for dozens of whale temples dotted along the south-central Vietnamese coastline.

Source: Al Jazeera