The whale temples of Vietnam

Ever since The King of Whales was found dead on the beach people gather to pray at the skeleton alter


Sometime ago, a story came down the wind telling of the many temples along the southern coast of Vietnam honouring the whales who, in legend, myth and story, rescue fishermen and bring prosperity to the villages. It is hard to ascertain just how many temples there are, however, the number of whale skeletons runs in the thousands.

In one temple alone on the island of Ly Son, there are said to be over 500.

As we surely come to the end of over 700 years of whaling, Vietnam has a long history of revering these grand totems. Rather than cruelly taken by harpoon and debased on an altar of mankind’s greed, here the whale is laid upon an altar of reverence and love for the great beings they are.


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.”

Fishing is the vital industry on Ly Son, and reverence for the sea extends to its largest inhabitants. Anyone who finds a dead whale must make sure the whale is given a proper funeral. When the whale is on the beach, it is easier to make the arrangements, but a few years ago a fisherman brought a whale carcass he had found floating in the sea to shore to bury it.

Ly Son fishermen believe whales are their protectors and honouring them in their death will bring the fishermen good fortune. According to the legend of the King of Whales, the skeleton that is visited every spring is that of the most powerful whale to ever swim in the East Sea, between 200 and 300 years ago.

The King of Whales was found dead on the beach in An Hai Commune, on Ly Son, and the islanders were unable to move it, so they buried it right there on the spot. The skeleton was later dug up and brought to the temple.

The gigantic skeleton is now being restored, because parts of it have been damaged over the years. The skeleton is 130 feet long, with the head alone measuring nearly 10 feet. The whale’s vertebrae are 1.3 feet. Every two years, someone is selected to clean and prepare the skeleton for its showings. Visitors bring it offerings and ask it to bless their lives.

Ly Son is a small island with three temples dedicated to the whale and the sailors who feel so connected to them.

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