Story: Tran Tan Khai
Photos: Tran Tan Khai, Thai A, Duc Vu
Fishing communities along Vietnam’s Central Coast consider whales and dolphins sacred
Fishermen along Vietnam’s Central Coast worship the “Grand Fish”, as they refer to dolphins and whales. Depending on their size, Grand Fish are honored with different titles, including Grandfather Nhồng, Grandfather Lúc and Senior Grandfather. Fishing communities consider Grand Fish as sacred.
Fishermen believe that Grand Fish are incarnations of the Southern Sea God, who protects and shelters them from violent storms. On calm days, Grand Fish welcome sailors. Dolphins swim ahead of their fishing fleets, wriggling their tails and opening their mouths like circus performers. When the boats speed up, the dolphins delight in racing them. Now matter how strong the boat’s engines, the dolphins always seem to win.
There are many stories about sailors being saved from sinking ships by whales and dolphins, who carry the men to shore on their backs. Grand Fish are honored as saviors. Fishermen along Vietnam’s Central Coast worship the Grand Fish that protect their lives and livelihoods.
For generations, fishermen have avoided catching the Grand Fish. When dolphins and whales die, the fishermen practice solemn funeral rites. If a whale is found stranded and dying, it is called a “reclining” whale. Stranded whales that are too weak to swim away are carried onto the beach, then placed in a hole dug into the sand and filled with seawater. Once the whale has stopped breathing, it is carried to the edge of the village and buried. Cymbals and drums play mournful tunes.
It is said that whales often come to die near villages that have whale cemeteries or whale mausoleums. Thuan An Village (Tam Hai Commune, Nui Thanh, Quang Nam) has two beaches: Bac Beach and Nom Beach. Many dying whales have washed ashore on Bac Beach, which is home to a whale cemetery. Whales can weigh hundreds of kilograms or even many tons, making their burials challenging. The whale cemetery in Thuan An Village is the only whale cemetery on Vietnam’s Central Coast where worship continues to this day. It was recognized as a provincial historical and cultural site by the People’s Committee of Quang Nam in 2009.
The Whale Cults Festival is still observed in many fishing communities. This festival marks the beginning of the year’s fishing season. Fishermen perform the Whale Welcoming Ritual. Hundreds of boats line up to honor the Grand Fish, led by a boat carrying sacrificial items and solemn offerings. The fishermen sail out to welcome the Grand Fish and to pray for calm weather and good catches in the year to come. During these festivals, as well as honoring Grand Fish and praying for good weather and plentiful catches, fishermen enjoy rowing and swimming races and coracle shaking and folk chanting competitions.
Rituals and festivals honoring the Grand Fish are part of the culture of Vietnam’s fishing communities, particularly along its Central coastline. These rituals reveal fishing communities’ bonds with the sea.