Gods of the Sea: Tales of Whale Worship in Vietnam

Adrien Jean

Whale worshipping is an ancient tradition that dates back to the 17th century, when fishermen began to build temples and shrines to honor the dead whales that washed ashore. They believed that these whales were gods of the southern sea, who protected them from storms, guided them to rich fishing grounds, and rescued them from danger. From small offerings and intimate prayers, the practice of honoring whales slowly grew to more established and elaborate customs and celebrations. Whale temples flourish along the Vietnamese coast to this day where locals pray for blessings before ocean journeys and also request general assistance from Cá Ông, or “Lord Fish.”

Individual whales, dolphins and porpoises that wash ashore are given proper burials similar to those of people and after several years, the bones are removed and stored in temples.

Every year, fishermen in many coastal villages hold a festival to express their gratitude and respect to the whale god. One of the most spectacular whale festivals takes place in Phuoc Hai, a small fishing village in the south of Vietnam. Through this project, I would like to explore the tales of fishermen who claim to have been guided and protect by whales and how these stories have been passed down through generations, emphasizing the spiritual connection between the community and the cetaceans.

Why this story?

Maintaining ancient traditions alive in the face of rapid societal changes is a universal challenge and, in my opinion, a narrative worth sharing. This project will be the opportunity to investigate the threats faced by coastal communities in preserving their cultural identity as more people migrate to urban areas and the efforts being made to pass on the tradition to younger generations. This photographic essay will serve as a tribute to the lifestyle of these fishing communities and their profound beliefs. There is a poetic resonance in the connection they share with cetaceans that resonates deeply with me, and I am confident it will similarly resonate with others.

Personally I see photography as a bridge, allowing me to forge meaningful connections with local people and gain a profound understanding of their tradition. As a long-term resident, I regularly travel and photograph throughout Vietnam, documenting ethnic festivals and life in less-visited regions in an attempt to capture the essence of this beautiful country that I now call home.