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Mausoleums for Mister Whale

The country's largest whale skeleton on display at Van Thuy Tu Temple in Phan Thiet
 Van Thuy Tu in Phan Thiet City is known as the oldest temple dedicated to whales in the central coastal province of Binh Thuan.

Not only a sacred place for fishermen, the temple, which the Vietnamese government classified as a national heritage site in 1996, also displays the country’s biggest whale skeleton, drawing throngs of visitors.

The association of fishermen of Thuy Tu Village established Van Thuy Tu in 1762 to worship whales, locally called Ca Ong, or Mister Whale, and considered to help and save fishermen when they are out at sea.

Legend has it that just after Van Thuy Tu Temple, then located very near the shore, was erected, a large whale was washed up on the beach in front of the temple.

Fishermen from Thuy Tu and other areas together took two days to bring the more-than-20-meter-long whale weighing dozens of tons into the temple grounds for burying.

The worshipping of the loyal Ca Ong has been handed down from generation to generation according to the fishermen’s believes.

The customs say the fisherman who sees “Ong” first will be considered as his eldest child and must hold a solemn funeral and mourn for three years for his “father,” showing that fishermen place their relationship to Ca Ong almost on the level as that between people.

Local residents say that during the three years of mourning, the fishermen usually have financial difficulties, but those are solved when after that period, they and their family members will gain a bumper fishing crop as if the whales reward them.

In the Van Thuy Tu temple grounds many whales that have died and are washed onto the shore get buried. After three years, their skeletons are extracted and placed into a tomb.

In line with this custom, the three tam (mausoleums) in Van Thuy Tu in present-day Ngu Ong Street in Duc Thang Quarter contain more than 100 skeletons. More than half of them are 100 to 150 years old.

The most significant is a fin whale skeleton, said to be the country’s largest, on display at the main house of the temple. The 22-meter-long whale is estimated to have weighed 65 tons.

The Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography and private company Le Vu recovered and assembled the skeleton in May 2003 under a project that Phan Thiet City’s Department of Culture and Information ran.

The area’s Chinese-Vietnamese heritage also finds expression in Van Thuy Tu Temple through deities that get worshipped there apart from the whales and boards inscribed with Chinese characters.

Most of Binh Thuan’s fishing villages have their fishermen associations and temples.

The fishermen association in Thuy Tu is one of the oldest and already received 24 nominations from Nguyen Dynasty kings, such as Thieu Tri, Tu Duc Dong Khanh, Duy Tan and Khai Dinh. King Thieu Tri (1841-1847) alone granted it a rare 10 nominations.

Van Thuy Tu is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is VND2,000. (Thu Thuy)

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