At a colourful temple next to the turquoise sea off Ly Son Island, weather-beaten Vietnamese fishermen offer up their prayers to an unusual god — “Ca Ong” or Mr Whale.
Before setting sail on a month-long voyage, Nguyen Hoang Loi makes a pilgrimage to the ornately decorated Tan Temple, which houses the remains of two sacred giant whales.
“Praying to the whale will help us if we encounter trouble at sea,” the 45-year-old said as he and his crew prepared to depart from Ly Son, an island of 21,500 people off the coast of central Vietnam.
Up and down Vietnam’s 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles) of coastline, fishing communities worship giant whales, which they view as their guardian angels — a religious phenomenon of a type that experts say is unique to the country.
“If fishermen encounter a sudden storm when fishing and don’t know where to shelter, then they pray to Mr Whale to help,” Ly Son Island’s whale priest Tran Ngo Xuong told AFP.
“The whale will appear beside their boat, helping them through the dangerous moments,” said Xuong, a 79-year-old retired fisherman who now acts as a custodian at Tan Temple.
After an elaborate prayer ceremony to appease the whale spirits, Xuong unseals two dimly lit rooms behind Tan Temple’s ornate altar piece, where the bones of two giant whales are stored.
The whales — which weighed between 50 and 70 tons when alive and were both more than 20 metres long — beached in separate incidents on Ly Son’s shores over 100 years ago, Xuong said.
The creatures were so big that hundreds of people would normally have struggled to haul them in, but after many prayers and rituals, just a few dozen islanders managed to drag them ashore with the help of a favourable tide, he said.
Beached whales are given traditional Vietnamese funerals — they are buried for between five and 10 years, and then their bones are excavated and kept above ground.
Whale oil is separated off and stored in huge ceramic containers to be used during ritual cleaning of the whale bones on their death anniversary.
Official media frequently report on stories of miraculous escapes by fishermen aided by whales, with Suc Khoe Doi Song, a newspaper under the Ministry of Health, most recently describing fisherman Dang Chau’s escape.