A 20-meter-long whale skeleton, Vietnam's largest, is on display at the Van Thuy Tu relic temple in coastal town Phan Thiet.
Van Thuy Tu is located on Ngu Ong Street, Duc Thang Ward, about 150 meters from Phan Thiet Port in the south-central province of Binh Thuan. On weekends, the relic attracts scores of curious visitors.
"The old architecture here is so beautiful - I didn't expect to see such a large whale skeleton," said Le Thu, a tourist among a group of 30 people from Ho Chi Minh City.
Vo Ngoc Nguyen Chau, an exhibition guide, said according to legend, in the 18th century after the temple was built, a huge whale had beached itself here.
Because of its size, at over 20 meters in length and weighing 65 tons, it took two days to deliver it to the temple, which had its front gate destroyed in the process, pending a funeral ceremony.
Three years later, when the body had finally decomposed, the remains were collected, cleaned with water and strong spirits, then moved to the back of the temple to worship and preserve, Chau added.
The largest whale skeleton in Vietnam at Van Thuy Tu temple. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.
In 2003, the People's Committee of Phan Thiet provided a budget for experts to restore and reassemble the skeleton in order to display it to the public. In 2005, Vietnam’s Book of Records recognized it as the largest whale skeleton in the country.
According to Phan Thiet Culture and Information Office, based on the characteristics of the existing skeleton, this is a grey back whale whose scientific name is Balaenoptera physalus.
This mammal has 63 vertebrae on its spine, along with 15 pairs of ribs and two bones for limbs.
The skull is around 2.4 meters wide. The upper jaw is 3.1 meters long and has a V shape. The lower jaw is 3.8 meters long. All seven cervical vertebrae are attached.
"On the weekend, hundreds of tourists come here as everyone is curious about this skeleton and the custom of worshiping whales in Phan Thiet," Chau said.
Huynh Giac, Van Thuy Tu's head of management, said Duc Thang is one of the oldest coastal villages in Phan Thiet. In 1762, villagers had built Van Thuy Tu temple to worship whales.
"In the past, the whales often helped boats here to overcome storms, so our ancestors are very respectful to them," he noted.
Van Thuy Tu relic temple. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.
The main hall includes an altar dedicated to the whale gods and fishermen’s ancestors. In the back is a worshipping area preserving over 100 whale skeletons, many dating back more than two centuries ago.
Currently, there are three whale tombs in the temple's "holy land" burial site still to be reassembled.
According to custom, whenever a dead whale drifts ashore, villagers have to organize a funeral.
"After three years, the remains are collected and put into the worshiping house," Giac said.
Previously, all dead whales, big or small, were buried in the "holy land". But now, due to the dense population and in order to avoid environmental pollution, whales longer than 3 meters are buried along the beach far from residential areas.
Over the past 250 years, Van Thuy Tu has maintained its traditional festivals. Of which, the biggest is the summer fish ceremony. In addition to the solemn event, other activities include traditional village singing.
Along with the whale skeleton, Van Thuy Tu houses many highly-valued artifacts like bronze bells, terracotta statues and diaphragms.
In 1996, Van Thuy Tu was recognized by the Ministry of Culture and Information as a national-level artistic work of architecture. The Van Thuy Tu fish ceremony was also inducted as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2019.