Why Vietnamese villagers are dragging dead whales inland

Why Vietnamese villagers are dragging dead whales inland

Global warming is causing tides to recede along Vietnam's coast, contradicting international data and proving problematic for village rituals
In the distance an ancient Cham tower overlooks the colorful Phu Hai fishing fleet, painted with white and black eyes on the bows to scare off sea monsters.

Picture this: On a beach in southern Vietnam a crowd of fishermen and their families gather to mourn the passing of a dead whale, a rare and sacred omen to Vietnam's fishermen. Vibrantly colored wooden fishing boats swing on their mooring lines just off shore, with large eyes painted on their bow to ward off fabled sea monsters. A few women wail melodramatically. Children rush up to get a glimpse of the large, beached carcass. 

This is not a dreamscape or a figment of a fertile imagination. It is a scene that has played out along Vietnam's coast in several villages that are home to whale temples. Phan Thiet and Vung Tao are well-known for them, but they can also be found in Ben Tre in the south, or Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province or Binh Thuan Province, both in the south-east. 

The fishermen, who worship the “Lord Whale” as their father and protector, will hold an elaborate Cau Ngu funeral festival with much song and dance, all the while dragging the hallowed corpse to the nearby whale temple to bury the bones in the cemetery. After three years, the bones will be exhumed and once again carried through the streets in an elaborate Nghinh Ong parade, complete with dragon and lion dancers, stilt walkers, classical musicians and martial artists. After the festivities, the bones will be returned to the temple, to be displayed with other whale and dolphin remains and worshipped. 

But getting the corpse to the temple isn't as easy as it used to be. Many whale temples, which were built only a few dozen meters from the sea decades or even centuries ago, are now hundreds of meters away. 

How to take a dead whale to a temple

whale skeletonA whale skeleton is venerated during Cau Ngu festival at Van Thuy Tu temple. Ho Van Ton, age 75, is the caretaker of the Van Thuy Thu whale temple in Phan Thiet, built in 1762. “Whale temples were always built along the shore,” says Ton. “They must be in view of the sea so fishermen can bring the whales to the temple. When I was a boy, this temple was just 50 meters from the shore. Then in the early 1960s the sea began to recede quickly and the shoreline now sits about 200m away.”

Van Thuy Thu is not alone in its land-locked dilemma. Further south in the city of Vung Tau, another famous whale temple named Dinh Than Thang-Tam suffers the same problem. Built during the Minh Mang Dynasty (1820-1840) at the beach, it now rests nearly a kilometer from the shore, in the middle of town.

At a time when climate change and rising sea levels are considered serious threats to coastal communities around the world, local fishermen don’t understand why the sea is receding. And it appears that environmentalists cannot explain the phenomenon either. 

Out with the tide

In February 2007 the World Bank issued a report titled “The Impact of Sea Level Rise on Developing Countries: A Comparative Analysis.” The policy paper concluded that of the 84 countries surveyed, Vietnam’s population would be affected the most by a 1m rise in sea level. The report generated enormous attention and has fueled continuous media coverage of climate change in the Mekong ever since. 

Relative sea level rise in Vietnam is calculated from tidal gauge data collected by the Marine Hydrometeorological Centre at four chief stations. The data for some stations spans several decades, thus allowing the possibility for scientists to calculate historic trends in sea level changes. 

However, the few reports that actually allude to Vietnamese tidal data have only referenced a single station at Hon Dau. 

The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit pointed out: "The longest and most reliable record is for Hon Dau in North Vietnam. A sea level rise of 0.19 cm a year has been observed at this station over the period 1955-1990. This is in broad agreement with the observed rise in global-mean sea level.” Environmental scientists Pham and Furukawa issued an almost identical declaration in a 2007 report. 

Number crunching

Vietnamese fishermenA Vietnamese fisherman dressed in traditional costume during a Cau Ngu Festival.Of numerous sea level reports obtained, only the June 2009 Presentation by Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) alludes to complete data from all four stations. MONRE's data demonstrate a rise in sea levels, but the data conflict with that of other studies, raising some questions of accuracy. 

For example, MONRE points out that the village of Quy Nhon has the highest recorded sea level rise of 3.8mm per year from 1993-2008. But data from the University of Hawai’i Sea Level Center and the Global Sea Level Observation System shows an opposite trend --  a drop in sea level of 1mm per year, going back as far as 1979. 

These inconsistencies suggest that scientists not only haven’t thoroughly examined trends in Vietnam’s changing sea levels, but may also have a thing or two to learn from its fishermen.

In the meantime, Vietnam’s whale worshipers will have to rent a tractor trailer to get that dead whale to the temple.

getting there

Dinh Than Thang-Tam is located in the city of Vung Tau, on the corner of Xo Viet Nghe and Hoang Hoa Tham streets, halfway between the two municipal beaches. Open during daylight hours with free admission.

Van Thuy Thu is located in Phan Thiet City at 20A Ngu Ong Street. Open daily 7:30–11:30 a.m. and 2:00–5:00 pm with a 5,000VND admission fee.

Adam Bray has contributed to more than 15 guidebooks to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and has written (and in many cases provided photography) for publishers such as DK Eyewitness, Insight Guides, Thomas Cook, ThingsAsian, Berlitz and Time Out. He is fluent in Vietnamese and speaks a smattering of other local languages, including Cham and Khmer.

View Adam's blog fisheggtree.blogspot.com/

Read more about Adam Bray
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