Every spring, visitors flock to the Lang Tan Temple (Temple of the Whale) on the island of Ly Son off the coast of Vietnam to pray to what islanders claim is the largest whale skeleton in Southeast Asia.
Fishing is an important industry on Ly Son, and reverence for the sea extends to its largest inhabitants. Anyone who finds a dead whale must make sure the whale is given a proper funeral. When the whale is on the beach, it is easier to make the arrangements, but a few years ago a fisherman brought a whale carcass he had found floating in the sea to shore to bury it.
Ly Son fishermen believe that whales are their protectors, and that honoring them in their death will bring the fishermen luck. According to the legend of the King of Whales, the skeleton that is visited every spring is that of the most powerful whale to ever swim in the East Sea, between 200 and 300 years ago.
The King of Whales was found dead on the beach in An Hai Commune, on Ly Son, and the islanders were unable to move it, so they buried it right there on the spot. The skeleton was later dug up and brought to the temple.
The gigantic skeleton is now being restored, because parts of it have been damaged over the years. The skeleton is 130 feet long, with the head alone measuring nearly 10 feet. The whale’s vertebrae are 1.3 feet. Every two years, someone is selected to clean and prepare the skeleton for its showings. Visitors bring it offerings and ask it for help with things in their lives that are giving them trouble.
The Lang Tan Temple is recognized as a national historic site by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in Vietnam, but the King of Whales is not the only whale skeleton on Ly Son. About 100 more are maintained and worshiped in temples around the island, two of them sharing the Lang Tan Temple with the King of Whales.
Visit Vietnam with Atlas Obscura Trips
Vietnam’s Most Delicious Dishes: A Culinary Adventure from Hanoi to Saigon
On this nine-day journey, we’ll explore Vietnam through its unique cuisine, tasting our way across north, central, and south Vietnam by way of steaming pork belly meatballs in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and the white rose dumplings of Hoi An.