Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake is the soul of this city. With its tree-shaded walkways, the lake is an island of calm in the middle of chaos. Numerous legends, dating back nearly two thousand years, are associated with the lake, making the lake an important symbol connecting Hanoi to its mythic and historic past.

Nothing is more emblemic of Hoan Kiem's mythic qualities than the giant turtle that lives in the lake. Long thought to be a legend, the animal has appeared enough times in recent years for its existence, incredibly, to be confirmed.

The legend of Hoan Kiem can be found in any guidebook. In the 15th century, a fisherman found a sword blade in his fishnet. Believing it to be of divine origin, he gave to the General Lê Lợi (the future Emperor Lê Thái Tổ) for use in the war against the Chinese. With the sword, Lê Lợi drove out the invaders.

Soon after his victory, while boating on the lake, he saw a giant turtle approaching. The king drew his sword to point in the direction of the turtle, at which point the turtle seized the sword, and took it to the bottom of the lake – keeping it safe for the next time Vietnam might have to defend its freedom. The emperor renamed the lake Hồ Hoàn Kiếm: The Lake of the Restored Sword.

The Tortoise Stupa (Tháp Rùa) at the south end of the lake commemorates the event. It was built around 1886 by a corrupt Vietnamese official in the employ of the French, who hoped to bury his father's bones in the pagoda after its completion (he failed in this attempt). Over years, as the stupa has aged and been covered with moss, the memory of its unfortunate pedigree has been forgotten, and the stupa has, in its own right, become a symbol of the capital city in the minds of many Vietnamese.

Hoan Kiem's giant tortoises, such as the one that received Lê Lợi's sword, have rarely been seen, and were long thought by many to be either mythic or extinct. Then in 1967 a turtle was found dead, preserved, and placed on display in the Ngọc Sơn Temple on the north side of the lake.

Since 1991, a live Hoan Kiem turtle has been spotted approximately 400 times – an astonishingly low number for a 400-pound animal that lives in a shallow lake in the middle of a city (the lake is a mere 600 meters long, 200 meters wide, and two meters deep). The turtle was filmed by an amateur videographer in 2005.

Biologists estimate that Hoan Kiem has only one turtle remaining. The Hoan Kiem turtle was given the name Rafetus leloii by Professor Hà Đình Đức, though many scientists now believe it to be a specimen of the rare Swinhoe's soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), of which, until recently, only two other specimens were known to exist – both in captivity. Only two years ago, an expedition from the Cleveland Zoo found and photographed a large Swinhoe turtle just west of Hanoi, giving hope to the possibility that more may yet exist in the wild.

According to local folklore, the Hoan Kiem turtle is 500 years old. Not likely – although several tortoises have been claimed to have lived over 200 years, the oldest tortoise officially recorded died at the age of 188. Still, it's enjoyable to entertain the thought that Hoan Kiem's turtle may date back to the time when Lê Thái Tổ fought off the Chinese.

What if this tortoise were the one who seized the king's sword? What memories it would have.


  1. Don't you know it's just an ex mine-sweeping marine with a fake turtle on his back?!?

    A true "tall story" which a guy told me at a bia hoi once upon a time...

    Scroll down to December 6 at this defunct blog:

  2. Well then, all you have to do is mate this guy with another of his kind, and we'll have a slew of 'em back in Hoan Kiem Lake!