The legend of the Hoan Kiem Turtle

Vietnam News Service
May 28, 2006

Coincidence?: People believe that when the turtle surfaces, it marks an important event in the country.

Coincidence?: People believe that when the turtle surfaces, it marks an important event in the country.

Peeking out: It?s a rare sight to see the Great Turtle show its whole body when it surfaces. - VNS photo Thanh Ha
Devoted following: Sometimes, the Great Turtle has visitors who come and see him at the foot of Turtle Tower. ? VNS Photos Luu Duc Ngo

For centuries, Hanoians have been fascinated by the mysterious turtle that lives underneath the tranquil waters of Hoan Kiem Lake, passing down stories about the beloved creature from generation to generation. Nguyen Minh Huong separates the reality from the myth.
The heart of Ha Noi, Hoan Kiem Lake looks tranquil and peaceful. On hot summer days, Hanoians rush to the western bank of the lake to catch a cool breeze or to simply enjoy the scenery.

But the picturesque lake is more than just a beautiful site ? it is the stuff of legends. According to a tale that dates back to the 15th century, King Le Loi, also known as Le Thai To, the founder of the Le Dynasty, found a holy turtle during a cruise on the then Luc Thuy, or green lake. The turtle told the King to return the sacred sword that had helped him defeat the northern Ming aggressors now that peace had returned. Le Thai To unsheathed his sword and threw it to the turtle. He later named the lake "Hoan Kiem" (Lake of Returned Sword).

The story has been passed down from generation to generation and recorded in history books, and there were no real evidence of what the giant reptile may have looked like until 1967, during the height of the war, when the Ha Noi Food Company caught a giant turtle from the lake. The turtle weighed about 200 kilos and was about 2 metres long. The company was going to sell the meat, but someone alerted the Ha Noi People?s Committee and the then mayor Dr Tran Duy Hung ordered them to stop the sale. Sadly, the turtle eventually died from injuries sustained from being mishandled. It was later stuffed and is now on display at the Ngoc Son Temple.

Fact or fiction?

After that one catch, the turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake has remained a mysterious figure that surfaces whenever he feels like it, mostly during December and then in March.

"There is only one turtle in the lake," said Professor Ha Dinh Duc, a biologist with the Ha Noi National University.

Ha Dinh Duc, 67, teaches in the Biology Department of the School of Natural Sciences and started researching the turtles in 1991.

Duc has a collection of between 300 and 400 photos of Hoan Kiem Lake turtles and has also collected many stories about them.

Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, which he named Rafetus Leloii after King Le Loi, has become an integral part of the culture and history of Ha Noi. The Vietnamese add a title to his name, Cu Rua, which means great-grandfather the turtle. To many people, the turtle in the lake is not just a normal turtle ? he is a sacred being. Many put a picture of the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle on their altars for worshipping.

And any concrete findings about this creature have been hotly contested because they touch upon sacred ground.

Professor Duc has been passionately studying and preserving anything related to the giant soft-shelled turtle. He also studies the aquatic conditions and life forms in Hoan Kiem Lake, anything related to the lives of the turtles in the lake over the last 15 years.
According to him, the Great Turtle in the lake belongs to a soft shell species measuring nearly two metres in length and weighing over 200 kilos. He has also identified the 130 species of the micro-algae family, and 33 other endemic species that exist solely in the lake.

This is a very rare animal threatened with extinction.
"I believe the turtle living in the lake now is the very one that took away King Le Loi?s sword, as this species can live as long as 500 or even 700 years."

Duc explains that the turtle that lives in Hoan Kiem Lake can be recognised by the white spot on his head and a tendency to turn left when he swims.

He said the turtle may be related to the trionychidae species, the Rafetus swinhoei, a species found in China.

According to Duc, one theory about the turtles? origin is that King Le Loi himself brought the turtles from his resistance base in Thanh Hoa Province to release them in Hoan Kiem Lake.

Duc said that similarly large-scale turtles were caught in Lam Kinh District, the once capital seat of Le Loi in Thanh Hoa, some weighing in at 150 kilogrammes. And large eggs have been found in Tho Xuan District in Thanh Hoa called "trionychidae eggs".
"It would be wonderful if the turtles in Lam Kinh were related to Rafetus Leloii turtles," said Duc. "The problem is we do not know how to test Rafetus Leloii?s sex. Moreover, he is too old and fragile for any testing."

In 1995, the Ha Noi People?s Committee turned down an offer from Peter Pritchard, a researcher from the Archie Carr Centre for Sea Turtle Research, University of Florida to study the lake?s turtle . The authorities declined the request for joint-research efforts on the grounds that it is a sacred creature closely related to the soul of the Vietnamese people.

The nature preservation organisation, The World Wildlife Fund for Nature, agrees and does not finance any programs to study the species.

Humble abode: The TurtleTower in the heart of the lake is the turtle?s relaxing place.

Seeing is believing

Contrary to the lack of factual evidence to help shape the image of the turtle, the Great Turtle?s disciples have clearly recorded the dates and times he has surfaced. Though it is impossible to explain, Hoan Kiem Lake turtle usually surfaces at events related to the legacy of King Le Loi and swims around the lake.

On August 26, 1999 he surfaced to witness the dedication of a park to King Le Loi on Hoan Kiem Lake and on the inauguration day of the monument on that park on September 27, 2000, witnessed by many of Ha Noi?s cultural researchers and officials.

But, Duc is not the only one devoted to the study and care of the turtle. Living in a small flat in Ha Noi, Luu Duc Ngo shares Duc?s passion to learn more about the lake?s turtle.

Ngo, 60, a former high school teacher and now an amateur photographer, said "my photos show there isn?t just one turtle in the lake."

Ngo shocked the public with his theory that there are actually five turtles living in Hoan Kiem Lake.

Ngo started paying attention to the turtle when he first glimpsed of a sighting in 2002.

His photos from that event were published in local newspapers in Ha Noi.

Like many others, Ngo believes the turtles in the lake are supernatural creatures and that he has a special relationship with them.

"Maybe many people find it hard to believe," confided Ngo, "but it?s true that whenever I go to the lake, he comes up."
Ngo said he has been lucky to witness 40 of the 60 recorded times the Great Turtle has surfaced since 2003.

No less passionate than Professor Duc, Ngo has a collection of over 300 photos of the reptiles. Among his favourite photos are those he took on a day when Ha Noi dignitaries visited the lake and the turtle, surprisingly, surfaced to greet them.

Ngo printed the photos and brings them everywhere. He sells the pictures for VND5,000 to 50,000 and enthusiastically tells the story of the turtle to his buyers, especially to students. Ngo also charges people VND1,000 a minute to view the pictures. He has now made more than VND100 million from selling the photos and has given half of the amount to charity. He believes what he does is the best way for him to give others what his love for the turtles has given him.

Friends or foes?

The turtle?s two biggest fans have never met, though Ngo has sent Duc three letters requesting an appointment.

Duc said Ngo?s theory is not worth believing. The difference of the turtle in the five pictures is just due to the photography and the brightness.

Whatever their differences, the two men share a deep love and respect for the turtle, and both also believe in the turtle?s supernatural and spiritual power.

The lake now abounds with many small turtles, as locals sometimes purchase turtles for rituals and later free them in the lake.
As the weather changes, if you happen to stroll along the lake, keep your eyes open and your senses alert for the slight chance to spot a moving beak in the water. Seeing the Great Turtle is a precious moment that all Hanoians dream of having. -VNS


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