The Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake

On a lunch time walk around the lake, the hound and I were reminded why one always needs to have a camera handy in Hanoi. A small crowd was gathering on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, so of course we followed and peered over the edge as well.

Crowds had gathered on the path – many still with their helmets on as they had casually left their bikes on the road and run over.

After squeezing through the crowds with Tala, we finally saw the elusive giant turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake! She was immense with a long wrinkled neck and a huge curving soft shell about 6 feet long. Sadly, we didn’t have our camera on us when she was close to the shore. Luckily, Thuy was happy to help and in just a few minutes she arrived with my camera…

Thuy to the rescue – Tala decided to jump on too!

Luckily we caught a final glimpse and a rather poor photo as the giant turtle slipped back in to the luminously green depths of the lake.

The elusive turtle – sex unknown but thought to be a female approximately 80-100 years old and weighing at least 200 kg.

The Hoan Kiem Giant Turtle is thought to be one of the few remaining specimens of Rafetus Leloii and it is affectionately known by the Vietnamese as ‘Cu Rua’, meaning ‘great  grandfather’. The turtle’s history is linked to the legend of Hoan Kiem lake, which means ‘the lake of the returned sword’. Legend has it that in the 15th Century Emperor Le Loi was given a magical sword which made him very powerful. While out boating on the lake one day, a giant turtle surfaced and seized the sword dragging it back in to the lake. The sword and turtle were never seen again. For more information on the history of the lake and the surrounding temples Friends of Vietnam Heritage have produced a short booklet.

Although a giant turtle was killed and promptly stuffed back in 1967 (his body is on display in Ngoc Son Temple, which is on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake), most assumed that there were no more turtles left, until new sightings began in 1998. Sadly, Hoan Kiem lake is heavily polluted, and there are fears that the last giant turtle’s health is rapidly deteriorating. Rescue efforts and a bid to clean up the lake began in 2011, but I can’t see that the lake has improved much… More about that effort here:

The crowds enjoying their glimpse of the lucky turtle, while bewildered tourists stayed back.

And then she was gone…  Turtle Tower, built on a small island, is said to honour the magic turtle that still guards the sword of Le Loi.

All too soon the fun was over and traffic police cleared off the remaining stragglers who had littered the path with their motorcycles.