Thursday, May 16, 2013


Hoan Kiem Lake is popular with couples. The flag marks Ngoc Son Temple.
Hoan Kiem is a lake in the very heart of Hanoi, part of the city's old quarter. I’m out for a morning walk by the lake, and it looks like a great day ahead of me. This is a wonderful time of the day to walk in Hanoi, traffic is still light, and I’m certainly not alone. In the cool of the morning, there are many other Vietnamese people circling the lake with me. Some are walking, some practice tai chi, and others do light calesthenics. I notice that most of the people around me are over 40, and they are all wearing western clothes, t-shirts and outfits for working out. This is a rare time that I’ve seen the conservative Vietnamese wearing shorts in public.
Local ladies practice a dance routine by the lake's shore
Flowers by the lake, with 'Turtle Tower' in the background
Locals by the lake, with bridge to the temple beyond
Many women’s groups also enjoy exercising here. I walk past one group of 30 or so Vietnamese ladies doing light aerobics to traditional music. Further along, another small group of ladies practice a dance routine, holding red Asian fans. Still another group works out with swords. I’ve never seen women swinging swords around before, so I pause to watch. It all looks rather dangerous, until they finish. That’s when they take their weapons, and by pushing downward at the point of the swords, they collapse. Their swords are telescopic, and could never be used to stab anyone.

I continue on smiling, as I pass a last group of older ladies dancing to a light routine, while each woman holds a small Vietnamese flag. The song on their boom box is an old Doris Day favorite, "Que Sera, Sera". I wonder, do these ladies even understand the words?

This placid lake I’m walking around isn’t just a place of exercise, it’s also a place of legends. A curious, well known legend in Hanoi, is that of the giant turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. As the story goes, King Le Loi was out in a small boat on this lake in the 15th century. He carried with him a magical sword that he had used to defeat the occupying Chinese. A giant magical turtle appeared next to his boat, and took the sword into his mouth. The huge turtle then disappeared into the lake waters, returning the sword to its divine origin.

Thus the lake got its name. Hoan Kiem means, ‘restored sword’. As legends go, this one certainly has it’s doubters, especially with the bit about the giant turtle. The Vietnamese claim that this huge amphibian is still occasionally seen in the lake today, and that if you see the turtle, you will have good luck. It seems that Hanoi has something like a Vietnamese version of the mythical Loch Ness Monster.

Foreigners who live in Hanoi don’t believe the story, and many have their own theories about the legend, and the recurring sightings of the giant lake dweller. A western expat in a bar, claimed that in order to keep the legend alive, Vietnamese frogmen occasionally swim in the lake sporting a fake turtle shell on their back.

I look at Hoan Kiem, and it’s easy to have doubts. This lake is so small, and so polluted. Since it’s located downtown, the lake doesn’t even have a natural bank anymore, the lake shore is covered with bricks to prevent erosion. I doubt the frogman story, but this lake doesn’t even appear to be able to sustain live fish, let alone a giant turtle.

Hoan Kiem has a couple of small islands, and later I cross the Rising Sun Bridge to reach the larger island, home of the Ngoc Son Temple. This resembles other small Buddhist temples I’ve seen, until I spot a display case outside. Incredibly, it holds a stuffed, giant turtle. About six feet long, it was reportedly found in the lake in 1967. I didn’t think that turtles that large could exist in modern times, it looks like something out of a dinosaur movie. 

I look closely at the old amphibian; it’s untouchable behind that thick glass. Is it really genuine? It appears so. Anyway, I doubt that someone would go to the extent of building a faked taxidermist's turtle, to try and keep alive an old legend.

I imagine that Hoan Kiem's turtles must be all gone now, since the lake is polluted even worse nowadays, then it was when this giant specimen turned up. If there ever were turtles in Hoan Kiem to begin with, they’re probably all extinct by now.

Another day as I walk by the lake, I look out towards the other small island in Hoan Kiem. Even smaller than the island that has the Ngoc Son Temple, the only feature on this tiny island is a small stone pagoda, known as 'Turtle Tower'. I peer across the water, and today I notice something different. On the edge of the island facing me, there appear to be a number of rocks. I recall that they weren’t there before.

I think to myself, is it possible? Can it be? No, it can’t be! I race back to my room, and grab my heavy camera with a 300mm telephoto lens. Then I run back to the lake shore for a better look. I put the camera on full zoom, peer through the viewfinder, and there they are.

Turtles! Not one, not two, but three turtles, sitting on the island’s shoreline on a sunny day. Seeing is believing. There are still turtles living in Hoan Kiem, and I snap a few photos for proof. They weren’t giants by any means, but the largest turtle appeared to be almost two feet long. So, despite the doubters and the pollution, this little lake can support life.

Maybe there is something to that old Vietnamese legend after all. 

Turtles at lower right, on the island
Close-up of turtles on the island. They do exist!!


  1. I saw one of these small turtles swimming near the shore in the lake this afternoon. Supposedly these little turtles (And the ones you have taken photos of) are pet red eared turtles that have been released into the lake.

    If you had of done a quick google search on this subject you would have found that they actually caught the endangered giant turtle back in March/April 2011 in order to give it some medical treatment as it appeared to be sick. The odd thing is that I can't find any information at all about what has happened to the turtle since they caught it. It is really bugging me that there is no information out there. Or perhaps information of it's death have been blocked from within Vietnam.

    ... What happened to it?

  2. Thank you for your comments. I don't know what happened to that turtle either. It's almost fitting that it's not common knowledge, since it helps to keep the legend of the giant turtle alive.

  3. Here are the answers to your question, the legend is alive but soon extinct being the only one of its kind.