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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Mike-diary: The Ho Hoam Kiem turtle

Dispatches from IndoChine (March 6)

The Ho Hoan Kiem turtle is dying.

This event is national news here. The VN Yahoo homepage has photos of a rather tread-worn terrapin gracing its lead story. There is gossip on the street. He has died. Or, no, the People's herpetologists have devised a plan to save him. He has not been seen today, or he has been seen 3 times today, which is inauspicious. Or he has been seen 8 times, which is a very lucky number indeed. But as a whole, the people of Vietnam, and especially the people of Hanoi, linger over and adore the rumor swirl surrounding this most august of turtles.

The Ho Hoan Kiem turtle is the, as of yet, living, breathing, embodiment of the Vietnamese's resistance to Chinese rule. Apparently. I say apparently because I have queried many Hanoi residents who speak good English and none of them actually know the legend. Rather it took an Australian with a guide book to fill me in on the importance of this reptile. Dateline-1000 years ago. The Vietnamese are, as usual, on the suffering end of some outsider's aggression. This time it is the Han Chinese.

And it seems that things are going so bad that the Vietnamese general takes time for a deep think on a small island in the middle of Ho Hoan Kiem lake. And while contemplating impending defeat he meets a large soft shelled turtle. Things must be dire because he turns to this turtle for military advice. And the turtle turns out to be a veritable Napoleon of the reptilian world. No one I could speak with knew what the turtle actually said. My guess would be, since it was a turtle, to hole up and wait for the geopolitical weather to change. But whatever words of scaly wisdom were bestowed, the Viet general later went on to metaphorically kick the groins of the hated Han. And that is why people love this turtle.

For you see, they pretend that this is the SAME turtle. Thinking folks would know that no turtle, soft shelled especially, would survive in a 40-acre sewage ditch for 1000 years. But with a credulity that would make a middle-aged American Tooth Fairy believer seem like a rank cynic, the average Hanoi resident, from lad in short pants to veteran of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, will tell you the turtle is the same as that who held a strategic tête-à-tête with the Viet general, who was not similarly blessed with a soggy but eternal life. So reports of this turtle's illness have rocked the capital.

I was sitting in the Legend's bar, overlooking the Lo Thai To traffic circle. There is a good view of Ho Hoan Kiem lake. A reasonable translation of Ho Hoan Kiem might be "pea soup sprinkled with oil slicks and poop." It would be a reasonable translation, if not linguistically accurate. One can smell the lake from 100 yards away.

Suddenly, there is some excitement on the banks. People point, cell cameras come out. This has the effect of tossing $100 bills around in Time Square. With a rapidity that is more than exponential, Hanoians come running. In less than 5 minutes the (in theory) 4-lane round-about becomes a scooter parking lot. A huge crowd gathers on the bank, so large it backs into traffic. Buses (I'm not kidding) full of turtle gazers pull up and spill their contents like split bags of rice. The crowd at first vibrates, and then begins to sway as it pushes back and forth against itself. Up in that refuge of sanity, The Legend's Bar, the staff rush to the railing of the balcony and begin to snap pictures of the lake with their camera phones. I can't see anything. Admittedly, I am unschooled in turtle spotting, but working on the premise that a snout is a snout, my long distance inspection of the lake is fruitless.

A totalitarian state abhors spontenaity, and this turtle flash mob is about the dictionary definition of that very thing. So it isn't long before a deuce and a half truck with POLICE written on the side in perfectly sturdy English and a loud speaker that would do a Good Humor van proud pulled up. The gendarmes' first approach was an amplified maternal exhortation to disperse. But the 1000 year-old draw of the Turtle of Ho Hoan Kiem was too strong to be severed by worried harangues. So some green uniformed police with their potent-looking truncheons popped out of the back of the truck. Their clubs are long, thick, and white with a red spiral stripe covering the distance from handle to the business end. The police formed up, looking for all the world like nomadic barbers, and began to walk through the crowd waving their batons in sweeping, ankle-high arcs.

Perhaps the ancient wisdom of the turtle still prevails in Hanoi because the crowd quickly found other callings and 90% dispersed. The remainder soon followed. It seems the turtle had submerged and the mob's whole raison d'être bubbled down into the murk with it.

I had watched the whole thing from across the way and 3 stories up. And while writing now, it is easy to dismiss the crowds as silly people aggregating for a silly reason. But I must admit, when the crowd was first balling up, I wanted to rush down and join them. If not for the fact that the waitresses had abandoned their sacred duty to the bar patrons so they could scan the lake from the balcony rail, I would have paid my bill and left beer unfinished to join that crowd. When I couldn't go, I felt like a kid whose friends all got to go to the fair while he had piano lessons.

I am going looking for the snout of wisdom tomorrow.

Photograph courtesy of and David Boylan of Brisbane, Australia.


  1. According to the BBC News website this turtle is only one of four left in the world - no wonder they're excited!

    Great account - and unexpected to see another first hand version of something I've just read in the news.

  2. Hi Clare--

    So it was a very big deal! I thought it was fascinating but knew nothing.

    Shall come e-visit you soon but not now--finally cleared the car out of several feet of snow and have a 3-event night coming up...

  3. Hm. I like the story, and would have been out there too.

  4. When I was checking out the post-earthquake weather on Viet papers, I saw a lot about the turtle. Evidently they want to bring in foreign experts...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.