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10

T H E G U I D E

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O C T O B E R 2 0 1 9

hen certain countries come to

mind they may have a partic-

ular animal associated with

them as a representation of

the nation. Russia sees itself as a tough,

fierce people so they use a brown bear for

their national animal. The US considers

the soaring eagle to be a symbol of its

courage and freedom. And since China has

always placed itself at the center of the

world as the “Middle Kingdom”, the endur-

ing dragon is how they have chosen to be

viewed. Other countries, however, might

not be so easy to place. For instance, what

is the first animal that springs to mind

when you think of Vietnam?

Not all Vietnamese people feel the

same way about which animal represents

their country, though the turtle stands out

as a real possibility. While I’ve had multi-

ple people tell me they feel “no connec-

tion” with the turtle, I’ve also met a fair

share with a deep connection, including

one highly animated little boy. Though

only six years old, he was adamant about

the turtle being the most important ani-

mal, and even had a shaved head with a

few long strands of hair at the very back

that he called his “turtle tail” and which he

said brought him luck. There are also some

powerful myths that place the turtle as in-

tegral to the national identity of the Viet-

namese, one of which you may be able to

view with your own eyes.

Many of the historical landmarks in the

city of Hanoi have turtles present. For in-

stance, at the Temple of Literature are rows

and rows of turtle statues with stele of text

from Confucian scholarship. In this case

the turtle is the bearer of wisdom and a

representation of the diligence to press for-

ward in study. The turtle is also a symbol

of luck, so students from kindergarten

through graduate school often come to

take a little luck from the turtles here at the

ancient center of learning.

The one landmark in Hanoi indelibly-

marked by the turtle, however, is Hoan

Kiem Lake, sometimes known in English

simply as Turtle Lake. This comes from a

legend based around a historical figure in

addition to a once living, or possibly still

living, creature that resides in the lake. The

legend is about the founder of the Le Dy-

nasty and takes place in 1427AD, but let’s

go a little farther back to give the story

some context.

Since the very earliest times of social

and cultural organization in Vietnam there

has been encroachment from China. For

over a thousand years the country was oc-

cupied by the Chinese, until they were able

to succeed in pushing out the invaders in

938. This was followed bymany successive

attempts to reconquer Vietnam by every

dynasty that ruled in China. This culmi-

nated in theMing Dynasty eventuallymov-

ing in and overtaking the entirety of

Vietnam, something the Chinese had been

trying to do for 500 years since they lost

total control. The years under Chinese dom-

inationwere oppressive, in that Vietnamese

customs were suppressed and replaced by a

Chinese way of life. This was most notable

during their final occupation under the

Ming, where a vast attempt was undertaken

to strip Vietnamof its scholar and educated

class, destroy all books that were specifi-

cally Vietnamese, confiscate property, and

even change the traditional dress.

Now enter the hero of the story, Le Loi.

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CULTURE

Animal spirit

The turtle plays a major role in Vietnamese legend and lore.

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STORY

JOE A

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PHOTOS

XUAN CHINH, TRUONG HUONG, VIET TUAN

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