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O C T O B E R 2 0 1 9

In the legend he receives a magical sword

that he uses to defeat the Chinese and gain

back independence for Vietnam. After

pacifying the nation, he encounters a

golden turtle god named Kim Quy while

boating on a lake. This golden turtle is a re-

curring figure in Vietnamese lore, as it is

said to have gifted a previous emperor a

magical crossbow around twomillennia be-

fore this story. When Le Loi meets him,

though, Kim Quy requests that the sword

be given back. After this the emperor

names the lake Hoan Kiem, or Return of

the Sword, hence linking the lake to the leg-

end of the turtle. Thus ends the myth and

begins our fascination with the lake, but

howdid the turtle get involved in the story?

It is possible that the myth is an occur-

rence that truly happened in history, but

the way the historical narrative plays out is

a bit more realistic and heroic. Le Loi

didn’t easily win back independence. He

undertook a ten-year long struggle that

saw victory against great odds and brilliant

strategic maneuvering. His advisor at the

time was a man named Nguyen Trai, who

has a street named after him in every city

in Vietnam. Nguyen Trai was a Confucian

scholar and counselled Le Loi throughout

his campaign. Through his sage advice the

emperor was able to slowly chip away at

the enemy and ultimately remove the

threat to his country and to his culture.

The last piece of advice from the scholar

was to graciously allow the enemy to re-

turn to their home and even give them ad-

equate supplies for their journey.

Putting the historical story and the

mythical story together you can see how

the wisdom and aid of the scholar can be

associated with the divine weaponry of the

turtle, who is the symbol of wisdom. The

last act of the golden turtle was to demand

the emperor return the sword, or give up

his arms, mimicking the advice of the

scholar to forgo massacring the enemy

even when it was suitable. They were then

able to establish a kingdombased on peace

and reclaim their cultural identity from the

brink of complete annihilation because of

this great scholar and the emperor who

heeded his word.

But how did this particular lake get in-

volved in the story? This is where history

and myth might collide in a very interest-

ing way. This lake was, until recently,

home to a giant turtle called the Yangtze

giant softshell turtle. This is the largest

known freshwater turtle and could live

well over a hundred years. There is debate

about whether or not it was the same

species as similar turtles found in China

due the enormous difference in size. Even

if it is the same species as the Yangtze giant

softshell turtle, it is still a very rare species.

Indeed, only three known living animals

remain. Unfortunately, the turtle that lived

in Hoan Kiem Lake died in 1967, was pre-

served, and is still kept in Ngoc Son Tem-

ple on the island in the lake. This turtle

weighed in at 200kg, around twice the size

as a 100-year-old turtle in a China zoo. This

was a sad time, as a turtle who possibly in-

spired a myth and could have been hun-

dreds of years old had vanished.

This was until 1998, when sightings of

another giant turtle were made and caught

on film. This alerted the scientific commu-

nity that the species was not in fact extinct

but could have continued. Hopes died

again with this turtle when it was found

floating lifeless in 2016. Again preserved

and placed in the temple, both turtles can

be viewed while visiting the lake. And a

myth-inspiring creature was again lost, but

some still say there are others living in the

lake, and some have been spotted in more

remote lakes. Sightings before the turtle

died were rare enough and came only with

luck, so it is possible there is another turtle

hiding in Hoan Kiem, which would indi-

cate the lake as one of the last surviving

homes of one of the rarest species on the

planet. So, keep an eye out when at the lake

and maybe you too can be witness to the

living embodiment of legend and of the

Vietnamese spirit.