Hanoi is dotted with lakes, big and small. It’s traditional centre is the Hoan Kiem Lake, circled by trees and colonial buildings, it’s whole circumference joggable in thirty or forty minutes. In the mornings, the lake shores boom with techno music, colour-runs and Herbalife rallies. People take pictures with selfie sticks and practice ballroom dancing under the banyan trees. In the evenings, its banks are partly lit up and given over to strollers and gay cruising. A pleasant cafe sits on a terrace looking over the water. And traffic swirls around it day and night. But even with all of this, the lake maintains an aura of calm – its waters calm, grey and serene.
In a small island in the centre of the lake stands the Turtle tower, commemorating the lake’s greatest mystery, the strange giant creatures which perhaps still inhabit its grey depths.
These turtles became symbols of the city in Vietnamese myth after one of their forebears supposedly retrieved a magical sword lost in the lake. In fact the species, which can weigh up to 250 kg per specimen, was considered a myth itself until a turtle surfaced in the lake – in the very heart of a major city – in 1998.
That specimen has since died, and lies embalmed in pride of place at the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on a small island in the lake’s Northern reaches, connected to the city by vermillion bridge thronged with local day trippers.
Another specimen was found floating dead earlier this year, leading to an outpouring of grief in the city and speculation as to the meaning of this omen.
Whether there are others in the lake still, or this was the very last of its kind, is not yet clear.