There are four sacred animals in Vietnamese culture – turtle, phoenix, unicorn and dragon.
The image of dragon is used as architectural decorations in not only temples, pagodas and tombs but also various royal palaces in Vietnam, reflecting ‘people’s desire to free themselves from restriction and limitations, symbolizing ‘human aspiration for strength and freedom to live a better life’. Meanwhile, the unicorn represents prestige, peace, good luck and phoenix is a beautiful and noble bird. Turtle, on the other hand, is the only one that exists in real life among them. It symbolizes the longevity and is considered a sacred animal used in almost all pagodas and temples in the country.
To many Hanoians, turtle is a spiritual icon. It was associated with the legend of the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake. In the middle of the lake nowadays, there is still a little tower called Turtle Tower. This is the place where the turtle occasionally came to have a rest and sunbath. When the turtle was still alive, it was widely believed that the sight of the turtle is seen as a good oman and those who have the chance to catch the sight of the turtle emerging from water in the lake are considered lucky ones.
The old turtle living in Hoan Kiem lake is known affectionately as cu rua (literally translated as Great Turtle) by local people. When the turtle died in 2016, many people mourned over the death given that the turtle as considered an icon of the capital city of Hanoi and had witnessed many ups and downs of the nation.
Legend had it that in the 15th century, when King Le Loi was leading the country to fight against the Chinese invaders, he was given a magical sword (similar to King Arthur and his sword Excalubur) which ten helped him to gain independence for the nation. Later on when the country was free from invaders, the King was taking a boat tour around the Luc Thuy lake (former name of Hoan Kiem lake; literally translated as Green Water lake), a golden turtle emerged and told the king to return the magical sword that had helped him defeat the aggressors now that peace had returned. The King returned the sword to the turtle and the lake was named after that event.
In terms of science, the turtle living in Hoan Kiem lake is swinhoe’s softshell turtle which is of biological significance.
It is a globally significant species, which is recognized for being ‘incredibly rare’, with only four animals known in existence globally. At present, only four animals of the species are known alive in the world, including two in China and two in Vietnam.
This species can grow to over 150kg in size, with males appearing to grow larger than females. It is similar in appearance to other large softshell turtles, characterized by a skin cover a bony disk with cartilage around the edges rather than the hard-shell people often associate with tortoises and freshwater turtles, according to the Asian Turtle Program (ATP).
Currently there are a few risks that the turtles are facing including the ‘protection work of their habitat and the population in Xuan Khanh Lake which has been raised as a concern as the run off from a landfill site’, according to ATP.
Given the biology significance and the threat facing this species of turtle, Hanoi authority had a detailed plan to recover and increase the population of Hoan Kiem turles last year. The two turtles of this species in Vietnam have been brought to Dong Mo lake locating in the outskirt of Hanoi and are being taken care of by conservationists.
Across Vietnam, there are several centers and organizations preserving different species of turtles – Asian Turtle Program, Turtle Conservation Centre in the National Cuc Phuong Park, Con Dao National Park and SaSa Rescue team.
Let’s hope the best for the next generation of turtles in Vietnam!