Monday, February 09, 2009

The Heroic Turtles of Hanoi

Mrs. Octopus and I are in Hanoi where we have so far avoided being run over by the insane scooter and moped traffic. We've come pretty close, though.

The people of Hanoi love their turtles. Local legend has it that 15th century military hero Le Loi received a magic sword from a giant golden turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake (located in the center of Hanoi). Le Loi used the sword to help defeat an invading Chinese army (beating back invading armies -- usually Chinese -- is a theme you come across often here). We saw a preserved giant turtle at the Ngoc Sien Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake. Its genitals were, for some reason, separately preserved. Also in Hanoi, at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), which was Vietnam's first university (founded in 1070), 82 stone turtles bear massive stelae on their backs; the stelae are inscribed with the names of students who received their degrees at the university. Visitors seem to like to rub the turtles' heads.

My favorite Vietnamese turtle story is one I came across in Keith Taylor's Birth of Vietnam. It involves another legendary golden turtle:
According to this legend, construction of the ["Old Snail City"] citadel was stalled because each day's work was mysteriously undone during the night by the spirits of the land; these spirits were assisting the son of the previous king to gain revenge for the loss of his inheritance. The local spirits were led by a thousand-year-old white chicken perched on nearby Mount Tam-dao. A golden turtle appeared, subdued the white chicken, and remained with King An Duong until the citadel was completed. When he departed, he gave one of his claws to be used as the trigger of the king's crossbow, with the assurance that with it he could destroy any foe. King An Duong commissioned a man named Cao Lo to construct the crossbow and christened it "Saintly Crossbow of the Supernaturally Golden Claw."
Taylor, Birth of Vietnam at 21.

We're going to go out for some pho for dinner in a few minutes. Tomorrow we head down to Halong Bay for an overnight stay on a junk. I'm going to keep an eye out for golden turtles (and malicious thousand-year-old white chicken).

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