Friday Travel: Hanoi – Talkfests and turtles

The turtle is gone, but his spirit lives on.

In Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem lake, there lived a Giant Yangtze softshell turtle – one of only four known to still be alive.

It was the symbol of Vietnam’s independence, and was revered as sacred by many. I say was, because it died this week, just as we flew into the Vietnamese capital.

And that doesn’t augur all that well for the country’s ruling communist party. But perhaps I’d best explain…

In a story taught to all Vietnamese schoolchildren, the sacred turtle of Hoan Kiem is the custodian of the magic sword of Le Loi, a 15th century rebel leader who vanquished Chinese invaders.

Reports about the turtle’s death first appeared in state media late Tuesday, but some were taken down apparently under pressure from communist authorities.

That’s because the death coincided with the five-yearly Communist Party congress – which started on Thursday, and which is the subject of patriotic flags, posters, bunting and hoardings everywhere you look.

Although officially an atheist country, many Vietnamese are deeply superstitious.

And they don’t see the death of the Golden Turtle God’s representative to be particularly auspicious!

The turtle’s body is being kept at a temple on a small island in the lake pending an official decision on how to proceed,  and embalming is apparently being considered.

Also on that island is a cast of the sacred turtle’s older brother – which died nearly 50 years ago.

And since that was in the middle of the Vietnam War – which Hanoi won, decisively – I’m not sure that the party apparatchiks who are meeting this weekend need be concerned.

In the meantime, crowds have been making their way to the temple on the Lake of the Restored Sword – and in some cases casting tributes into the waters as they pay homage to the nearby Tower of the Turtle.

But crowds are not unusual in Hanoi – and the city’s bustling nature is largely unaffected by the quite genuine sorrow felt by many.

Hanoi, like all of Vietnam, is nothing if not a bundle of contradictions.

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