Turtle Holds on in Center of Vietnam's Capital

The last surviving giant turtle of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake, seen in an undated photo. i i

Hanoi University biologist Ha Dinh Duc, whom locals call "professor turtle," says this is the last surviving giant turtle of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake. (Undated photo) Courtesy Ha Dinh Duc hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Ha Dinh Duc
The last surviving giant turtle of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake, seen in an undated photo.

Hanoi University biologist Ha Dinh Duc, whom locals call "professor turtle," says this is the last surviving giant turtle of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake. (Undated photo)

Courtesy Ha Dinh Duc

A turtle weighing more than 400 pounds lives in a lake at the center of Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. The turtle, as legend has it, is several hundred years old and is the last of its kind.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Scotland has its Loch Ness Monster, the Himalayas have the Yeti, and Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, has a legendary turtle that lives in a lake in the center of the city. A Vietnamese scientist says it is the last one of its kind.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

In the 15th-century, the Vietnamese Emperor Le Loi was having a tough time fighting off Ming invaders from neighboring China. Then the gods gave Le Loi a magical sword, a 15th-century weapon of mass destruction that made quick work of the Chinese who fled. Not long after, Le Loi was boating on Hanoi's Ho Luc Thuy, or Green Water Lake, when a giant turtle appeared. The turtle demanded the return of the sword. And before Le Loi could say anything, the sword flew from its scabbard into the turtle's mouth. The turtle slipped below the surface, taking the sword with him. The lake was promptly renamed Ho Hoan Kiem, or Lake of the Returned Sword.

Hanoi University biologist Ha Dinh Duc doesn't know if the sword is still there. But the turtle, he says is.

Professor HA DINH DUC (Biologist, Hanoi University): (Through Translator) In general, the oldest turtles can get is about 300 years. But this turtle has something special that we cannot explain. I believe this is the turtle from the legend.

SULLIVAN: Sixty-six year old Duc calls the turtle Great Grandfather. Locals call Duc Professor Turtle. He is now something of a celebrity here. The morning of our interview, Vietnam television is also at the lake to shoot a documentary about the professor and the turtle.

Prof. DUC: (Through Translator) I don't know why but when I first saw him in 1991, it left a deep impression. So I went back home and marked the day on my calendar. It seems there is an invisible bond between me and the turtle. At one time, there were four giant turtles living here. This is the only one left.

(Soundbite of chatting)

SULLIVAN: One of the four was killed and eaten by hungry soldiers during the war in 1968. Another is now on display here at the Ngoc Son Temple on a small island in the middle of the lake. It's a popular spot for tourists, who get their pictures snapped standing in front of the glass display case. The turtle in the case is big, almost six feet long and more than 400 pounds. Ha Dinh Duc reckons the one still in the lake is even bigger. Photos of the elusive creature hang on the temple wall. Duc hasn't seen the turtle this year, but many others, he says, have.

Ha Dinh Duc is lobbying to have the giant of the lake recognized as a distinct species. The international turtle community is skeptical the turtle is the last of its kind, let alone the turtle from the legend. But almost everyone agrees the turtle is very old and very rare.

(Soundbite of chimes and a flute)

SULLIVAN: At the temple, on the island, Vietnamese tourists pray and make offerings to the gods. And as they leave, some lean over the railing of the red wooden bridge to see if they, too, can catch a glimpse of the legend. A few say they believe the turtle in the lake really is the one. Others, like this young woman, Lan(ph), are less sure.

Ms. LAN (Vietnamese Tourist, Green Water Lake): (Through Translator) I don't think it's old as they say. But I do believe he's special. Holy, even. And I'll be sad if he dies because, either way, the legend is part of history. But even if he does die, I think he will still live forever in our hearts.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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