When we visited Vietnam some 10 years ago as a special commemorative tour for Will’s 60 birthday, we travelled from the very far North in Sapa near the border with China, we learned it is their arch enemy, I did not know that but nonetheless the Vietnamese can’t stand the Chinese. We travelled by air and by chauffeured limousine all the way down to Saigon. We were very impressed with Air Vietnam and their gleaming planes, the country is spectacular and the people very nice. The food superb and refined and frankly far superior to anything China could do. The hotels and touristic sites, the beaches, history and even their alphabet, everything steeped in mystery and wonder. My closest memories of Vietnam was the war of course, seeing the country and its people some 30 years later I felt this war was so misguided, well the American Architects of this war have admitted at the end of their lives that indeed it was one big mistake, say that to do families of all those dead American boys and Vietnamese people who suffered for nothing, not to mention the veterans who now return to Vietnam as old men and weep for their lost youth. We saw this and I have to say it was very sad and I was left speechless at the sight.
In many ways the American veterans have gained the sympathy of the Vietnamese people and the Vietcong soldiers who now can share their sorrow with dignity. Not so much for the French Colonial Veterans, who are still pretty arrogant about their utter defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh at Diên Biên Phu in 1954.
In Hanoi, a city I found fascinating to visit, including the famous Hanoi Hilton which was originally a French Colonial Prison where Vietnamese opponents to the French Colonial rule were tortured and executed by guillotine, now if you know anything about the Vietnamese people you will know that this type of execution of cutting off the head is particularly horrific to them. The Vietnamese have complex belief about the Soul, the afterlife and ancestor worship, in fact very similar to the Ancient Romans. So separating the body from the head with a guillotine would fill them with horror and fear. The French knew that and exploited that fear with political glee.
Of the Hanoi Hilton prison which is located in central Hanoi only the French portion of the jail remains, where the French committed their atrocities, the portion of the jail where the Americans were kept by the Vietnamese is gone, replaced by two luxury condominium towers. Hanoi is dotted with Deuxième Empire French architecture and in the centre of the city is a beautiful park with a great lake and a Statue of this mythical god Emperor Le Loi who ended the Chinese domination of Vietnam. The Emperor threw his sword into the lake and asked the great turtle to guard it. Vietnamese believe that in times of crisis if Vietnam is under threat the great turtle will bring the magic sword to the Emperor so the enemy can be defeated.
This week the great Turtle guardian of the sword died. This cause great consternation and grief in Vietnam. How old was the turtle, no one knows, maybe a thousand years old, maybe a few centuries, who knows.
Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) on Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the natural habitat of the turtle in central Hanoi
The great turtle and its keepers
The turtle was sort of a messenger between the Gods of Vietnam and the Emperor. It may all seem quaint to us but this is part of the culture and traditions of Vietnam.
An extremely rare, giant soft-shell turtle, Cu Rua ”great-grandfather turtle” lived in the lake.
Ngoc Son temple, home to a large sculpture of Hoan Kiem Lake’s revered resident, the giant turtle, the symbol of Vietnamese independence.