Bizarre Hanoi Impressions: Vodka-Embalmed Serpents and a Mythical Giant Tortoise

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And then the giant, mythical tortoise rallied himself from deep slumber at a depth far below the surface of the mysterious, murky waters of Lake Hoan Kiem positioned smack in the center of bustling Hanoi. The old turtle chuckled to himself . . . some locals didn't think he existed. But many of his adherents ascribed to him god-like powers. Truth be it, he reveled in this euphoria. A sub-surface crab had just clinched its pincers into his leg. Ouch! So this magnificent tortoise knew what was real.

 Let mortals wonder.

 His little turtle cousin died in 1968. He weighed 500 pounds, was six feet long and his bronzed remains are now preserved on display at the nearby Ngoc Son Temple just meters above on a tiny island in the lake where skeptics can view possibility. This diminutive cousin represents tangible proof of such huge turtle proportions. But . . . if the world only knew how big this Sword Lake Tortoise species, Rafeus leloli, really grows.

Legend has it that this turtle is a descendant of the golden tortoise of Le Thai To. But non-believers think that today many replicate turtle siblings are safeguarded in enclosures elsewhere by the government only to be secretly transported to the shores of Lake Hoan Kiem in the middle of the night ever so often when the myth needs reviving--a "big turtle" appearance orchestrated just to keep the legend alive.

Tonight, however, this gigantic tortoise at the bottom of the lake knew the truth. Only moody night light could arouse him. Or, perhaps, an admirer who could appreciate his existence. Methodically, the ancient turtle began his ascent toward the surface to greet me . . .

Vietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Tortoise Tower

I came to Vietnam as a travel photographer enraptured by the magic light I found. Sometimes I let my imagination run wild. I gazed deeply into the water and imagined the old turtle ascending. Perhaps the giant tortoise was lingering under the famous Rising Sun red bridge that spans from the shore to the small island where his little turtle cousin was on display at the temple. I traversed the bridge all the while imagining the mighty giant swimming below.

Vietnam, Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ngoc Son Temple, Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge), night

The temple was filled with the smoky smell of burning incense and the sounds of devotees offering prayers to the gods. There was a magnificent red wooden horse positioned close to the altar and off to one side was the bronzed turtle cousin. He was huge. I could only imagine the size of his extant relative lingering somewhere in the shallow waters outside. It had been more than four decades since this little fellow had succumbed. I could only wonder how big the big one outside had grown during all those years.

Thoughts of the mythical tortoise momentarily warped my perception of reality in this previously war-devastated land. But you'd never know what must have been experienced back then when looking around today. Such past events of drastic destruction seem to have been long forgotten and now prosperity abounds. There's a pulsing, thriving economy in the country that's matched by the gung-ho spirit of the Vietnamese people. Forget past wartime distraction. "Let's do business." Such a refreshing attitude. Despite burgeoning prosperity, however, many still cling to wondrous mythical legends.

Just thinking about that historic tortoise mesmerized me. I was compelled to go along with the tease. We tend to think our lives respond to time. But since there's an eternal aspect to our existence, perhaps time is just following along for the ride . . . and maybe really big turtles are possible over time.

Totally enraptured by the odds of possibility, I left the temple and lingered for a while at the water's edge. Reluctantly I crossed the bridge and slowly walked around the lake toward the city where I soon spied a collection of old Chinese coins on display at a sidewalk vendor's stall.

For a moment time stood still once again, perhaps because I was already in that mood. My thoughts drifted to an ancient time when pirates would come ashore for a night of debauchery and glee, their pockets bulging with gold coins to be spent in wild abandon at the smoky opium dens and brothels in the back alleys of quaint Vietnamese towns . . . and those ladies of the evening who traded pirate treasure for pleasure in candle-lit boudoirs of decadence with no shame.

I allowed my mind back into the present and I kept wandering from merchant to merchant along the street. Soon I discovered that the Vietnamese have a penchant for vodka-embalmed serpents. It's said that imbibing these empowered spirits will make you strong. Embedded scorpions enhance the experience and augment the tart taste.

Vietnam, Hanoi, serpent-filled alcohol bottles

Culinary pursuits in Vietnam offer unique diversions, many of which might not be very palatable to Western appetites. Serpent-laden martini concoctions set the tone. I lean toward exploration and I mustered my courage over the coming days to try many strange local delicacies . . . at least the ones that weren't still crawling.

But please don't dare offer me turtle soup. I'm convinced that giant tortoise is alive.

Copyright © Glen Allison ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The fine art imagery of visual artist, Glen Allison, has been published more than 60,000 times in a majority of the world's leading travel magazines and guide books. He's a vagabond photographer and writer presently embarked on a nonstop, ten-year marathon odyssey around the globe to capture the world's most extraordinary destinations in dramatic light.

He never returns home; he has no home.

If you'd like to see more magical photographs from Glen's journey through Vietnam, you can view the original blog post "Hanoi Turtle." Indulge yourself by navigating around his website to vicariously join the ride. His images are available for stock photo licenses and fine art prints.

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