There is something ineffable here in Hanoi. Something in the thick-branched banyan and giant fig trees that encircle Hoan Kiem lake at the heart of city. Something lost and forlorn that settles in the misty air above the delicate, glassy-green water of the lake.

The ancient trees shade the crowded streets, their heavy scented leaves swaying their limbs above the thousand motor scooters that drift by nearly invisibly until they sound their horns.

The shadows gather deeper beneath these great trees with a velvet darkness that brings on the night in your soul long before the day is done.



The quiet stone paths that trace the park surrounding this breathless lake lead into one another; and as you walk around the shimmering mirror that seems to rise from the mist itself, you sense again and again that there is something here, something from another time, another place, something from another world entirely, one that is just out of reach.

Ineffable. Indescribable. Inexpressible. Untouchable. Unreachable. These are the words that keep repeating in my little brain as I try to hold in my hand the feelings this ageless city invokes.



But the feelings slip through my fingers like a memory that is strong yet cannot be recalled. And perhaps that is the best way to explain how Hanoi feels upon reflection a day later as Nettie and I walk through the Ho Chin Minh complex. Outside time. Surreal are the throngs of people standing in line at the mausoleum of their championed leader, the man who is worshiped nearly as a god, the man who risked everything to bring his people a breath of freedom, the quietude of peace.

Yes, there’s something here in Hanoi I reach out for. I want to pull back the veil and see it, to actually feel the weight of it in my hand.

I ask myself again and again…what is it I hope to find? What is it I’m looking for? What is it that I am trying to understand?

And then I know…I’m looking for an answer…an answer to explain all the carnage, all the horror and pain that swept this country and my country all those years ago.

And at the same instant, I know also such an answer can never been found. No words can explain a feeling that cannot be named, no thoughts can settle the restless memories in my mind and find for them a silent shore to settle upon.



Days later, as Nettie and I leave for Halong Bay, the image of Hoan Kiem lake comes back to me and the myth of Cu Rua surfaces again. Hoan Kiem means Returned Sword and the legend recounts a time when a Golden Turtle God (Cu Rua) surfaced one day as the Emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake.



The turtle asked for the emperor’s magic sword, a sword which the Dragon King had given the Emperor to help in his successful revolt against the cruel Ming Dynasty that long ruled over Viet Nam for so many years.



Emperor Loi gave the sword to the turtle who then dove out of sight beneath the lake’s surface. Emperor Loi built a Turtle Tower on a small island near the center of the lake to commemorate the magic sword’s safekeeping in Hanoi.

Today, the real turtle that served as the basis of the legendary turtle is a large soft shelled creature whose species name is Rafetus Swinhoei, and it does indeed still live in this lake. It’s a very rare turtle, critically endangered, and one of only four such turtles of this species known to be left in the world.

The turtle surfaces rarely on Hoan Kiem lake these days. People pray for its return, people consider themselves lucky, indeed, blessed to be among the very few who have ever seen it.

1024px-NNU_Rùa_ĐềnngọcSơnI have not seen it. Instead, I have seen a preserved version of this species on display in the lake house. Some say this turtle was killed many years ago in an American bombing raid on Hanoi City.

Is such a story itself a legend or a myth or a truth? Who can say? Who can know what is real in the past or even the present for that matter?

What I can say…what I hope for…is that the magic sword remains forever at the bottom of Hoan Kiem lake and is never necessary again for these gentle people to use in defense of their country.

I hope the same for us. We have too many swords in too many wars on too many distant shores. I wonder if there is a lake big enough to hide them all when the Turtle God surfaces once more.

I hope there is, and yet I wonder still…

To see selected photos of Hanoi, click here: Hanoi Selected Photos


3 Responses to Hanoi – Beneath The Surface

  1. Beverly Pine says:

    Looked at your pictures – aww the “Water Puppet Show”. I am still upset about the duck that got snatched!

  2. Norma and family says:

    Frank/Annette – no words are sufficient
    To respond to this beautiful and precious
    Commemoration of so much to describe
    From our generation.

  3. Gary Maxwell says:

    Frank & Nettie
    Thanks for the great photos. It’s like being there with you. It truly does seem to be a different world. What are you eating? I want some too.

    Maxwell xoxoxo

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