Vietnam mourns the death of its legendary anti-imperialist turtle

Cu Rua swims in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake, April 3, 2011.
Nguyen Huy Kham

BANGKOK, Thailand — For the Vietnamese, there was much to love about the turtle Cu Rua, perhaps the nation’s most admired animal.

It was magnificently huge and heavier than a black bear. It lived through French occupation, American bombing and the violent convulsions of communist revolution. 

But in the end, Cu Rua’s 440-pound body was found floating lifelessly on Jan. 19 in a Hanoi lake. The turtle was estimated at roughly 120 years old.

The death brings its species, the Yangtze giant softshell, down to just three living turtles: two in a Chinese zoo and one less venerated specimen elsewhere in Hanoi.

The death of Cu Rua is a loss for animal conservationists and the superstitious alike. The turtle was “revered as an almost god-like animal,” says Tim McCormack with the Asian Turtle Program. And the species, he says, is in “serious trouble.”

Cu Rua’s passing also offers a tiny window into Vietnam’s superstitions and national anxieties.

Legendary turtle sunbathes: Cu Rua in happier days.

The animal was a reclusive celebrity. It inhabited Hoan Kiem, the “Lake of the Returned Sword.” Located in Hanoi’s maze-like old quarter — thronged by backpackers and soup vendors alike — the lake somehow projects serenity despite the urban madness swirling around its waters. 

Glimpsing the turtle’s snout bobbing atop the lake was a rare thrill bestowed upon a lucky few. A full-on surfacing would bring on headlines in the local press. In 2011, a state-run news outlet excitedly proclaimed: “LEGENDARY TURTLE SUNBATHES.”

But these announcements were bittersweet. Locals were aghast to see open lesions on its face and legs. Experts fretted over the many threats posed to the turtle by city life: plastic litter, fish hooks and pollution from swarms of motorbikes buzzing nearby.

“In 2011, when the turtle became sick, it was clearly linked to the environment and human impact,” McCormack says. “At this time, the water quality was terrible. And there was some indication that a fishing hook had injured the carapace [upper shell] of the turtle.” 

“It’s important to remember that this was an ancient animal,” he says, “so its death was inevitable at some point.”

Concerns for Cu Rua's health prompted vets to capture him for medical treatment in April 2011.

Cu Rua’s fame emanates from an anti-imperialist folk tale. Superstition says that the turtle was a modern manifestation of Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God, a creature that armed a Vietnamese revolutionary with a magic sword in the 15th century. 

The hero used the blade to expel the occupying Chinese — and when he returned it, the turtle took the sword in its beak and vanished into the lake. Now that Cu Rua is dead, and its species is quickly going extinct, it’s unclear how the Golden Turtle God’s spirit will reincarnate.

Vietnamese observers are also mindful that this reptilian legend died at a pivotal moment in Vietnamese politics. 

The turtle’s death precedes a once-every-five-years gathering of the Vietnamese Communist Party. At the top of their agenda: managing Chinese influence — the same issue that vexed the Golden Turtle God back in the 1400s.

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The meeting is marked by a struggle between two camps: those who prefer authoritarianism and deference to China versus those who want to liberalize and align more closely with the Western world.

Linking a turtle’s death to Communist Party intrigues may sound silly. But according to the BBC, it was deemed so sensitive that government censors issued the following edict to the press: “To cheerfully welcome the party congress ... please do not report on the turtle’s death for now.” 

Authorities have since loosened the ban, yet still warn against stories that speculate on the symbolic meaning of the turtle’s death.

The turtle is now being prepared so that it can be honored in a fashion similar to another revered anti-imperialist: Ho Chi Minh, whose embalmed corpse is on display at a towering mausoleum. The turtle’s body will be displayed at a nature museum, just three miles away.