Asia Life

Vietnam: Portents and the Death of Cu Rua

Hanoi’s famous turtle dies at a most inauspicious time.

Vietnam: Portents and the Death of Cu Rua
Credit: Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem via Bradley Audrey Ralph /

Hanoi’s famous turtle Cu Rua in central Hoan Kiem Lake has died, two days before the 12th General Party Congress officially began. Some see this as a portent, given that the creature was known for appearing at auspicious times such as Hanoi’s 2010 millennial celebrations.

Its carcass was found by authorities Tuesday and taken to Ngoc Son temple on the lake before being removed. Cu Rua will be embalmed and put on display at the National Museum of Natural History according to Vietnamese media.

The fact that the creature’s death has come at one of the most sensitive times in half a decade is not lost on authorities. According to the BBC’s Nga Pham the story was initially censored; the propaganda department of the Party said, “To cheerfully welcome the party congress, newspapers and media please do not report on the turtle’s death for now.” News later made it into the papers but focused on the history of the turtle and its rarity, mentioning little about the inauspicious timing of its death.

A sighting of Cu Rua in Hanoi’s increasingly polluted Hoan Kiem has always been considered lucky and on the odd occasions when the elderly turtle did surface onlookers rushed to the spot hoping to catch a glance or, even better, take a photo.

So important to the city is Cu Rua (which translates to “great-grandfather” though it was determined some years ago she is really a great grandmother) that the military was on hand in 2011 to help catch the animal and move it out of the increasingly polluted lake for treatment. The multi-day event was a heavily watched and reported city spectacle; I covered it for Time and remember the excitement and chaos the event generated. Pollution levels and acidity thanks to a recent drought were blamed for its illness and earlier photos of the creature surfacing with lesions on its face caused widespread worry and speculation on the internet.

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Expert Dr. Ha Dinh Duc, who supervised that 2011 capture and has been interviewed following her death, estimated her age to be around 700 years old.  He has also said she was the only one of her kind in the world, a Rafetus Leloii, according to local media. The Leloii is in reference to Emperor Le Loi, who defeated invaders with the help of an enchanted sword that was later returned to a turtle and carried to the depths of Hoan Kiem Lake, which translates as “Lake of the Returned Sword.” Other experts put the creature’s age at around 120 and suggested she was one of four Rafetus swinhoei, or Yangtze Giant softshell, still making her one of the second-most rare turtle breeds known, after Lonesome George.

What does this have to do with Vietnam’s 12th Congress? Though the workings of the Party, Politburo and jockeying for appointments remains opaque an increasingly literate and online Vietnam means many people already know of the varied intra-Party contretemps and maneuvering. At an uncertain time like this, the death of the city’s sacred and lucky animal could be a terrible portent for many; of course, it could also symbolize rebirth and a new chapter. A quick peruse of Facebook chatter (where it was briefly a top trending topic Thursday) reveals both. As one southerner who felt disconnected from the North’s grief wrote:  “Seriously though, no one bothered to do anything with the dirty state of the lake, and now when the sacred turtle finally died, our whole country cried.”