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 descendent of the golden tortoise of Le Thai To. But non-believers think that today many replicant 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 . . .
I came to Vietnam as a travel photographer enraptured by the magic light I found. Sometimes I let my imagination run wild. Gaze deeply into my twilight photo of Lake Hoan Kiem and imagine the old turtle ascending.
Perhaps the 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.
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.
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.
Lost in my thoughts, I kept moving along.
Traditional street markets amaze me. There’s fish. There’s magic if you focus tightly amongst the chaos.
Though fish may seem to wander aimlessly, perhaps in reality they adhere to predestined paths–in this case, circular. At least, I’m convinced that my own circuitous path drives me toward such views.
Graphically arranged boxes of incense seemed to reach out and grab my attention . . . as did a cellophane-wrapped scarlet silk fabric with sequins in swirl.
I love this life. I love the reward.
And I love to grab time and perception and twist it around my finger. This is absolutely possible. Take note in this next photo of Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi.
Never is a water reflection brighter than the sky since a reflecting surface always absorbs light. So take another look. Photographers can wield subtle control. Here I lightened the water reflection just a tweak in post Photoshop production just to flip perception a bit. I do this because it adds a hint of reverse magic to my twilight water photos. Though such simple subtleties in perception can stimulate, I frequently add a measure of exaggeration beyond the balancing act. It was a drab gray overcast evening. I own the blue that you see.
Let’s look at fish differently.
Perhaps it’s time we pulled ourselves together.
(Note: This dissection was not done in Photoshop, though with some effort I bet I could put the pieces back in place seamlessly though it might appear to be a very long fish.)
Chinese temples in Vietnam are full of surprises. I never thought of incense being coiled. This discovery flipped my mind in further twist.
Coiled incense viewed from underneath.
Sheet metal on a Hanoi street formed a graphic composition in my eye.
Many conical-hatted street vendors still peddle their wares from a bicycle.
My eyes kept dancing in search of fine art photo compositions amidst the mundane. Then shiny sequins seeking their own glory captured my frame of mind for a while.
Graphic patterns abound in the ever-present street market chaos.
But it’s the circle circus I encountered that kept me enthralled.
A cluster of blue and red fishing boats with yellow-starred Vietnamese flags in Nha Trang harbor blew me away as did the sunset boat reflections in Vung Tau.
Illuminated lanterns swayed in a gentle wind of the night.
However, it’s moody twilight lighting I love most.
Romantic Hoi An in central Vietnam was spared the bombs during the war and today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage town. Historic Chinese shophouses now lend their environs to trendy night-lit restaurants along the river’s edge.
But I save my favorite for last . . .
In lingering moments of cobalt blue, a crepuscule sky helped celebrate these fancifully lit boats at a Buddha’s birthday festival on the Perfume River in Hué.
See these books to learn about the people and culture of Vietnam.