The Tortoise Stupa
The Tortoise Stupa (Tháp Rùa) used to haunt the nights of Việt Nam’s guerilla fighters during the two resistance wars and the nostalgic minds of many Vietnamese living in various corners of the world. Without having been made the official emblem of Hà Nội, it is nonetheless an emotional symbol and a decorative motif evoking the capital city in many Hanoians’ minds – not unlike how the image of the Eiffel tower reminds one of Paris or the Statue of Liberty of New York.
The Tortoise Stupa is built on a tiny islet on the southern part of Sword Lake, where a few giant tortoises sometimes come to bask in the sun. Let us recall that according to legend, in the 15th century, King Lê Thái Tổ after his victory over the Chinese Ming invaders one day took a pleasure trip on this expanse of water. A giant tortoise came to the surface to claim and retrieve the sword that had been loaned to the king by a deity – hence the name given to the lake: Lake of the Restored Sword. In its waters live at present a few giant tortoises whose ages are estimated to be around five hundred years.
While the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngọc Sơn) sitting on another islet can be proud of its origins as a Confucian shrine built on the site of a former seigniorial pavilion (16th-18th centuries), the Tortoise Stupa is but a square-based coarse little structure built around 1886, some time after the colonial conquest of Vietnamese by France. The man who built it was Bá Kim, a petty mandarin (bang tá) in the service of colonial administrates, transmitting and executing their orders concerning the population of Hà Nội. A believer in geomancy, he schemed to bury the bones of his father under the structure after its completion. However, he failed in that attempt.
How was it that this insignificant brick structure featuring hybrid architectural styles with its ogival apertures and built by a traitor to the nation who schemed to put it to an infamous sue could, with the passage of time, turn into a prized memorial regarded on the same footing as the One-Pillared Pagoda and the Temple of Literature which date back to the 11th century?
For nearly a century, a stupa had become the companion of Sword Lake, a haven of peace and coolness in the heart of overcrowded quarters. Generations came and went. People forgot about the builder or just didn’t care to remember him. The bad impression given by the ogives was eroded.
Lovers leaning against the weeping willows on the edge of the lake become enamored of the stupa’s silhouette. The effect of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Mirabeau bridge! Then patriotic images were grafted on to its background: the revolutionary flag was often defiantly hoisted on the stupa in pre-revolutionary days when the country was under foreign occupation. The sentimental crystallization was now complete.