There are anywhere between one and five giant turtles living in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake. They weigh up to a quarter-ton each; some say the turtles may be 400 years old. Sightings are extremely rare, and considered a lucky omen. In all my visits to Hanoi I’d never spotted one myself. So on an otherwise sleepy morning last winter, when a flash mob formed on the shore—people running, shouting, hoisting camera phones aloft—the cause was not immediately clear. Protest? Parade? Beyoncé? No, an elderly man told me: The turtle has returned!
The guy was beside himself. This was his first turtle moment, and he was 74. In the willow tree above us, two teenagers pointed to the water. A cheer went up. We craned our necks. Through the crowd I glimpsed a trail of dissolving bubbles, and then…gone. After a while people began to disperse, returning to homes and offices to recount their good fortune, when the extraordinary broke the surface of an ordinary day.
This happens all the time in Vietnam. Not turtle sightings, but curious and unexpected revelations. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting sight or sound: the jingle of a bell as a woman pedals past, her lavender ao dai tunic rippling behind her like a sail. Or some tiny, graceful gesture—the swirl of incense to anoint an altar, the flurry of tongs as a cook tends a sidewalk brazier.
These disarmingly simple moments, more than any Big Deal Sights, keep me forever coming back to Vietnam. Certainly one can find sweeping landscapes and stunning architecture—but really, if you want outsize grandeur, go to China. Leave me the small dramas of daily life in Vietnam. Honestly, in what other industrialized nation would traffic stop and a near-riot ensue over a turtle?
A decade and a half after my first visit, my infatuation with Vietnam has only grown. But the object of my crush is so changed that the 25-year-old me would hardly recognize the place.
I came of age in the eighties, when the Vietnam War still weighed heavy on American music, movies, and TV—from Springsteeen to Oliver Stone, Rambo to Magnum, P.I. When I came to Saigon myself in 1996, those inherited memories of the war would define my experience; I saw Vietnam’s present only through the lens of the past. Back then the past wasn’t so far away. The former U.S. Embassy still stood on Le Duan Boulevard, looking abandoned and forlorn. Souvenir shops sold toy Apache helicopters fashioned from aluminum cans. Motorbikes hadn’t yet overtaken the streets, and cars were as rare as giant turtles. Instead, everyone rode bicycles—clunky relics that made Saigon feel even more like the overgrown village it was. The whole country seemed frozen in time, trapped by its own history.
Of course the door had already begun to crack open, first with the reforms of doi moi, Vietnam’s own perestroika, then with the lifting of the American trade embargo, which sparked new interest in travel and investment in Vietnam. From the mid-nineties onward, the world rushed in—not just tour groups and bankers but a surging tide of global pop culture as well. Today Vietnamese youth are as consumed with skinny jeans, PS3’s, and Katy Perry as teens in Singapore or Spokane. Aside from brides and hotel staff, few young women wear the ao dai anymore.
Video: Vietnam Slideshow