On Jan. 19, 2016, Cu Rua, ‘Great-Grandfather Turtle’, died in Hoan Kiem Lake.
The turtle was believed by many to be centuries old, and its spiritual significance for Vietnam was profound as it was closely linked to the myth of the founding of Hanoi, when the fifth-century emperor Le Loi was given a golden sword by the turtle god to defeat the Chinese.
Cu Rua’s death marked what is believed to be the extinction of the rafetus leloii species of soft-shell turtle.
Turning the Page
The turtle’s death, and numerous ecological disasters that have hit the country since, have put the spotlight on the effects of pollution. As a result, the authorities are keen to show their dedication in cleaning up the mess left by urban development.
With this in mind they have decided to clean Hanoi’s iconic Hoan Kiem Lake. Taking place between Dec. 1 and Feb. 7, the VND29 billion (US$1.3 million) operation will dredge 57,400 cubic metres of mud from the lake, and remove all waste.
The city’s Municipal People’s Committee approved the project, which will be carried out by the Hanoi Sewerage and Draining Company. The deadline means that it is scheduled to be completed before the start of Tet 2018.
Given that Hoan Kiem Lake is at the heart of tourism in Hanoi, the cleaning will only take place late at night and early in the morning to ensure minimal disturbance. Although with all the piping and dredging machinery along its banks and in the water itself, the lake is certainly a lot less romantic than it was in the past.
A Long Road Ahead
Anyone who has seen much of Hanoi will attest that the canals and lakes around the city are generally fetid. Some of them have such a horrid smell that it’s difficult to go near them. To Lich river is a particularly notorious case of this:
“They call it the dead river,” says business management student Phuong. “They tried to clean it before but they couldn’t. It used to be a lot worse, growing up next to that was the worst thing.”
The authorities have been making an effort to reverse this — there has been dredging in other lakes such as Truc Bach Lake in recent months, and efforts are being made to re-oxidize West Lake after the mass fish death in 2016.
However, research conducted by CECR (The Center for Environmental and Community Research) revealed that only 2 percent of Hanoi province’s 200 lakes, ponds and rivers meet safe water standards. This is 13 years after the authorities first proposed cleaning them up.
That being said, the cleaning of Hoan Kiem Lake is an obvious step in the right direction, and is being carried out earlier than planned. This suggests the authorities are getting serious about tackling water pollution.
This isn’t the first attempt made at tackling various forms of pollution in the capital. The launch of the US$53 million ‘fast-bus’ project in 2016, and the ongoing aim to plant a million trees by the year 2020 are other examples of the authorities’ attempts to reign in pollution and make the city greener. Yet many remain sceptical as to whether this will make a difference.
“They’re cleaning the lake, which is good,” says businessman Hung. “But they need to make more public transport available to reduce the amount of vehicles causing air pollution.”
As the city moves forward into the 21st century it seeks solutions to an ever-growing problem, with air quality at times worse than that in Beijing.
But to tackle the full force of this issue means fighting on a multitude of fronts. In the end, giving the lake at the heart of Hanoi a clean-up is a step in the right direction. It’s just a shame Cu Rua will not be there to enjoy the consequences.