You find yourself breaking away from the group, returning to Hoan Kiem in the center of town, gazing at passersby or the glass-smooth surface of the lake from a park bench.

The legends you hear from the locals speak of Emperor Lê Lợi, who the Golden Turtle God had given a magic sword to defeat the Chinese. After his victory, they say, a large turtle confronted the Emperor while he was boating and took the sword back until such time as it is needed again. That is why they call it Hoan Kiem, “Returned Sword Lake,” and descendants of that turtle supposedly still remain.

Like so many things, people said the turtles were only legend…at least until they made themselves known. One came ashore to die during the war, the year before Tet; you see it on display in the temple, a leathery giant over five feet long with no company in its gilded display case save a dehumidifier. People videotape other turtles when they appear, but none have been seen in years. You read an inset in your travel guide which claims that there may only be a single turtle left. Their kind lives to an advanced age; one may very well linger on, the last of its kind. Even if there were more, the lake’s edge is all hard cement, enveloped by the city of Hanoi.

There is nowhere for a mother turtle to bury her eggs.