Redesign your life. Travel the world.
Hoan Kiem Lake is the main point of interest in Hanoi and it has become extremely familiar to me. I dined in cafes, bars and restaurants overlooking it and driven around it almost every day since my arrival in Hanoi. It’s clear that the lake is an essential refuge for the locals and tourists alike who spend most of their days in the chaotic and narrow streets of the Old Quarter. In the mornings many tourists, locals and expats flock to the lake to exercise, do a photo shoot, fishing even. In the afternoons, young students visit the lake in the hope of practicing their English with some willing foreigner and women selling cheap eats and souvenirs. In the evenings, the lake lit up beautifully with the colorful lights reflecting off its waters to create a twinkling fairy tale setting that drawn couples for a romantic night.
The lake is also the point from which all distances in Hanoi are measured. It’s the Central Park of Hanoi so to speak, as this is recognized by everybody. In fact, it has become my landmark – each time the streets became complicated and I lost track of where I am, I just asked for the direction going to Hoan Kiem Lake. Even if the language is a barrier just mention the name Hoan Kiem Lake, and you will surely be understood.
Despite the many parks and lakes in the capital city, the Hoan Kiem Lake or the “Lake of the Restored Sword” is the most significant and legendary. Legend has it that in the 15th century, King Le Loi was given a gift by the Golden Turtle God, a magical sword. After a decade of continuous struggle, the King finally overpowered the Chinese and reclaimed the freedom of his nation.
The golden turtle then asked for the magical sword to be returned to him. Without hesitation, the King gave the sword back and the golden turtle quickly submerged underwater. The king realized that the Turtle God had only lent him the sword to drive back the enemies. Now that the nation was free, the sword must evidently be returned. Hence, the King himself changed the lake’s name into a more meaningful one, leading to its current name. Over the past centuries, people have and still do believe that the sacred sword is buried somewhere at the bottom of the lake.
Today the Turtle Tower stands close to the lake in memory of this legend. There are still endangered large soft-shell turtles swimming in the lake, and to see one would mean you will be lucky for the entire year. Too bad I didn’t get to see one.
To get to the temple, you have to walk through the Three-Passage Gate (Tam Quan) and across the red wooden arched bridge, also known as the Morning Sunlight Bridge (The Huc). People crossing the bridge stop at any point to take photos of themselves or of the scenery. But you know what? The best spot to take a photo of the bridge is right behind the ticketing booth! Just like this one
At the end of the bridge is the entrance gate that leads to Ngoc Son Temple. Remember to buy your ticket for 30,000 dong before crossing the bridge or you will not be allowed to enter. Above this gate is a small room with circular windows, called the Moon Gazing Pavilion. Surrounding the gate are typical Taoaist I Ching, symbols of watching and protecting.
You will also find a dragon-horse on the right, carrying the eight I Ching, symbols for the eight elements on its back, and a yin – yang mirror to send back evil spirits. There’s also a tortoise symbol carrying a book and a sword on the left which characterized stability.
Inside the pagoda are large bronze bust and other deities. There are altars dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, some ancient artifacts including ceramics and a preserved specimen of a giant turtle. It was found in the lake and said to be 500 years old to date. This gives credence to the legend about the giant turtle, which took the magic sword of Le Loi in the 15th century.
After spending 30 minutes inside, I decided to continue with my exploration. As I reached the southern-most point of the lake, I sat on a bench and let myself be mesmerized by the stillness of the lake. I noticed that I actually fit in well with the local since nobody appeared to notice my presence despite being a tourist. I guess I don’t look too different from them after all
The walk at Hoan Kiem Lake and the visit to Ngoc Son Temple were certainly an enjoyable one, it was a breath of fresh air plus it was a great venue to blend with the locals – such a perfect way to get to know the culture a little bit better.
Have you visited Hanoi? If there’s something you would like to share about it, I ‘d love to hear from you, please share in the comments below. or follow me on Facebook or Instagram for more travel tips and inspiration.
You may also like: