Travel Report: Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.
It was a hot and sticky overcast afternoon in Hanoi as I set off for some exploring around one of the city’s two great lakes. They say if you only have time for one, it should definitely be Hoan Kiem, a tranquil 12 hectare freshwater lake that holds a special place in Vietnamese mythology.
The lake is hundreds of years old, dating as far back as the 13th century, some historians say. Back in those early days locals called it Luc Thuy, which means Green Water. Pleasingly, this mystical deep green colour remains today and certainly fits with the area’s reflective, laid-back vibe.
In fact, if there is one spot from which you can truly escape the unrelenting buzz and fuzz of Hanoi, it’s Hoan Kiem Lake. First, local authorities have banned scooters from the stone walkway running round the water. Moreover, the entire stretch is largely free of street vendors. Furthermore, traffic in the surrounding streets is usually banned from 19:00 to midnight, which makes for a particularly peaceful sunset experience.
It is especially chilled in the mornings, when Hanoi’s oldies flock to the lake to practice their tai chi. On the afternoon of my visit I caught a few old guys fishing and several couples picnicking silently by the water’s edge.
Hoan Kiem Lake.
And then there’s the gorgeous sea of beautifully kept flowerbeds. And the narrow, bench-laden stone path that runs between them. The flowers themselves rotate depending on the season. According to my friend and all-round flower expert Dr. Phil, these are Peace Lilies, or Spathiphyllum if you want to get technical.
The lake’s name changed to Hoan Kiem after the legend of the Warrior King Le Loi and the Golden Turtle. Le Loi was a revolutionary soldier who led a great army to fight against Chinese Ming rule in 1418. Known as the Lam Son Uprising, Loi’s relentless nine year campaign eventually saw Vietnam liberated, cementing his reputation as one of the country’s great national heroes.
I’ve got to tip my hat to the legend, which does a great job of spicing up the narrative. Basically, it dictates that Le Loi’s victory was greatly aided by a magic sword given to him by Long Vương, a dragon god. The sword, as the story goes, transformed Le Loi into a fearsome giant with the strength of a thousand men. Not bad eh?
However, that’s not the end of the story. Sometime later, Le Loi was out boating on the lake when he found himself confronted by The Golden Turtle God, Kim Quy. The turtle, who lived in the lake, had surfaced to reclaim the sword on behalf of The Dragon King. Le Loi handed it over with no objection and the lake became known as Hoan Kiem, which means Lake of the Returning Sword.
When you visit the lake, one of the first things you’ll see is Turtle Tower (Thap Ruá). It was constructed in 1886 to honour Le Loi, The Turtle God and Vietnam’s most cherished legend.
In the early twentieth century, city authorities began working with animal experts to introduce a number of rare giant turtles to the lake. Many of them would hang out at Turtle Tower to bask in the sun. Sadly, the last of those original turtles passed away in 2016 aged somewhere between 80 and 100 years old.
Working my way around the lake, I stopped here and there to photograph the locals. I tried to be as discreet as I could, though I clearly wasn’t quite as stealthy as I’d hoped.
Nevertheless, I secured plenty of sittin’ doin’ nothin’ shots to add to my worldwide collection. Which was no surprise, as the lake has got to be Hanoi’s best spot for sitting, emptying one’s mind and doing nowt.
Hoan Kiem Lake.
On the lake’s northern side, I paid a visit to Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain). Established in 1841 and dedicated to the Vietnamese royal prince Trần Hưng Đạo, this is Hanoi’s most visited temple.
Inside there are several courtyards with a charming little shrine to the prince, who successfully led the Vietnamese in repelling two Mongol invasions in the 13th century. There are also shrines in honour of several Confucian and Taoist philosophers.
The temple’s main hall lies on a small islet on the lake itself. You access it via the scarlet red Huc Bridge (Welcome Morning Sunlight Bridge). Built in 1865, it faces east, making it a popular sunset spot. The bridge is really pretty but nearly always manic, with selfie-takers, unsupervised kids and aimless shufflers competing for elbow space.
Thus I headed onto the main hall, a Taoist structure called Dac Nguyen Lau (Moon Reflection Pavilion). Here, I only managed a brief glimpse inside due to the steady stream of worshippers.
Still, it was cool to sit on the stone steps and admire the painted relief panels under the roof. Among the many images, I spotted the Turtle God carrying the legendary sword. And a number of curious lion-horse creatures, a symbol of loyalty, protection and power.
Hoan Kiem Lake.
In the adjoining courtyard there are a scattering of incense burners that keep the air awash with pungent smoke. It’s also a nice spot from which to simply gaze out across the lake.
I also found a perfectly peaceful stone path away from the crowds that does a loop around the islet. For a while it was just me sitting there taking in the breeze and listening to the birds in the trees. Entry to Ngoc Son Temple is 30.000 VND (£0.90/€1.05/$1.30). It opens daily between 8:00-18:00.
Finally, on the western side of the lake, in a small park, I stopped to check out the commanding Ly Thai To Monument. This Vietnamese monarch ruled between 1009 and 1028 and was the founder of the 200 year long Ly Dynasty. Unveiling Buddhism as the state religion, he set about establishing Thang Long as Vietnam’s capital. And so it remained for over 800 years, until it was renamed Hanoi in 1831.
For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.
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Wandering around the lake in Hanoi looks like something I’d definitely like to do and those Peace Lilies are beautiful. What a great, detailed post, Leighton. Hope your weekend is going well. Marion
Thanks Marion, there is definitely a mystical quality to Hoan Kiem, especially when you familiarize yourself with the legend. Have a great Sunday!
Loved our time in Hanoi – that Lake brings back fond memories and a few uncomfortable ones as I recall 5km running exercises in crazy humidity.
Hey John, thanks for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment. Would love to hear more about running five kilometers in the Hanoi heat…
Yeah it was a night time run and was very sticky and hot. We backpacked across ASIA for 7 months so did some running every now and then to counter the Banh Mhi badness in Vietnam.
Sounds like a lot of fun! Ah Banh Mi…
Brings back fine memories of my visit to Hanoi in 1995.
Hey Don, thanks for reading and contributing to the thread. I can only imagine how Hanoi was a whole different beast back in the mid 90s. Any favorite memories?
I rented (aka hired) a bicycle and rode all around, for instance to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Water Puppets.
Very cool. Cycling must have been a bit hairy, but all part of the fun. I have articles on both the HCM Complex and the water puppets coming up.
I can just imagine sitting by that lake feeling light and calm – beautiful place. 😊
Aw thanks Cherryl , it really is a beautiful, peaceful and atmospheric spot. Thanks for reading!
So nice to find an oasis of peace in the midst of chaos. I love the scooter ban and the absence of hawkers, as well as the prevalence of people sittin’ doin’ nuthin’. Thanks for sharing. Allan
You nailed it Allan. The absence of nuisances such of those is quite rare in Asia, which gives Hoan Kiem a few extra stars in my book.
Beautiful temple on an island. Lovely photos to capture its atmosphere. I always use the satellite view in maps to add context but much prefer your personal touch. Did you ever find out why the water is green? Or why they stopped adding turtles?
Good question about the greenness! Sadly I don’t know! I also couldn’t find out why they stopped with the turtle tradition. Feels to me like something that should be kept alive.
Thanks for providing the history of Hoan Kiem Lake, It appeared to be just a pretty body of water when I was there. Knowing the history, I look at it in a whole new light.
Cheers John! Glad you liked this fun albeit unlikely tale.
If I were to visit Hoan Kiem Lake, I’d also be inclined to be sittin’ doin’ nothin,’ haha. Such a peaceful place, and it gives me similar vibes of those of Kunming Lake in Beijing. Looks like you had a lovely stroll there!
We all need a bit of SDN in our lives from time to time. Lakes are useful in that regard and indeed Kunming Lake is another beauty. Hope you had a good weekend in the L. of A.
Great captures and thanks for the history of the beautiful Kiem lake!!
Such a cool place I’d love to visit one day, thanks for sharing 🙂
Thanks for reading Lyssy!
Loved to learn about the legend of the Dragon King and the Golden Turtle God! I always love a good local legend and how that ties in with the area. And that bright red bridge was so striking against the peaceful calm of the green around it. Another wonderful post about your time in Vietnam 🙂
Cheers Meg, Hanoi is a wonderful city and having that lake right in the heart of the old town is a huge part of its appeal.
Can’t wait to get back and get that South East Asia trip picked up from where we left off. As soon as we can, Hanoi will be where we restart…
What an interesting history – local legends are always so fascinating; I love the idea of a golden turtle God
Thanks Han, I also enjoy a fun lake legend!
It looks like a lovely reprieve in the middle of a busy city. I liked that they banned scooters and street vendors- good idea!
Glad you enjoyed the vibe at Hoan Kiem Lake. Thanks for following my Hanoi series!
The legend of the Turtle God and the lilies at the lake gave Hanoi a different feel than the political rhetoric I heard when I was there and the hustle and bustle and traffic (really just passing through, didn’t spend time there). Nice serene spot.
Hey Ruth, it is a lovely spot and a nice counterbalance to the city’s more intense spots, such as the Ho Chi Minh Complex and Hoa Lo Prison. Thanks for reading!
Don’t you just love these legend stories! It looks like the perfect place to “sit and do nothing” … beautiful lake and love those lilies!
Great to have you back! Thanks for your diligence in catching up with my Hanoi series.
Yes, I’m “binge reading” your posts to get up to date with Hanoi 😉. We were “off the grid” for a week – was a great escape from the crazy world!
Oh good for you! That’s something I plan to do next month when we (hopefully) get to Montenegro.
One of the spots we missed in Hanoi, despite having every intention to visit (it was just a short walk from our hotel). Yet another reason to go back! I love your people shots and the flowers too. A shame that bridge is always so busy as it would make for great photos!
Thanks Sarah, I guess early mornings would be the only time to (possibly) catch that bridge free of people.