If you had been to Hanoi, you have seen how much Hoan Kiem Lake dominates the city and its people.
Local folks of Hanoi feel their day is not complete without a visit to the lake. They come on foot, by bus, taxi or motorbike just to spend time walking around Hoan Kiem Lake. Of course, there is the hope of seeing the head of the legendary turtle.
Why Hoan Kiem is Called the Lake of the Returned Sword
For the people of Hanoi, to see the head of the Hoan Kiem turtle is considered very lucky. This is largely because of the Legend that has long dominated Vietnamese culture. The legend tells of the story of Le Loi, one of Vietnam's heroes.
Le Loi was born was born in 1384 to an aristocratic family in Thanh Hoa Province. Vietnam then was under the Ming Chinese and Le Loi once witnessed the Ming military force destroying a Vietnamese village. He vowed to himself to free his country from this cruel domination.
So, in 1418, the day after Vietnam's New Year festival TET, Le Loi gathered a force and went to the mountains. He started guerilla tactics against the Chinese and so successful was he that by 1425, the revolt spread throughout Vietnam largely undermining the strength of the Ming. The Chinese sent more armies but by now, the Vietnamese army has reached epic numbers that finally in 1427, the Chinese recognized the independence of the Vietnamese people. Le Loi became Le Thai To, the first king of Vietnam.
Le Loi was said to have a magic sword with its blade inscribed with the words, The Will of Heaven or Thuan Thien in Vietnamese. It was said that this swrod came from the Dragon King living in the underground palace in the Lake. A fisherman caught it in his net and gave to Le Loi who found the hilt in a banyan tree. It was further said that when Le Loi used the sword, he became very tall and strong.
Shortly after Le Loi gained Vietnam's independence, he went out boating in the lake which was then called the Green Water Lake (Luk Thuy). All of a sudden, a large turtle surfaced and took the sword from Le Loi's belt and dove back into the water with Le Loi's sword in his mouth.
A search was made to find the turtle and recover the sword but these yielded nothing. Finally, Le Loi understood that the dragon king had claimed back his sword so he renamed the Green Water Lake, Ho Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Returned Sword.
Hoan Kiem: A Sanctuary of Peace and Space
In Hanoi, any kind of space is at a premium. Even looking for some openness can leave you as a bumper sticker on a motor bike but right down in the heart of the busiest of the tourist areas is Hoan Kiem Lake.
Hidden by streets of little shops selling everything from rice farmer hats to imitation Van Goghs, it is an absolute emerald gem. Buildings don't make a city although they can certainly ruin it. If you're a city person your eye is always scanning for space. Not really space to run in or wander through but space for your eyes' contrast and maybe some quiet from the black streets.
The Entrance to the Temple in Hoan Kiem
The dragon horse carrying on its back the 8 I Ching symbols for the 8 elements is on the right of the gate. It has also a yin yang mirror to send back evil spirits.
Hoa Phong- What Remains of the Bao An Pagoda
This only remaining part of the Bao An Pagoda is Hoa Phong (Favourable Winds) Tower, one of its entrances. The Bao An Pagoda is only one of the several pagodas that used to surround the lake. This is why Hoan Kiem Lake is considered the spiritual center and soul of Hanoi.
This walled in pagoda has about 30 small dwellings scattered among fruit trees and flowering bushes. The Buddha that commanded the main altar of the pagoda was 1.5 meters tall was covered in gold. It also included a house of worship for the Mother Goddess and a prayer book printing facility.
Pieces of History in Hoan Kiem
Little pieces of history sit near the lake and around its borders. A wonderful temple with an amazing bright red bridge gives scale to this startling surprise.
1. Temple of the Jade Mountain in Hoan Kiem Lake
Built in the 16th-18th centuries on an islet in Hoan Kiem, it used to be a country villa used by the Trinh mandarins but in the 19th century, it became a Buddhist Pagoda. It then became a temple for Quan Cong, a deified Chinese warrior. Later on, it became the temple for the Spirits of Literature and the Soil.
Nowadays, it is a shrine dedicated to Trian Hung Dao, a 13th century Vietnamese military hero, Van Xuong, a scholar and Nguyen Van Sieu, the Confucian master who assumed the responsibility for restoring the temple and surrounding structures.
2. The Huc Bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake
The Temple in the Lake is reached through the red wooden bridge called The Huc or Rising Sun Bridge. It was built in the shape of a sickle-moon or an ivory comb. Built in the 18th century, it was rebuilt again in the same style after it got burnt in 1958. This is the tourists' favourite for photo ops.
What the Locals Often Do Here in Hoan Kiem Lake
Early morning exercises, dancing, strolling, biking, or meditating. It is an oasis for those living in the city. It is not infrequent to watch several generations enjoying the day here especially on week-ends.
Today, we talked to a grandfather who brought his several grandchildren to eat ice cream here. The kids have so much fun. Foreigners taking pictures of locals and locals taking pictures of foreigners. I often take pictures of people taking pictures. As they are not posing, the picture has so much more drama.
Hoan Kiem Lake is a good respite from the hustle of the Old Quarter. So, after resting a bit in Hoan Kiem Lake, go and have a look at the Old Quarter.
This is the best place to stay, shop and eat when in Hanoi. For more on where to shop in Hanoi, click here.
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