Located in the centre of Hanoi, Hoan
Kiem Lake (‘Lake of the Returned Sword) is regarded as the
heart of the city. Once a marshy lagoon, it owes its name
and its fame to a powerful legend, a close parallel to an
episode in the UK’s Arthurian mythology.
Vietnam was occupied by forces of the Chinese Ming in the
15th century, Le Loi, a resistance leader, netted a magnificent
sword while fishing on the Lake. The power of the sword
led Le Loi to victory and the expulsion of the Chinese.
Later, as Emperor Le Thai To, he rowed out on the lake once
more to return the sword from whence it came in gratitude
for his success. A sudden clap of thunder rent the air,
whereupon a golden ‘tortoise’ emerged from water to take
the sword from his hand and return it to the depths.
Like the Knights of the Round Table, the legend says that
the turtles will be on hand to assist in times of national
tortoise is one of the four sacred creatures in the animist
traditions of Vietnam. Its spiritual ‘job description’ is
to promote wisdom and learning and to preserve the stability
of the realm (hence, its common use to support stelae –stone
tablets carrying inscriptions concerning proclamations,
achievements and similar information worthy of preservation).
‘tortoises’ of Hoan Kiem Lake are actually rare Asian soft-shelled
freshwater giant turtles (the word ‘rua’ in Vietnamese covers
both species). An unknown number still inhabit the murky
water –occasionally a head pops up, a powerful omen of good
luck for anyone fortunate to witness the event.
most recent known sighting was when a turtle crawled onto
the tiny island on which stands the Tortoise Pagoda that
is the inspiration for Hanoi’s ‘logo’. This occurred during
the early part of 2004 when prolonged dry weather had lowered
the water level. The incident prompted a major rescue operation
by the authorities involving removing some of the accumulated
muck from the bottom and pumping in unpolluted water drawn
from specially drilled boreholes.
preserved example of a giant turtle can be seen in the Ngoc
Son Temple, an attractive building on a small island in
the north-east corner of the lake. Reached by a brightly
painted red wooden bridge, the temple is dedicated to General
Tran Hung Dao, one of Vietnam’s great heroes, although it
is no longer used for worship. The temple is open from 07.30
to 18.00 daily – there is a small entrance fee.
stroll round the lake at any time of the day is always of
interest – old men smoking bamboo pipes while playing Chinese
chess or mah-jong, young lovers, students seeking foreigners
to talk to in order to practice their language skills and
a host of other activities of varying degrees of legality.
it is in the very early morning when Hoan Kiem Lake is at
its best from a visitor’s point of view. Most mature and
elderly Vietnamese people are devotees of fitness regimes.
As dawn breaks, they emerge in their thousands to find pleasant
locations for callisthenics, jogging, tai chi and so on.
Many converge on Hoan Kiem Lake’s attractive gardens and
the road to the east is Hanoi’s main post office (‘buu dien’)
and the USSR-style Hanoi People’s Committee building, the
equivalent of City Hall in the US. On the opposite side
of the lake, the shops in the western side of the road are
some of the most expensive in Hanoi.
Towards the southern end of the lake, look for ‘Fanny’s’
excellent ice cream parlour and enjoy a feast of locally
made ice creams and sorbets from a bewildering array of
flavours including oddities such as durian and tea tree.
‘Socola den’ (black chocolate) twinned with ‘dua’ (coconut)