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.
When 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 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 peril.
The 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).
The ‘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.
The 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.
A 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.
A 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.
However, 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 paths.
Across 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) is superb!