Hoan Kiem Lake is an oasis of peace in an otherwise very bustling city. Visitors to Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi may at first be overwhelmed by the frenetic energy that pervades the streets and markets. Their senses may be assaulted by the constant chatter of beeping horns, the acrid smell of motorbike fumes, and the spicy flavor of fresh chili paste.
But tucked away in the heart of the city, this small lake is a refuge for those who have come looking for the natural side of Vietnam; one that pays tribute to its past while at the same time providing Hanoi’s residents with a peaceful haven in the present.
Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword, owes its name to a colorful legend that dates back to the 15th Century. The story tells of how the Vietnamese ruler of the time was sent a magical sword from Heaven, which he was to use on a quest to push the Chinese out of Vietnam.
Once accomplished, it is said that the sword in question was taken by a giant golden turtle god that jumped into the lake in order to return it to its rightful owners, and thus the name was born. On-site, there are ancient temples and statues that celebrate the legend and add some cultural flavor to this green oasis surrounded by urban sprawl.
At only 30 acres, Hoan Kiem Lake isn’t very big, which means that even on foot, it won’t take you long to circle its boxy shoreline. Yet, you might give in to the temptation to stay for longer than necessary just to soak in the lovely structures and evocative panoramas that it offers.
One of Hanoi’s most iconic scenes is that of Ngoc Son Temple, perched on a small islet called Jade Island set in the middle of the lake. This ornate temple commemorates the legend of the sword and the turtle as well as the memory of the ancient war hero General Tran Hung Dao. This is the most visited temple in Hanoi and will incur a nominal entrance fee to visit.
Getting to Ngoc Son Temple requires crossing the brightly-colored beams of the arching Huc Bridge, which translates as “the place where morning sunlight rests”. The fine woodwork and architectural flair are appreciated by tourists and photographers alike.
Some even say that the bridge symbolically represents the transition from the physical world (on the lakeshore) and the spiritual (the temple on the island). Whatever its meaning, this is a must-see landmark in the city and a necessity for anyone wanting to visit the Ngoc Son Temple without having to swim.
Another landmark that is not to be missed while visiting Hanoi is the faded stone facade of the 150-year-old Turtle Tower, known as Thap Rua. This boxy structure with classic Asian architectural features lies on a small grassy islet just off the shore of the lake.
The tower’s history goes back to the late 1800s, where it was built under some false pretenses. Regardless, the people have long held it to be a symbol of patriotism and independence, often hanging the revolutionary Vietnamese flag atop it in the time of French colonial rule as a message of defiance.
Today, this abandoned tower is a nod to that independent spirit and makes for a great photo opportunity.
Hoan Kiem Lake is well-located near the center of the city with lots of transport options available. The lake is just south of the intricate streets of the Old Quarter, making it a great option for a place to rest after a morning or afternoon exploration. It’s also nearby to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, which is another must-see attraction in Hanoi.
Arriving early in the morning, visitors can observe locals performing Tai Chi and going about their morning rituals at the start of the day. You’ll likely see old men playing Chinese chess, fitness aficionados exercising along the shores despite the heat and humidity, as well as couples posing for wedding pictures dressed in their best.
Conversely, the tranquil shores of the lake offer some great sunset viewing opportunities if visiting later in the day. On weekends there’s a fair-like atmosphere and it is a great way to observe moments of everyday life for the local populous.
Given Hoan Kiem Lake’s compact size and excellent location, it deserves a place on any visitor’s itinerary. More than that, a visit to Hoan Kiem Lake will allow you a candid look into life in Hanoi, and the rich cultural heritage that lies just beneath the modern surface of the city.
Address: Hang Trong, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Vietnam