Hoan Kiem Lake's name points to the legend that is said to lie beneath its depths: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means "Lake of the Returned Sword", alluding to the legend that the future Vietnamese emperor Le Loi received a sword from a magic turtle at the lake's edge. The tale goes that Le Loi King came across a shining metal bar when he visited his friend. It turned out that his friend caught the bar in one of his attempts for fish. The King asked for the bar, brought it home and molded it into a sword. All of a sudden, there were two words printed on the sword “Thuan Thien” (harmonious with heaven). Le Loi then understood that the sword was a gift from heaven. He used it for the battle against the war with a neighboring country. At the beginning of 1428, when peace prevailed, on one of his trip to the Thuy Quan (now Hoan Kiem) Lake, there was a tortoise rising above water and shouting: “Please return the sword to the Dragon King”. Without hesitation, the King threw the sword to the lake. The tortoise took the sword and dove down the water. From then on, Thuy Quan became Hoan Kiem Lake.
The lake is not only special in her history. The water color of Hoan Kiem Lake is not commonly found in other lakes elsewhere in the country: greenish, with dark or light shade depending on the reflection of the sky. The lake is full of tortoise, which is second to none to be found among Vietnamese lakes. If you are lucky, you will catch sight of these giant animals rising out of water. And because tortoise is considered a sacred animal in Vietnam’s culture (along with dragon, phoenix and unicorn), Hoan Kiem Lake then become a holy place that nurtures tortoise.
Considered as the highlight of Hoan Kiem Lake, a three-tiered pavilion known as Thap Rua, or the Tortoise Tower, ornaments a tiny island in the middle of the lake. It’s illuminated after dark, and is another of Hanoi’s most prevalent icons, with its reflection shimmering in the lake. It was built in the 19th century to commemorate the legend of the golden turtle and the restored sword, but is not accessible to the public.
Before and even after Hanoi's massive expansion in 2009, Hoan Kiem Lake is still a pride of all Hanoians and the center for any distance measurement. Nowadays, it’s still a gathering place yet new Hanoians may live too far to count their distance to the lake. Still, as you walk by, you will be able to witness the pace of life in this peculiar city.
Address:Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
Open daily, all year around
Location: bordered by the streets of Pho Dinh Tien Hoang to the north and east, Pho Hang Khay at its south end and Pho Le Thai To on the west.
Entrance fee: Free of charge.
If you can wake up early in the morning, at about 5.00 AM, you will see lines and lines of oldies and teenagers doing anything from yoga to Tai chi to aerobics. It looks as if the whole city was up and running for morning exercise. They work out in group or by themselves, with or without equipment. In the course of one of the high profiled meetings in Hanoi, an Australian prime minister also joined the early jogging around the lake.
In the afternoon to the South end you can see a matrix of motorbikes twisting along the lake. Blending in is a gang of “Cyclo” – the famous three-wheeled carriers that take tourists with cameras handy around. To the North end where the old quarters lies, an influx of colorful clothes and shoes will dazzle you, together with the smell of trees and coffees.
When darkness takes over, you can see couples holding hands walking side by side along the lake, trying to breathe in the breeze of summer night or keep warmth against the winter cold. If you have time and really want toobserve Hanoi’s life, sit down on one of the stone bench, enjoy the view and have a good talk with some local friends over an ice-cream cone.