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Hoan Kiem Lake (Vietnamese: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword”), also known as Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake), is a lake in the historical center of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. The lake is one of the major scenic spots in the city and serves as a focal point for its public life.
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 moulded it into a sword. All of a sudden, there was 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 neighbouring 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 TURTLE TOWER
At the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is an islet on which stands a small tower. Called Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), this structure honors the magic turtle that still guards the sword of Le Loi.
The story goes that around 1886, a Vietnamese mandarin in the service of the French, persuaded the government to allow him to build a tower on the islet. What he kept secret was his intention to bury his father’s remains on the Turtle Islet, a place considered favorable according to traditional feng shui belief. However, the people of the city discovered his plot and they removed his father’s body.
On the top of Turtle Tower there used to stand a version of the Statue of Liberty, placed there by the French. The statue was destroyed when the Tran Trong Kim government took over the city from the French administration in 1945.
Although only a shell of a building, with pointed Gothic arches not at all in the style of Vietnamese architecture, and built by one remembered as a traitor, Thap Rua has become an important symbol of both peace and patriotism to the people of Hanoi. The revolutionary flag was often hoisted here during the era of resistance to French rule. The green area around the tower is where the turtles bask in the sun and lay their eggs
If you can wake up early in the morning, at about 5 a.m., you will see lines and lines of oldies and teenagers doing anything from yoga to tai-chi to aerobics (read Our Blog on early morning exercises in Hanoi). 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 colourful 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 to observe 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.
HOW TO GET THERE
Hoan Kiem Lake is centrally located and minutes walking from Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where most hotels gather. From Noi Bai Airport, it takes about 40 minutes to get here. If you stay in West Lake area, just take Yen Phu Road to reach the Old Quarter and head east to Hoan Kiem Lake.