The first thing that tempts us whenever talking about must-see places in Hanoi is the legendary Hoan Kiem Lake, which has been the focal point of the city’s cultural and social activities for centuries. Therefore, within this article, we’ll introduce the Hoan Kiem Lake and its surrounding landmarks.
1. Hoan Kiem Lake – Lake of the Returned Sword
Historically, after changing its current thousands of years ago, the Red River left behind numerous swamps, ponds, and lakes across Hanoi. Over the years of development, the city preserves some charming fresh water lakes, including the West Lake, Truch Bach Lake, and Green Lake (former name of the Hoan Kiem Lake).
As a legend goes; after defeating the Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1428, King Le Loi, when boating on the Green Lake, met a Golden Turtle God asking for the return of a magic sword. The King concluded that the Turtle God came to reclaim the sword that Dragon King had given to him earlier to defeat the Chinese.
After returning the sword back to the Golden Turtle God, King Le Loi renamed the Green Lake to Hoan Kiem Lake to commemorate the event. In Vietnamese, Hoan Kiem Lake is ‘Hồ Hoàn Kiếm’ – meaning Lake of the Returned Sword, or ‘Hồ Gươm’ – the Sword Lake.
Situated on the eastern side of the center Hanoi, the lake is today about 500 meters away from the bank of the Red River. It’s the capital Hanoi’s number one scenic spot with a cluster of historical and cultural sites. Following is the list of landmarks locating within and around this legendary Sword Lake.
2. Thap Rua – Turtle Tower
That’s the name of the small tower on the turtle islet in the near southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, it was where the real turtle that lived in the lake climbed on for a sunbath. This small tower was built in 1886 by a middleman working for the French, he told the people that he was building a tower to honor King Le Loi.
But his actual plan was to bury the bones of his deceased father under the tower, an unproven trick in feng shui to create good fortune for this own family. But the local builders secretly threw all the human remains away from the construction, they didn’t like anyone working for the French. The three-story tower, with no clear model, was still completed and it stands to be an iconic monument of the city since then.
3. Ngoc Son Temple
Situated on the island in the north is Ngoc Son Temple, which is dedicated to military commander Tran Hung Dao (one of Vietnamese’s 14 national heroes), who defeated two out of three major Mongolian invasions in the late 13th century. The island is called Jade Island, and it’s connected to the shore with the red painted ‘Welcoming the Morning Sunlight Bridge’.
Visitors to Ngoc Son Temple today, beside seeing the beautiful ancient Vietnamese worshiping architecture, can also view the two plastinated bodies of the soft-shelled Le Loi Turtles, kept in two separate cases. As a pity story, the last known individual turtle was found dead in 2016.
4. Cau The Huc – Welcoming the Morning Sunlight Bridge
The red painted wooden bridge, connecting the Ngoc Son Temple with the shore, is called ‘Cầu Thê Húc’ in Vietnamese. It was first built in 1865 by Nguyen Van Sieu, a local Confucius scholar, as a personal contribution to the city.
Since the bridge faces the east, towards the sunrise, with the meaning of receiving the full source of life, the bridge has always been painted red – the color of life and happiness. Therefore, the bridge is always one of the green lake’s iconic highlights.
5. Thap But – Writing Brush Tower
Visitors need to pay a bit attention to able to recognize a stone tower at the entrance of Ngoc Son Temple, which was shaped a writing brush. The tower was also built by the same Confucius scholar, who built the red bridge in 1865.
The writing brush tower is a symbol glorifying the importance of literature, an encouragement for education that was often popular in Vietnam’s feudal periods. A closer look to the tower will help visualize three Chinese characters, which say ‘write on the blue sky’.
6. Ba Kieu Temple
Built in the 17th century, the temple is dedicated to Princess Lieu Hanh – who is considered one of the Four Immortals in Vietnamese folk religion. Princess Lieu Hanh is also a leading figure in the Mother Goddess cult, in which she governs the celestial realm.
Located in the northeast of the Hoan Kiem Lake, Ba Kieu Temple features a traditional temple architecture of Vietnam. The original religious site was split by Dinh Tien Hoang Street built in 1891 by the French, the main shrine of the temple is the one that stands next to the hundreds-of-years old banyan tree.
7. Monument of Determined to Brave Death
The battle of Hanoi kick-started the First Indochina War in 1946, in which the soldiers and people of Hanoi bravely fought and died during the 60 days protecting the capital from the return of the French.
The monument was erected, next to the Ba Kieu Temple, to commemorate the Hanoians in that battle. It depicts the image of a soldier, a worker, and a young girl in traditional ao dai, all in ready-to-fight positions. Highlights of the monument are the lunge mine and the inscription, which says; ‘‘Determined to Brave Death for the Survival of the Fatherland’.
8. The Old Quarter
Located right in the north and west of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter and its boutique shops is the city’s main business hub and the best tourist spot of Hanoi. The once known ‘36 streets’ today features the intriguing mixtures of ancient architectures and skillful artisans with modern shopping.
From the northern point of the lake, travelers can either walk into the famous Hang Gai – the famous silk street, Hang Ngang – the street of clothes and watches, or Hang Dau – the city’s shoes street… Expect to see plenty of cafés, restaurants, and food outlets nested among boutique shops along your way.
9. The French Quarter
While the Old Quarter takes place in the northern and western Hoan Kiem Lake, yellow buildings in the south and eastern part of the lake mark the well-known Hanoi’s French Quarter. It’s the neighborhood that lined with European architecture, mimicking the very landscape of Paris. Therefore, Hanoi was often referred to as the ‘Paris in the East’.
The enlivened streets in this southern end of the lake is just within 5 minutes walk to the historical Hanoi Opera House, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, and the iconic State Guest House. A walk around the lake is therefore a great way to see the French colonial influences throughcolorful buildings with yellow walls, Vietnamized European windows, and upmarket shops along the tree-lined boulevards.
10. King Le Loi Statue
Nested behind the green trees and surrounding French buildings in the western side of Hoan Kiem Lake, the historical King Le Loi Statue is often looked over by both local and foreign visitors.
Casted in 1889, the bronze statue of the king is situated on the top of a stone pillar overlooking to the lake. The statue is about 1.2 meters high, shaped in a standing position with the right hand holding a sword, while the left-hand rests on the hip… recalling the legend of returning the sword to the Golden Turtle God.
11. Hanoi Post Office
Constructed between 1893 and 1899 on the ground of a Buddhist pagoda, Hanoi Post Office is known as one of the very first French colonial buildings in Hanoi. This bright yellow exterior, with elegantly designed windows, is highlighted with a large clock on the main building’s rooftop.
Though damaged badly during the Vietnamese resistance war against the French, the site is still a valuable place in Vietnam’s parcel post service. Today, with its central location, Hanoi Post Office is a beautiful legacy of the French colonization. If you’re looking to mail a postcard home, or simply admire the colonial French architecture in Hanoi, this is the place to be.
12. Ly Thai To Garden
Situated between the Hanoi Post Office and Hanoi People’s Committee building, Ly Thai To Garden is considered the central point of not only the Hoan Kiem Lake, but also the entire city. With its very central location, the garden has been the ideal place for the city’s political, cultural, and social activities.
The highlight of the garden is the bronze statue of King Ly Thai To, who chose ‘Dai La’, a land full of swamps surrounded by a winding dirt-dyke, to be the country’s capital in 1010 – whichbecomes Hanoi today. Hence, he’s seen as the founder of the capital city.
Legend says that when King Ly Thai To’s boat docked at the new capital, there was a dragonsoaring from the Red River; hence he accordingly renamed Dai La to Thang Long – meaning ‘the city of ascending dragon’. Thang Long retained to be the capital’s name until 1428 when it was changed to Dong Kinh (hence the name ‘Gulf of Tonkin’). In 1831, the city’s name was changedto Hanoi – ‘the city inside the river’.
13. The Best of What to Eat around the Lake
Since Hoan Kiem Lake is the hub of cultural activities, there are endless choices of local offers to consider. From tiny eateries, to famous food chains, and to fancy restaurants featuring great lake views. Following are just some of them.
1). Beef Jerky Papaya Salad at Long Vi Dung
Situated at the northern corner of the Hoan Kiem Lake, Long Vi Dung is a local family offering versions of local snacks; including beef jerky papaya salad, dumplings, and roasted birds. Sitting on small plastic stools on the street to sample the flavorsome and fresh snacks, like a local, is a great experience you shouldn’t miss.
2). Egg Coffee at Café Dinh
Tucked away on the second floor of an ancient house in the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, Café Dinh is one of the two original egg coffee shops in Hanoi. Since you’re discovering the lake, find the hidden alley leading to the café and try this renowned version of Vietnamese coffee.
3). Vietnamese cuisine at Cau Go Restaurant
Situated on the 5th and 6th floor of the big building in the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, Cau Go Restaurant offers authentic Vietnamese food with magnificent view over the lake. If you’re up for a fine Vietnamese meal, then Cau Go Restaurant it is.
4). Trang Tien Ice Cream
Located between Hoan Kiem Lake and the Hanoi Opera House, Trang Tien Ice Cream has been the source for ice cream in northern Vietnam since 1958. From the southern end of the lake, take the left turn at the Mac Donald’s onto Trang Tien Street, the ‘ice cream factory’ is hidden inside at 35 Trang Tien Street. Enjoy!
Well, we hope this brief article post brought you some interesting information related to Hoan Kiem Lake and its surrounding historical landmarks. With more than 1000 years of history, the capital Hanoi has so much to offer to both locals and foreign travelers like you.
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