Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Hồ Gươm, is a fresh water lake, measuring some 12 ha in the historical center of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Hoan Kiem Lake also called Lake of the Restored Sword. The name Lake of the Restored Sword is derived from a legend.
After ten years of hard fighting (1418 – 1428), the Lam Son insurrectionists led by Le Loi swept the foreign invaders out of the country of Dai Viet (Great Viet), ending the Ming’s 20-year domination over the Viet people. Le Loi became a national hero, proclaiming himself kings, called Le Thai To and establishing his capital in Thang Long.
On a beautiful afternoon, the king and his entourage took a dragon-shaped boat for sight-seeing on Luc Thuy (Green Water) Lake, which was located in the centre of Thang Long Capital (present-day Hanoi). As the boat was gliding on the lake, suddenly there was a great wave and on top of the wave, the Golden Tortoise Genie appeared, telling the king: “Your Majesty, the great work is completed. Would you please return the sacred sword to the King of the Sea?”.
The precious sword was formerly lent to Le Loi by the King of the Sea and was always beside him throughout his battles and helped him win over the Ming invaders. At the time the Tortoise Genie spoke, the sword hung at the King’s waist. It then moved out of the scabbard and flew towards the Genie. The Genie kept the sword in his mouth and dived under the water and bright lightning flashed up to the sky. Since then, Luc Thuy Lake has been called the Restored Sword Lake or the Sword Lake for short.
It is said that when visiting Hanoi, if the visitor does not see the Sword Lake, then they would not have actually been in Hanoi. The lake is an endless topic and inspiration for painters, poets, writers, music composers, etc, and innumerable works about the lake have been produced. Once, a famous Japanese painter said to the late-painter Van Giao that he had painted dozens of pictures of Mount Fuji – the second to none beauty spot of Japan. Then painter Van Giao replied by saying that he had painted hundreds of pictures of the Sword Lake.
The Sword Lake is really an emerald jewel of Hanoi. For generations, the Vietnamese believed that deep in the green water of the Sword Lake, there is a sacred sword of their ancestors, which is carefully safeguarded by the golden tortoise. When the weather changes, the tortoise emerges on the water surface to take a sun bath, seeming to prove his existence and remind the young generation of their national history of defending their country from foreign invaders.
If you are about to visit Hanoi for a few days, it is very likely that you will reside somewhere near Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake is considered the center of Hanoi, not only physically but also symbolically. In fact, the more you spend time learning about the lake, the more special it becomes.
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.
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.
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.