A visit to Hanoi would be incomplete without a wander around Hoan Kiem Lake, the centrepiece of the city. No matter the time of day, the lake is surrounded by activity and points of interest.
Ho (lake) Hoan Kiem means “Lake of the Returned Sword”. Legends as to how it acquired its current name vary in detail, but all relate to nationalist hero Emperor Le Loi, who borrowed a magic sword and used it to defeat aggressive Chinese forces before returning it to a turtle that surfaced in the lake. A giant turtle known as Cu Rua in fact lived in the lake for decades or longer before dying in January 2016, to the shock of many Vietnamese, who had considered the 160-kilogram beast sacred. The huge turtle had become a symbol of Vietnamese independence and resilience, and was one of the last four Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles left on earth.
A small shrine in the centre of the lake was built in the 1880s to honour the turtle; it can’t be visited, but certainly makes the lake more photogenic. Now, we don't know whether there are any other turtles in the lake, but we swear we saw something rear its head and take a breath as we stood on the lake's shores just near the giant clock at the southern end of the lake.
A walk right around Hoan Kiem Lake is highly recommended. It's a great opportunity for people watching, you'll pass plenty of points of interest and, if you stick to the garden pathways, you won’t have to navigate or cross Hanoi’s infamous streets for a while.
Gardens line the banks of the lake and are stunning around spring and festival times, when lanterns and other decorations add to the already attractive scenes. The lake is a central gathering point on these special occasions. It’s the place to go for New Year fireworks or the mid-autumn festival, as long as you can handle crowds. It’s also a popular spot for wedding photographs and for young lovers, who take advantage of the many benches in the gardens to snuggle. During spring, potted flowers add riotous colour, and as Hanoi shakes off its winter gloom the cafes surrounding the lake take on a distinctly Parisian flavour.
Ngoc Son Pagoda, on the northeastern edge, is probably the most popular lakeside attraction. It's open to visitors and extremely popular, so don’t expect to find the solitude and space for reflection so easily found at other city pagodas.
Head anti-clockwise from the pagoda, and just a little further north to the right is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre; drop by to buy tickets in advance of the performance you want to attend, as shows can sell out. Then loop round the top of the lake, where your sweet tooth can be satiated with an ice cream from one of the stalls. If you prefer a drink, it’s worth paying a premium for a beer on one of the terraces overlooking the lake.
At the bottom of Le Thai To Street, you’ll find shops selling cosmetics, shoes and handbags, with brands including Clinique and Mac. Iconic Fanny’s Ice Cream used to be located here, but has now moved.
Along the southern bank of the lake is another cafe and more benches and gardens, with a giant clock positioned on a corner. As you turn to head north you will see the international post office, built in 1960, on the right. Even if you don’t need to post anything home, the building is worth noting for its architectural style.
Opposite the post office is the compact Hoa Phong (Favourable Winds) Tower. The tower was the entrance gate to the Bao An Pagoda and is all that now remains, the pagoda having been razed between 1886 and 1889 to make room for buildings for the French administration, and the original post office. The four entrances symbolise the wish for favourable winds during the four seasons and the four roofs symbolise the sky.
If you want to check out the French Quarter, don’t turn left to head north past the post office at the bottom of the lake, but go straight on along Trang Tien. Soon you'll arrive at the Sofitel Metropole Legend Hotel and then the Opera House.
Otherwise, a few hundred metres north along the lake will see you arriving back at Ngoc Son Pagoda. Along here you'll find a sprinkling of streetside portrait artists, and if you fancy a souvenir, they looked pretty talented to us.
Hoan Kiem Lake is worth visiting repeatedly at different times of day. Early morning is perhaps the best time to visit, just after dawn, when you’ll find the locals out exercising in the cool.
By Samantha Brown.
Last updated on 4th April, 2017.
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