A visit to Hanoi would be incomplete without a wander around Hoan Kiem Lake, the centrepiece of the city. Whether early morning, an afternoon stroll or after dark, the lake is surrounded by activity and points of interest — not to mention, it’s really pretty.
Ho (lake) Hoan Kiem means “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword” and is also known as Sword Lake. Legends as to how it acquired its current name vary in detail, but are all related to Emperor Le Loi who, after conquering the Chinese army in the 15th century, threw his champion sword into the lake to a large tortoise dwelling there. Whether he got the sword from the tortoise in the first place or made it out of a metal bar that a friend caught when fishing is a matter of debate.
Either way, a small pagoda on an islet in the middle of the lake has been built in the tortoise’s honour. It can’t be visited but certainly makes the lake more photogenic. A giant tortoise still resides in the lake, though it faces challenges surviving there.
A walk around Hoan Kiem lake is highly recommended for a number of reasons: it provides great people watching and photo opportunities; many points of interest can be found near its shores; and, if you stick to the garden pathways, you won’t have to cross one of Hanoi’s infamous streets for a while.
Gardens line the banks of the lake and are stunning around festival time, when lanterns and other decorations add to the already attractive vistas. The lake is a central gathering point on these special occasions. It’s the place to go for New Year fireworks or at 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.
Beside the turtle pagoda, the other well-known point of interest on the lake is Ngoc Son Pagoda, on the northeastern edge of the lake. This is open to visitors and a very popular spot, so don’t expect to find a space for solitude and reflection. Head anti-clockwise from the pagoda and 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 the terrace overlooking the lake at the restaurant on the northeast edge, but I wouldn’t recommend dining here (although I hear the toasted chicken sandwiches are very good).
Further round, along Le Thai To Street, look out for the monument of King Le Thai To on the right. Not to be confused with the statue of Ly Thai To (founder of Hanoi) on the opposite side of the lake, this monument — also known as King Le Temple — was built in 1896 in honour of King Le Loi, of Sword Lake fame (who was later renamed King Le Thai To). It consists of a statue behind a square hall, behind which is the Nam Huong community hall. The statue wears a crown and imperial robe decorated with dragons and cloud patterns and he holds a sword pointing towards 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. Fanny’s Ice Cream used to be located here, but has now moved to Ly Thuong Kiet. Hapro Bon Mua, on the lakeside, remains open and popular though and serves ice cream, drinks and snacks.
Little of note is located along the southern bank of the lake, but as you turn to head north you will see the international post office, build 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 then don’t turn left at the bottom of the lake, but go straight on along Trang Tien and you will soon arrive at the Sofitel Metropole Legend Hotel and then the Opera House.
If you have followed the lake round past the post office, then further north is the impressive Ly Thai To statue and Indira Gandhi Park. Ly Thai To is credited as the founder of Hanoi. When king, he moved the capital of Vietnam to Thang Long, near present-day Hanoi, and this resulted in the eventual founding of Hanoi as a city and the capital. The park was renamed for Indira Gandhi, a supporter of Vietnam, in 1984. This brings you, via a few impressive government buildings, back to Ngoc Son Pagoda.
Hoan Kiem Lake is worth visiting repeatedly at different times of day. Early morning is perhaps the best time to visit, but by that I mean really early — like 05:00 or 06:00, when you’ll find the locals out exercising in the cool, particularly next to the Le Thai To statue, where aerobics classes take place.
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