In the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, and accessed from the eastern side, sits Ngoc Son Pagoda, or Pagoda of the Jade Mountain, first used as a site of worship in the 14th century.
To get to the pagoda, you'll cross The Huc, or Rising Sun, bridge, a beautiful red wooden structure built in 1885 in classic Vietnamese style, and one of Hanoi's most iconic images. Then you'll find various little buildings on the island, including an outdoor area with space for just relaxing to take in the lake-side breeze and the colourful crowd—for crowded it usually is.
At the entrance to the bridge are two monuments constructed in 1864, one representing an ink brush (a nine-metre tower) and the other an inkwell (a hollow rock held by three frogs). In the early morning of the festival of Doan Ngo, held on the fifth day of the fifth month, the shadow of the brush is positioned at the centre of the inkwell. The Chinese characters on the ink brush announce it's an instrument to write on the sky.
The pretty site surrounded by water has been used as a temple since ancient times, but most of the current structures here were built during the 19th century. It offers an eclectic variety of forefathers for Vietnamese to pay homage to, such as Confucian and Taoist notables, as well as intellectual Van Xuong, national hero General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated invading Mongols in the 13th century, La To, patron saint of doctors, and Quan Vu, a martial arts expert. It's a testament to how ancestor worship trumps Buddhism in the belief system of the average Vietnamese pagoda-goer.
There are various altars where the devoted worship by lighting incense and making offerings, and resident calligraphers were here when we last stopped by, too.
One of the surrounding lake's last two revered soft-shell turtles died in 2016, and you're unlikely to spy the other allegedly still here, but you'll still have a chance to see one preserved behind glass at Ngoc Son, finished in what looks like lavish gold leaf after its death in 1968.
Do make sure you have a good wander around outside. We found a tiny little "beach" beneath thick branches that made for an evocative, hushed spot away from the crowds; we felt like we'd stepped back in time.
There's often a steady river of people streaming in and out of the pagoda, but not just tourists. This is an active temple, with many Vietnamese worshippers coming to light incense and offer prayers. Please do dress and behave accordingly.
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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