The heart and soul of Hanoi city is Hoàn Kiếm, the “Lake of the Restored Sword.” Stories of its divine nature go back many centuries.
In long-ago England, mythical Camelot had its legend of King Arthur and “the sword in the stone.” In medieval Vietnam, the sword was in a lake, and it was wielded by a golden turtle god.
Folklore says that a 15th-century emperor, Lê Lợi, was boating on the green waters of Hanoi’s 12-hectare (30-acre) Luc Thuy when the terrapin surfaced and requested his magic sword. At first the monarch was outraged that such a creature would demand “Heaven’s Will,” as he called the weapon. Then he realized this wasn’t just any golden tortoise; it was a divinity, Kim Qui, who had come to reclaim the sword that the Dragon King had lent the emperor to fight and defeat the conquering armies of China’s Ming Dynasty. He returned the rapier and renamed the lake Ho Hoàn Kiếm, “Lake of the Restored Sword.”
Of turtles and kings
Today, Hoàn Kiếm may be the most unforgettable sight in Vietnam’s capital city — if only because it’s at the center of all the action. Immediately south of the Old Quarter, the oblong lake is encircled by a delightful promenade that takes only about 20 minutes to circumambulate if you don’t stop along the way.
But, of course, you will stop. There are fresh fruit vendors and tour-bus stops at its north end, flower gardens and coffee shops around the lakeshore. There are statues and monuments.
You may be temporarily spellbound by the Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) on a small island near the center of the lake. Large soft-shell turtles of an endangered species are still sometimes seen here. There have been towers and temples here over the centuries; the current three-story structure was privately built in 1886 to honor of Lê Lợi.
A statue of Lý Thái Tổ (974-1028), the king credited with founding Hanoi in 1010, rises just east of the lake, in a handsome park. Lý called his city Thang Long (“Rising Dragon”); its modern name, which means “Between Rivers,” wasn’t adopted until 1831. The bronze sculpture, the largest in Vietnam, was erected in 2004, six years before the city’s millennium celebration and 50 years after its liberation from France. It is 33 feet (10.1 meters) tall and weighs 12 tons.
Just a few blocks north, the Martyrs Monument is a white-marble memorial honoring the men and women who died fighting for Vietnam’s independence. Its three figures — a woman wielding a sword and two men, one with a rifle, the other with a torch — are meant to symbolize the role that all Vietnamese played in their freedom struggle, regardless of gender.
Adjacent to the monument, colorful signs continue to call for Vietnamese vigilance in the fight against the COVID-19 virus.
A visit to Jade Island
Wander around the northeastern lakeshore during the Tét (lunar new year) holidays, as I did, and you will inevitably see scores of women, of all ages, festively dressed for the occasion in traditional áo dài, a signature costume of the Vietnamese people. A long, split tunic that sets the standard for formal dress in this nation, it is especially popular in times of merriment.
In Hanoi, there are few better places for celebration than Jade Island, with its 18th-century Đền Ngọc Sơn (Temple of the Jade Mountain) linked to the lakeshore by a bright red wooden footbridge known as the Cầu Thê Húc — the Bridge of Morning Sunlight. They were erected in the 19th century to honor Trần Hưng Đạo, a 13th-century general who led the Vietnamese Army to victories over Chinese invaders, as well as Văn Xương Đế Quân, the god of prosperity in ancient Chinese culture and Taoist philosophy.
To visit the temple is to take a journey through an aged architectural complex. On the lakeshore, the Pen Tower (Tháp Bút) resembles a pen with its nib pointing to the sky; it sits on a rock pile representing the earth. Carved on the stone Ink Slab (Dai Nghien) beside it are three words: Ta Thanh Thien, “writing on the blue sky,” an acknowledgement of human dreams. Further on, the Moon Gazing Pavilion (Dac Nguyet Lau) is a temple gate; on its sides are carved a turtle, for longevity and sustainability, and a dragon, symbolizing strength and power. Next is the Tidal Wave Defense Pavilion (Đình Trấn Ba). Though tsunami are unlikely so far inland, this pavilion is a reminder to Vietnamese to defend their cultural identity against the invasion of foreign values.
The visually striking Thê Húc Bridge, its wooden segments painted a vibrant vermillion, lures the sun’s rays. It is believed to attract hope, luck and happiness.
The highlights of the Ngoc Son Temple are its three statues. Trần Hưng Đạo stands triumphantly on a pedestal with his lieutenants. Văn Xương Đế Quân, the philosopher, peacefully sits contemplating his knowledge of mankind. The Amitabha Buddha of Infinite Life reflects on the nature of what is real — and what is not.
Near the lake
Elsewhere in the Hoàn Kiếm district are many more places of note. Among them is the St. Joseph Cathedral, a couple of streets to the lake’s west. Built by the French in 1886, the Neo-Gothic building towers above a small urban plaza, its twin bell towers illuminated by muted green and blue lights after dark. Within are outstanding stained-glass windows and a beautiful altar.
It may be no accident that Hanoi’s best Italian restaurant is situated in its shadow. Leonardo Fazioli, the owner of Mediterraneo, once offered sailing charters on the Adriatic Sea. He landed in Vietnam more than 25 years ago, and today he offers all manner of cucina Italiana, from roast boar to pannacotta, to an appreciative clientele that (not surprisingly) tends to be European.
There are other excellent restaurants nearby, as well, many serving contemporary or gourmet Vietnamese food. At the Cầu Gỗ bistro, I enjoyed a midday meal of a beef-and-banana flower salad with Hanoi-style spring rolls, with a lake view. Banana flowers? The purple blossoms of the banana tree. And they are delicious.
Coffee and pastry shops abound in the vicinity, reaching out for the pedestrians who enjoy walks around Hoàn Kiếm lake. Hanoi journalist Ollie Nguyen has written extensively about some of the choices; see her recommendations here.
Within a short walk of the cathedral, in the city’s French Quarter, are two extremely worthwhile museums. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, nicknamed “the Hanoi Hilton” during the American War, includes a special acknowledgement of the late U.S. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner who returned here decades later to promote improved American-Vietnamese relations. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum has exhibits telling the powerful role played by women in this country’s wars against the French and Americans. I will write more about each in a later blog.