Last week I had the opportunity to visit the north of Viet Nam, specifically the capital of this beautiful country, Ha Noi. Such a privilege of living in a country that has a recipe to fight COVID19. No pandemic and freedom to travel.
It's no big secret that Ha Noi is the starting point for places like Sapa, Ha Long Bay and Hai Fong. Usually when visiting the north of Viet Nam, you will spend a night or two in this charming city.
If you are going to visit Hanoi for a few days, it is very likely that you will be living somewhere near Hoan Kiem Lake.
It is considered the center of Hanoi, not only geographically but also symbolically. I will not be mistaken if I say that like most tourists, you will land in the so-called Old Quarter, which is the historic center of Ha Noi. It is here that most of the small hotels that cater to tourist traffic are located.
Boutique hotels scattered among narrow streets, adjacent to most local attractions, allow you to enjoy the charm of evening Ha Noi right after leaving the reception area on the street.
These are also the hotels from which you are most often picked up by the buses of your travel agency for trips to the Ha Noi area. A convenient and practical solution.
Especially that two evenings are enough to visit several key places.
Nearby, there are two theaters presenting water puppet shows. It is in the vicinity of the old quarter that there are "Beer Street", "Train Street" and numerous cafes serving coffee with "sweet raw scrambled egg" - the famous "egg coffee". I personally recommend "The Note Cafe" - a cafe where every free scrap of the wall, ceiling and even furniture is covered with hundreds of sticky notes with dedications - you can also leave a mark.
You can visit also the oldest, perfectly preserved house in Ha Noi.
After dark, you will notice the red wooden bridge leading to the Ngoc Son temple. It is located on a small island on the centrally located Hoan Kiem Lake. It is the exact geographical and historical center of Hao Noi.
A morning or evening walk around this lake is usually one of the first activities tourists serve during their stay in the city.
If you can wake up early in the morning, around 5am, you'll see groups of oldies and teens doing everything from yoga to tai-chi to aerobics. It looks like the whole city has gone out into the streets for morning exercises. They practice in a group or on their own, with or without equipment.
A beautifully landscaped promenade enables jogging and walking, but also attracts fans of the game "Zośka- soccer".
A walk around the lake is the most pleasant moment to end a hot day while visiting the capital of Vietnam. It provides a cooling wind in summer and a warm breeze in winter.
It would seem that this lake is like any other lake. Simply put, a water area, in this case 12 hectares, located in the city center as a place for relaxation pleasing to the eye and body.
In the case of this lake, however, we are dealing with a very important, from a cultural point of view, place for Viet Nam. The lake is unique not only because of its history. The water color of Hoan Kiem Lake is not common in other lakes in the country: greenish, with a dark or light shade depending on the light reflection. The lake is full of turtles that have no counterparts in other Vietnamese lakes. If you are lucky you will see these animals emerge from the water. And because the turtle is considered a sacred animal in Vietnamese culture (along with the dragon, phoenix and unicorn), Hoan Kiem Lake has been recognized as a sacred place to protect turtles. In fact, the more time you spend exploring the lake, the more unique it becomes.
There is a legend connected with this lake ...
Ho Hoan Kiem (or Returned Sword Lake) was once part of the Red River. Over thousands of years of geographic changes, the lake has shifted eastwards to its present location, kilometers from the river. Before the famous historical legend of the king of Le Loi Hoan Kiem Lake was called Luc Thuy Lake or Green Water Lake because its water turned green all year round. In the 15th century, it was named Hoan Kiem Lake in honor of the Emperor Le Loi, which legend recalls the story of King Arthur of England and his sword Excalibur.
Now close your eyes and travel back in time to the reign of the Le Dynasty, all 6 centuries ago, to witness a legendary story.
Legend has it that Emperor Le Loi, while visiting his friend, came across a shiny metal bar. When it turned out that a piece of metal had become entangled in the net while fishing, the emperor asked for a bar, brought it home and shaped it into a sword. Suddenly, two words appeared on the sword - "Thuan Thien" - "in harmony with the sky". Le Loi realized then that the sword was a gift from heaven. It was with his help, after 10 years of constant struggle, that the emperor finally defeated the Chinese and regained the independence of the nation.
After returning to the capital, during one of the trips to Hoan Kiem Lake, a turtle rose above the water and shouted - "Please, give the sword to the Dragon King." The emperor threw the sword into the lake without hesitation. The large turtle immediately grasped the sword with its teeth and plunged into it.
The emperor regretted the loss of such a precious sword. However, he realized that God had to lend him a sword to fight off the enemy. When this goal was achieved while his nation was free, the sword had to be returned.
That is why the emperor Le Loi called the lake Ho Hoan Kiem or "The Lake of the Returned Sword."
Since the reign of Emperor Le Trung Hung (16th century), every emperor of the Le Dynasty has contributed to the beauty of the lake.
One of the Lords, Trinh Giang, built the Khanh Thuy Temple on Ngoc Island at the northern end of the lake. He also had two stone hills built opposite the temple of Ngoc son. At the end of the Dynasty, Le Khanh Thuy was overthrown by Chieu Thong. A philanthropist named Tin Trai built the Ngoc Son Pagoda, which was renamed the Ngoc Son Temple during the reign of Thieu Tri III (1843) because it was no longer a Buddhist temple. Instead, it became the temple of Van Xuong, the deity responsible for literature and teaching. This site was also the center for passing the tests required to become a mandarin. It was also the sanctuary of General Tran Hung Dao, a national hero who won numerous victories over the Mongols.
The Ngoc Son Temple and the surrounding lake shore have undergone many renovations.
Thanks to this, the complex of Ngoc Son Temple, Huc Bridge and Pen Tower, creating a sparkling multi-colored natural landscape, adds charm to Hoan Kiem Lake.
One of the projects was to add a Thap But stone monument - translated as the Pen Tower - on a hill that was once called Dao Tai. There are three words on the tower: "Ta Thien Thanh" which translates to "write in the blue sky". It is a kind of gate to the temple.
Inside the entrance gate, a pool resembling an inkwell was built and called the "ink well". Right behind it, there is a wooden, red Huc Bridge, illuminated at night with additional red light. The full name of the bridge means "where sunlight is absorbed". The bridge leads to Dac Nguyet Lau or in the translation of "Tower of the Moonlight" - the Ngoc Son shrines. Behind the gates of the temple there are also two walls called Bang Rong and Bang Ho (dragon and tiger wall) on which are engraved the names of people who passed the exam to become a mandarin.
It is worth buying a ticket, 100,000 VND and visiting the interior of the temple. Ideally after dusk and full moon days. Then the views are the most beautiful.
What could not be missing in the Hoan Kiem Lake area is the "Turtle Tower". It is located in the middle of the lake, alone testifying to the great respect for these animals.
Hoan Kiem Lake is centrally located and a short walk from Hanoi's Old Quarter.
Before and after Hanoi's massive expansion in 2009, Hoan Kiem Lake continues to be the pride of all city dwellers and a benchmark for distance measurement.
Noi Bai Airport is approximately 40 minutes' drive from the your chosen hotel.
If you are staying in the West Lake area, just take Yen Phu Road to reach the Old Quarter and head east to Hoan Kiem Lake.
As you walk by, you will be able to observe the pace of life in this peculiar city.
If you have time and really want to observe Hanoi life, sit on one of the stone benches, enjoy the view and chat with local people. Many of them speak either English or French.
Despite the passage of time, Hoan Kiem Lake - a popular historical and legendary place, is an echoes of bygone eras and a reflection of the romantic and charming Ha Noi of today.
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