As far as city centres go, this is up there as one of the most beautiful. The enormous Hoan Kiem Lake sits in the centre of the city (both physically and spiritually), and is a hub of activity, day and night. Each time we found ourselves getting a little overwhelmed in Hanoi (which was more often than I’d like, due mostly to the heat and frustration in finding anything in a city where certain things are only sold on certain streets), we found ourselves pulled back to the lake.
Morning tai chi, midday lunch breaks, evening ice creams. Groups of school-aged teens giggling and older ladies gossiping, men sharing stories and dogs marking their territory. Shady spots under the trees lining the banks of the river and sunny spots on the grass. It’s pretty beautiful and so peaceful, which is odd in such a crazy city…
The name of the lake translates to “lake of the returned sword” or something similar, because of the legend surrounding it. It’s said that after Emperor Le Loi was given a sword by the golden turtle god, endowing him with great strength, to be used to win Vietnam’s freedom back from the Chinese in the early 1400s. Not long after the war, Le Loi was said to have been on the river again, in his boat, when the turtle god appeared again to take the sword back. The turtle swam to the depths of the lake with the glowing sword in its mouth, never to be seen again.
Almost 500 years later (while Hanoi was under French rule), the tower you can see in the photos above and below was built by a musician to commemorate Le Loi and what he did for Vietnam. Unbeknownst to the Vietnamese, though, he was secretly working for the French, and the tower he built was to serve a double purpose of being the resting place for his fathers’ body. While it may have been built by a traitor for his own purpose (the body was removed once discovered) in a style that wasn’t typically Vietnamese, it still stands as symbol of patriotism and unity, traits that are still very strongly associated with the Vietnamese people.