Hoan Kiem Lake
- Size: 600 meters by 200 meters
- Depth: average, 1.2 m (3.9 ft); maximum depth, 2 m (6.6 ft)
- 2 temples
- 1 big statue
- 1 specimen of an almost extinct giant turtle species still swims in it.
- Big and clean enough to make for interesting and refreshing scenery.
For people wanting a pleasant excursion to learn about Vietnam's history, sight-see and exercise, Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the Old City of Hanoi is a place to go.
The Old City area is very congested, so the lake park area is about the only place in the whole area to get some air and away from the crowds. A lot has happened around the lake over the centuries. Read this attraction guide, and you'll understand the monuments and temples around it better, and learn some history of Vietnam.
The lake isn't very big. It measures about 1.2 square kilometers in circumference. It actually isn't deep either, though you wouldn't know this by looking at it.
Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means "Lake of the Returned Sword". The legend was that a famous and victorious king who drove out the Ming army lost his sword when a turtle came up and took it when he was on a boat in the lake. The legends also say that he originally received his magical sword from the turtle god of the area.
The Old City is the historical center of Hanoi, and the lake is the legendary center of the old capital.
Two Temples, One Big Statue
There are two shrines in the lake. Both are on islets. One is near the northern shore, and one is near the southern shore. And there is a big statue on the northeast shore.
Ngoc Son Temple
The one at the northern end is called Ngoc Son. Ngoc Son means Jade Mountain. It was built to honor and worship two scholars named Van Xuong and La To, whose statues sit side-by-side with other deities and one general named Tran Hang Dao, who was accorded his own separate altar.
General Tran Hang Dao led the Viet kingdom in a long war to remain free of the Mongol Yuan Empire. The Mongols had conquered most of Eurasia, but their southward advance was stopped by him and his army by using Viet naval advantages and hit and run tactics.
On the islet, there are gift shops and the shell of a huge giant turtle that weighed 250 kilograms or more than 500 pounds that was killed in 1967.
The buildings on the island were first built in the 18th century or so. There is a red bridge about 30 meters long across to the islet. There is a ticket window at the bridge. The sign says 20,000 dong (1 USD) for adults and 10,000 dong (50 US cents) for students. But you can stand on the bridge without paying the fee. The ticket is for entering the temple area.
There is a gateway leading to the bridge. On it, there are inscriptions in Chinese characters. There are paintings of a dragon and a tiger with the inscriptions in Chinese characters above them: "dragon gate" and "tiger gate".
Turtle Tower (Thap Rua)
The southern shrine called Turtle Tower was erected in the late 19th century. It has a classic French colonial style, is composed of gray bricks or concrete, and is three stories high with arches. It is said to have been built by a wealthy Vietnamese man for worshipping Hoan Kiem Lake's turtle god.
The tiny islet has tall grass, and it is thought that giant turtles used to lay eggs there. If any turtles remain in the lake, they probably go on the islet since the lake is now enclosed by embankment and sidewalk.
Another small shrine three stories high with a similar look and arches stands close to it on shore.
Statue of Le Roi (Le Thai To)
On the southeast shore, directly facing towards the Turtle Tower, is the statue and small square of the general and Viet king named Le Thai To. It is more than just a statue; it is a shrine for his worship.
The statue and its pedestal stand about two stories high, and there is a big pot for burning incense sticks to him in front of the statue. It was erected in 2004.
Le Roi (~1384 – 1433) was a famous general who defeated the Ming armies sent against him and helped to maintain Vietnam as a separate country and a vassal state of China. He became the first king of the Le Dynasty.
Place to Exercise and Good Scenery
People can jog around the lake in about 12 minutes. There is a sidewalk all around it with benches and trees for shade. You'll probably see Vietnamese playing badminton or kicking a shuttlecock in a circle. In the mornings some people exercise there.
In the mornings the sunrises over the lake near the Turtle Tower (seen from the southwest side of the lake) are about the best. You can sit on the benches at the corner of the lake and watch the sunrise. The Le Roi statue square and some park shore area makes for a better sky view and scenery.
- Bus: A bus 9 stop is on the north shore of the lake. Ticket price: 3,000 dong (15 US cents). There is a toilet there that costs 2,000 dong to use. This bus is useful for tourists since it goes to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and palace area.
- Walk: You can walk to the lake from most areas of the Old City in 12 minutes. Take a map along because it is very easy to get lost.