Hoan Kiem Lake is the center of the city both literally and figuratively. The lake is the city's most popular strolling ground and a lovers' lane at night with couples locked in embrace on benches or parked motorbikes looking out over the placid waters, the shadows of overhanging willows cast by moonlight. In the morning the lake area is crowded with folks out for their morning exercise -- running or walking in a circle around the lake or joining in with the many tai chi, martial arts, calisthenics, aerobics, and even ballroom dancing groups that meet in the open areas at water's edge. Hoan Kiem Lake is also the city's own creation myth: the Legend of the Lake of the Recovered Sword. In the mid-15th century the gods gave emperor Le Thai To a magical sword to defeat Chinese invaders. While the emperor was boating on the lake one day, a giant tortoise reared up and snatched the sword, returning it to its rightful owners and ushering peace into the kingdom. Stroll around the lake in the early morning or evening to savor local life among the willow trees and see elders playing chess or practicing tai chi. In the center of the lake is the Tortoise Pagoda; on the northern part is Ngoc Son pagoda, reachable only by the stunning Bridge of the Rising Sun, a long, red arch typical of Chinese temple compounds. Ngoc Son is a working temple, meaning that you might walk into a local ceremony of chanting monks and kneeling supplicants. The temple grounds offer great views of the surrounding lake, and the little lakeside park on the island is a popular place for elderly men to enjoy a game of Chinese chess. Don't miss the friendly calligrapher just inside the temple (on the left as you enter). For a nominal fee, have your and your friends' names done in Chinese characters, complete with the meanings of each symbol in English on the back (I'm "Wheat Love Machine") or have a scroll done of significant Chinese characters such as "Heart," "Love," or "Determination" (whatever you think you might need).
Hoan Kiem is a useful locator for navigating the city; for addresses downtown, people generally give directions in relation to it. It's good to know how to get from the lake to your hotel. The lake is also the jumping-off point for exploring the Old Quarter, Hanoi's labyrinth of traditional craft streets in a sprawling maze on the north end of the lake. Lakeside is also a good place to find a bench and rest your toes after trundling around town, and you can find some good little cafes, particularly on the north end. Grab an ice cream and take time to stroll or stop and watch the moon reflect off the surface of this magical lake. You might even spot one of the giant turtles who took back the sword of Le Thai To to herald peace in Vietnam; sightings of this rare breed of turtles are quite common. Willows hang over the lake and reflect in the rippling light of dusk.
Thap Rua is the small stupa that was built in 1886 by an obscure Mandarin official. The temple was at first despised and involved in a scandal in which the official tried to have his father's bones laid to rest at the pagoda base. But over time, tiny Thap Rua, which sits on a small island at the very center of the pond, has become something of the city's Leaning Tower of Pisa, Statue of Liberty, and Eiffel Tower all rolled into one. Just two tiers of window galleries crowned by a short tapered roof, the temple commands great respect despite its recent construction, and it's a popular focal point for swooning lovers at lakeside in Hanoi's "Central Park" -- the lungs of the city. The turtles that can be seen basking at the temple's base are said to be up to 500 years old and the very species that stole the sword and founded the fair city. Hanoians love their stupa of peace; in fact, recent initiatives to have the aging pagoda painted and restored -- the small stupa is covered in moss and is overgrown with weeds -- were met with staunch disapproval from Hanoi citizens. And so it is as it always was.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Very Highly Recommended 2010
- tel: +84 4 942 1061
- Pho Le Thai To
- At city center, bordered by Tran Nhat Duat and Phung Hung sts
- Temples daily 8am-5pm
- No Sweat
- User Rating