A beacon of calmness in the middle of the city, Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake is an unmissable part of Hanoi.
Granted, it can’t be missed as it’s so big, and it’s in the middle of the downtown half of the city. But, anyone who comes to Hanoi should definitely plan at least a half of a day to spend walking around the area.
There’s no specific starting point to walking around the lake. Several major streets lead directly into it. There’s no specific direction in which it needs to be walked, either. Just find a route in, and start walking. It’s an easy path to follow.
With contrasting shades of green from the trees, plants, and the lake’s waters, Hoan Kiem Lake really is the quintessential “green space” of the city.
Walking around the lake, there are tons of different people selling any and everything – fresh fruits, juices in plastic bags with straws sticking out of them, used travel books, and shoe shining are the ones that seem to be the most common. But, there are plenty more items and services being hocked all around the lake.
Usually, a smile and a “no” are all that’s needed to indicate you’re not interested. But, if you are, start bargaining. Most items are marked up 3-5 times what they’re actually worth.
Hoan Kiem Lake is not just in the physical center of the city, but it’s also the center of public life. Police officers, college students, bank executives, touts, beggars, families, tourists, worshipers, and many more come with their own missions and intentions to its emerald shores.
In the middle of the lake is a beautiful, centuries old building called “Turtle Tower”. Legend has it that the ancient emperor, Lê Lợi, found a sword with which he successfully beat the enemy invaders.
One day, about ten years later, Lê Lợi was out on the lake (then known as Lục Thủy Lake, meaning “green water”). Out of the middle of the lake rose a giant tortoise. Reaching for his sword to destroy it, the tortoise ended up taking the sword from Lê Lợi, and took it back under the water to disappear forever.
Realizing that the god who lent him the sword for the battles to defeat the enemy now wanted it back, Lê Lợi renamed the lake “Hoàn Kiếm”, which translates to “returning the sword”.
There is also another island in the middle of the lake, which houses a small, yet popular temple: Temple of the Jade Mountain. Admission is very inexpensive (10,000 Dong per person, about $0.50). Scott and I decided to walk across the beautiful and aptly named Light of Dawn Bridge, and go see the temple.
The temple, while small, has plenty of foot traffic. This means the constant burning of incense. Buddhists believe that the incense helps connect this life with the next life. As it was explained to us, it’s a way of sending your prayers to Buddha, trying to get his attention with the beautiful smell of incense.
I’d recommend going to see the temple. The temple is lovely, the incense smells great, and it’s a great way to view the lake from a different perspective.
Back on the mainland, there is plenty of secular life going on all around. There are several police officers who patrol the lake. It’s a bit jarring to see them in their communist garb at first. But, they’re far more interested in the locals’ business than tourists’.
As we were walking along the edge of the lake, we saw two teenage girls sharing a ride on a bicycle. A police officer held up his finger and pointed right at them, blowing his jarring whistle, and giving them a stone cold stare. Immediately, they hopped off the bike and started walking, pushing the bike along in front of them.
No bike riding allowed in that particular section, apparently…
On the first day we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, it was a Sunday. Evidently, that’s the day to get wedding pictures taken at the lake, because we saw at least ten couples doing just that. Some of them were romantic and classy…
And some… well, hopefully they don’t quite make it into the album.
Hoan Kiem Lake is constantly buzzing day and night, always full of people and all of their stories. If you go to Hanoi and haven’t at least walked the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake… well, you might as well have not even left the airport. It’s the epicenter of Hanoi, encompassing the best that the city has to offer.