Sitting at the heart of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake is the fascinating centrepiece of the city and a great place to watch Hanoians of all ages unwind.
Young or old, rich or poor, local or traveller – whoever you are, you are sure to find yourself drawn to Hoan Kiem lake. Like moths to a flame, generation upon generation of Hanoians have come to stroll, relax and gossip on the narrow paths that line the lake.
Legends and Myths
Hoan Kiem (literally ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’) sits on the southern edge of the Old Quarter and marks the start of the French District of the city. The lake has its own legend, and as with many a Vietnamese tale, starts with an Emperor and a heroic victory over the Chinese. One day, whilst boating on the lake, the Emperor Le Loi had a magic sword stolen from him by an impetuous turtle. The sword had in fact been given to Le Loi by the turtle God himself and had imbued the Emperor with power beyond compare. After the defeat of the northern enemy, and the establishment of an independent Vietnam, the swords work was done and the turtle God quite rightly wanted it back. So here started the story of Hoan Kiem and modern Vietnam, and an association with the giant soft shell turtle of its legend.
Today the lake is rumoured to be home to a number of these very rare reptiles. Sitting on the shady banks you may be lucky to catch a glimpse of Hanoi’s ‘Nessy’. I am almost certain I have seen the beady eye of one staring back at me whilst I devoured a Banh My (a tasty sandwich that you will be hearing more about in future posts), but then again it could have been wishful thinking. When I look over the calm waters and hear a splash, I try telling myself that I haven’t just heard the sword thief of the lake – it is harder than you think.
It is the ruined ‘Turtle Tower’ and the red stilted ‘Huc Bridge’ that are two of the best known icons of the city but, Hoan Kiem is a lot more than an old relic and curiosity for legend hunters. In a city where green space is at a premium, the lake offers a quiet(er) haven in the city centre as well as a natural air conditioning system. The cool wind that comes off the lake is a real life saver in the heat of the summer months, and it is no wonder that people flock here to sit and watch the world go by.
Ghetto blasters and the Macarena
But not everyone is there to enjoy the breeze – Hoan Kiem is a major sports hub! I am sure you have read endless descriptions of elegant Tai Chi practice in the early morning haze – but in my experience early morning is a little more raucous. You can still find pockets of tranquillity but these days it is aerobics that is keeping Hanoi fit. And the backing track? Well anything from mid 90s house to the Macarena can be heard. It is quite a sight – hundreds of people young and old showing off moves that wouldn’t look out of place on a dance floor (albeit one from 1973) each morning at 5.30. These days neon shell suits and ghetto-blasters rival the humble fan as the gear of choice.
Moving on a couple of hours and Badminton is centre stage. Over an iced coffee and a morning Pho you can enjoy some of the most competitive matches outside of the Olympics, with seemingly frail pensioners turning into ruthless dynamos of the court. Joggers lap endlessly and owners chase excited dogs – all before the sun rises and the heat stops play.
The midday hours belong to those of us who enjoy a shady bench rather than a work out, and there really is no better place to see them out. With a café never more than a short stroll away, an afternoon can go in a flash. Suddenly at around 18.00 it is all change. Ghetto blasters are loaded, the joggers reappear and the final sport of the day is underway – this time an elaborate mix of hacky sack and badminton that will leave you feeling that Vietnam certainly has a healthy footballing future ahead of it. As rollerblading youngsters weave through traffic, flash-mobs of women dance frantically and canoodling teenagers hide in the shadows, it all becomes clear why Hoan Kiem is a place close to every Hanoians’ heart.
See the lakeside life of Hanoi on a city tour with Buffalo Tours!