In the heart of Hanoi stands one of the country’s most iconic landmarks – but many will miss it entirely on their journey. Our expert taps into what’s special about this particular living legend in the heart of the capital.
The Ngoc Son Temple on the northern edge of Hoan Kiem Lake in one of the most iconic places in Hanoi. The beautiful stilted The Huc Bridge is the back drop for thousands of photos each day, as tourists and locals alike flock to this small outcrop from dawn until dusk.
Ngoc Son is not just an historical emblem of the city, it is a living, breathing place for Vietnamese people of all ages to come and pay their respects, take a stroll through the gardens and play a game or two of Chinese Chess.
Red carpet walk
If you have been to Hanoi and not visited Ngoc Son Temple then something has gone horribly wrong. You should check your guide book, talk to whoever you booked your holiday with and look into coming back to the city immediately. The temple is one of the Hanoi’s major landmarks and along with Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum,
The Temple of Literature and the Opera House, one of the most eye caching and instantly recognisable places in Vietnam. For this reason it is a popular place for visitors. Looking at the throngs of tourists from every corner of the globe noisily filing through the temple gates, it is easy to be put off from taking the plunge.
The idea of battling your way into a temple that from the shore seems to be little more than a collection of overhanging vines and trees is not always an appealing one. To start with getting across the bridge is Hanoi’s version of walking the red carpet – photo shoots and poses take place every metre along the way meaning you arrive on the other side in a state of shock and apology.
If you do make it across then things are calmer than you would think. Luckily it seems that the masses are involved in the collective photo shoot happening on the bridge.
Giant stuffed turtle and a hobby horse
I have been to the temple a number of times and have always found something else to enjoy. This is pretty remarkable considering the size of the place. Unlike the sprawling Temple of Literature, Ngoc Son is modest in size and consists of a main temple, an open courtyard overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, and a looping walkway around the edge, oh and a side room with a giant stuffed turtle. It is the turtle that is the star turn here, captivating anyone who walks past. I still prefer searching for the living turtle in the lake but each to their own.
For such a popular tourist spot it is remarkable how the place can feel so relaxed and alive. I am used to major tourist attractions being strange shells – you know something interesting is supposed to be there but unfortunately the throngs of tourists take whatever it is away.
Ngoc Son is different. Of an evening you find kids playing, old people nattering and men involved in tense games of Chinese Chess in the temples courtyard. The beautifully ornate rooms of the temple itself and the peculiar hobby horse (you can’t fail to miss it) in the main room are all very interesting, but it is the scene in the courtyard that makes the place magical.
When to visit
My tip is to come half an hour or so before closing time. Most groups have cleared off and you will be left with the chess players and a rather relaxed couple of guards who don’t seem to mind hangers on whilst they close up the temple rooms. The view at dusk over Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the best in the city. Ngoc Son has a unique history, but its present is pretty interesting as well.
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