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Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the best-known cultural features in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. Located in the historical center of the city, Hoan Kiem Lake, or Lake of The Sword as it is also known, plays a major part in one of the best-loved legends of this southeast Asian city. In the war for independence from China's Ming Dynasty, legend says that the hero Emperor Le Loi was gifted a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which he used with success in winning the country's independence. Some time later, while the emperor was fishing in the lake, the magic sword was grabbed by a large turtle who disappeared with it under the waves. The legend continues that the Golden Turtle God had reclaimed the sword after it had served its purpose and will reappear with it if ever needed again.
Previously, the lake was called 'Green Lake' due to its green color, but was renamed Ho Hoan Kiem, meaning Lake of The Returned Sword. Emperors since the 16th century have revered the lake and worked to beautify its shores. A species of huge, nearly-extinct freshwater turtle inhabits the lake and is considered sacred by the Vietnamese people. The turtles are suspected to be the species, Rafetus swinhoei (Swinhoe's softshell turtle) or a related species, extremely rare and the largest known freshwater turtles in the world.
Located in the heart of Hanoi's historic old city, Hoan Kiem Lake is a vital part of daily life in Hanoi. Surrounded by walkways and gardens, the shore is the site of early-morning Vietnamese visitors performing their daily exercise routines or enjoying the peaceful lake in the growing light. All day long and into the late evening, the lakeshore walkways are crowded with walkers enjoying one of the most peaceful places in the bustling city. At midnight on the first night of the Tet New Year celebration, it is traditional to explode millions of firecrackers near the shore, where the smoke drifts across the lake.
The lake is on nearly every Vietnam travel itinerary; all places in the older parts of the city are judged in distance from Hoan Kiem. One striking focal point of most lake views is the small Turtle Tower built on a tiny islet in the lake. The Turtle Tower was built on the site of a former 16th century pagoda and commands the eye from the nearby shore. It is is a well-known daily reminder of the legend of the Returned Sword. So venerated is the small tower that recent efforts to repair and repaint its weathered facade were met with massive public outcry.
Hoan Kiem Lake likely originated as a remnant of the past course of the nearby Red River, although it is now several miles away. There aren't any obvious inflowing streams, but the lake apparently gains from ground water and is replenished by rainfall. Studies show the lake to be stagnant and the green color the result of algae growth. Locals do some fishing in the lake, but it apparently isn't terribly productive for fish, possibly because of the unknown number of giant turtles that are seldom seen. The lake is only about 25 acres and can be circled by walking in about half an hour.
Most visitors find plenty of interesting sights along the way to stop and admire. The many emperors since the 16th century have built a number of temples and shrines which have changed names and dedications over the intervening ages. One example is the history of Khanh Thuy shrine on Ngoc island on the north end of the lake. Artificial hills, towers, shrines and bridges create a complex of temples and scenic vistas that require a good guidebook to identify them all.
North from Hoan Kiem Lake, the oldest parts of Hanoi hold a large number of cultural edifices and streets devoted to traditional craft shops and small cafes. This area is popular with tourists who are looking for 'local color' and who often find Vietnamese history along the route. The Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius is the site of the Imperial Academy, Vietnam's first national university. Directly across the street, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum holds examples of some of the country's finest paintings, lacquers and ceramics, along with items representing the distant past. Unfortunately, many of the items on display are reproductions, the originals having been destroyed in the VietNam War. The nearby Vietnam Museum of Ethnology celebrates the many varied cultures within the country's borders with exhibits, outdoor models of the homes of minority groups, and traditional song and dance. The village of Bat Tang, on the suburban outskirts of Hanoi, is noted for its Bat Trang porcelain and pottery. The history of Bat Trang pottery-making can be traced back to the 14th century and has found its way on trade ships around the world. If the visit is long enough, visits can be made to some of the national parks and smaller cities in the country.
The turtles found in Hoan Kiem Lake are somewhat mysterious; some claim to see them regularly, but those sighted are likely a similar species. A preserved specimen can be seen in the Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the south portion of the lake. The last verified sighting was in 2004, when a large turtle crawled up on the island of the Turtle Tower during a period of low water. This major event alarmed local authorities enough that a major effort was undertaken to remove some of the muck from the lake bottom and pump in fresh water from nearby wells drilled for the purpose. The tortoise is one of the four sacred creatures in the animist traditions of Vietnam and considered a good luck omen, so the residents of Hanoi are willing to do nearly anything necessary to make sure their turtles continue to survive.
Hanoi is a modern city, and the newer areas contain many hotels, motels and guest houses. It is probably wise to arrange accommodations ahead of time through a reputable tourism company if one is not thoroughly conversant of the country and its language. Many visitors hire a car and driver who can act as guide. Others rent scooters to tour the back roads and visit out-of-the-way places. Lucky visitors may get a room with a view of Hoan Kiem Lake, and maybe a glimse of one of the sacred turtles.
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