Hoan Kiem Lake: An Iconic Legend of Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake (Vietnamese spelling: hồ Hoàn Kiếm), or Sword Lake (hồ Gươm), is the symbol of Hanoi. Located in the center of the city, it represents over a thousand years of history and culture.

Literally translated as ‘Lake of the Restored or Returned Sword’, it’s a freshwater lake covering some 12 hectares. The central district of Hanoi also takes on the same name.

The Legend of Hoan Kiem Lake

The Huc Bridge
The Huc Bridge
[ by Tho-Ge from Pixabay ]

The name Hoan Kiem Lake (還劍湖) originated from a legend of King Lê Thái Tổ or Lê Lợi in the 15th century. The story goes that the king coincidentally received a divine sword and used it to defeat the opposing Chinese Ming Dynasty.

After the war, while relaxing on his boat, a mystical golden turtle emerged from the water and asked for the sword back. The turtle claimed to be sent by the Dragon King of the Sea (Long Vương) to retrieve the sword that King Lê came across.

The History of Hoan Kiem Lake

The gates of Ngoc Son Temple
The gates of Ngoc Son Temple
[ by HaiBaron from Pixabay ]

According to a map of 6 centuries ago, Hoan Kiem Lake used to be a direct branch of the Red River (sông Hồng). Nowadays, the lake is supplied through an underground water system connected to the river.

In the 16th century, a Trinh Lord (chúa Trịnh) built the Ta Vong House (đình Tả Vọng) on Ngoc Son Island (đảo Ngọc Sơn). It was rebuilt into the Thuy Ta House (Thuỷ Tạ) of today which is a small wooden sala pavilion and a nice resting spot.

He also separated the lake into the left Ta Vong (hồ Tả Vọng) and the right Huu Vong (hồ Hữu Vọng). The Trinh Lords were the de facto rulers of northern Vietnam (Đàng Ngoài) while the Nguyen Lords ruled the south during the Later Le Dynasty.

During the time of King Tu Duc, the Huu Vong Lake was called the Marine Lake where military training was held, while the Ta Vong Lake kept the name Hoan Kiem. In 1884, the French covered up the Marine Lake for the expansion of Hanoi.

Things to See and Do around Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake is really nice for an early morning stroll if you’re up for it. Alternatively, the late afternoon is also a good choice. The temple on the lake, or ones in the side streets nearby, are key attractions. Temples generally open from 7 AM to 6 PM and it’s best to wear clothing covering knees and shoulders when you pop in.

View all destinations mentioned in this article.

Ngoc Son Temple and The Huc Bridge

Ngoc Son Temple
[ image from Facebook ]

Ngoc Son Temple (đền Ngọc Sơn) is on Ngoc Island (đảo Ngọc) and the spiritual heart of Hoan Kiem Lake. The name translates to “Temple of the Jade Mountain”- 玉山.

Visitors can walk across the bright red The Huc Bridge (cầu Thê Húc) which was added in 1865 for an easier crossing. The temple worships Wenchang Wang (Văn Xương Đế Quân)— the God of Culture and Literature in Taoism along with the Vietnamese King Trần Hưng Đạo.

The original temple existed from the time of King Lý Thái Tổ in 1010, but was destroyed during the Tran Dynasty, then rebuilt in the 19th century into what we see today. The design is Northern Vietnamese along with ancient writings on the walls and poles.

Pen Tower and Inkstone

Pen Tower and Inkstone
[ by Truong Tuan Nghia from CC ]

The Pen Tower (Tháp Bút) is actually a calligraphy brush tower. There’s an inkstone (Đài Nghiên) on top of the third gate on the way to Ngoc Son Temple. These two literary symbols were also added in 1865.

Hanoi Turtle Tower

Hanoi Turtle Tower
[ by Paul Arps from Flickr ]

The Turtle Tower (tháp Rùa) is the iconic symbol right in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. It was built from 1884 to 1886 with Gothique walls and a traditional Vietnamese roof. During the French colonial period, there was a Statue of Liberty placed on top of the tower but it was destroyed in the 1950s.

The Turtles in Hoan Kiem Lake

The turtle preserved in Ngoc Son Temple
The turtle preserved in Ngoc Son Temple
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

There actually used to be four turtles in the lake. There were disagreements about exactly what species they were. One of the most accepted conclusions was they were a new species called Rafetus leloii or Rafetus Vietnamensis.

All four of the turtles have since passed away. One is preserved in the Ngoc Son Temple, one in the Hanoi Museum, one was accidentally killed and eaten when sojourning ashore in 1962, and the last finally passed away in 2016.

Water Puppet Show at Thang Long Theatre

Unique Vietnamese Water Puppetry
[ by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay ]

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (Nhà hát Múa rối Thăng Long) is the most highlighted water puppet show (múa rối nước) in Hanoi. The stories revolve around historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of Vietnam.

There are five shows every day afternoon. Language is not a problem since there’s hardly any dialogue and the performances are designed to be understood from sound and visuals.

More about the water puppet show at Thang Long Theatre

Hoan Kiem Lake Walking Street

A Tò he maker
A ‘Tò he’ maker
[ by HaiBaron from Pixabay ]

The Hoan Kiem Lake Walking Street (Phố đi bộ hồ Hoàn Kiếm) opens from 6 PM on Friday to 12 PM Sunday. It’s basically the east side of the lake and a favorite hangout spot for all generations of Hanoians.

Visitors can watch displays of traditional art, and join some traditional Vietnamese games with the help of a guide or friendly locals. Street performances usually include live music, magic tricks, and portrait sketchers.

‘Tò he’ is a traditional Vietnamese form of art you can observe where little figures are shaped out of rice dough on bamboo sticks. The artist may create anything from everyday animals to superheroes.

For other types of more engaging activities, foreigners may be more familiar with tug of war, stilt walking, Jenga, and roller-skating. You can take part in these fun games while strolling around for souvenirs and snacks.

Book Streets

Book Streets
[ by @tuannguyen728 from Unsplash ]

There are many book streets in Hanoi, but Đình Lễ Book Street at the southern end and east corner of Hoan Kiem, is the oldest in Hanoi. It started out as only one Mão Bookstore of Mr. Luy and Mrs. Mão back in the early 1990s.

For more than 20 years, this street has been a book paradise for children, university students, and also senior citizens. You can potentially find any book here with 10-20% off for new editions and as much as 50% for old editions.

Prices of Things at Hoan Kiem Lake

  • Ngoc Son Temple’s entrance fee: 30 000 VND per person.
  • Calligraphy: 200 000 per piece.
  • Pencil portrait: 100 000 VND per drawing.

How to Get to Hoan Kiem Lake

A corner of Hoan Kiem Lake
A corner of Hoan Kiem Lake
[ by Tuan Pham from Facebook ]

Hoan Kiem Lake is still open during the time of the 2020 pandemic. It’s in the center of Hanoi so it’s easy to get to. You can walk to destinations nearby including the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Opera House, Vietnamese’s Women Museum, Old Quarter, and Hoa Lo Prison.

Check out our article on ‘25 Best Things To Do in Hanoi’ for more about how to get to Hoan Kiem Lake and other destinations around.

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