The mysterious Hoan Kam Lake in Hanoi

It is really hard to escape the cacophony of sounds in Hanoi and there is just literally so much stuff pilling everywhere – from mopeds, people, storefronts full of different objects, food – that even your eyes need a break, just something to look at that is simple, uncomplicated. I crave going to place where there is water. I have always loved walks by the ocean, by riversides and of course, by the lakes. Who doesn’t enjoy simply staring at those masses of water – even when the ocean is so agitated, don’t you feel somehow calm?

I do, and so when I read that a walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake was a must-do in Hanoi, I didn’t have any doubts that I would do it – even if it wasn’t one of the leading suggestions in the Lonely Planet book I was carrying with me. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Hoan Kiem Lake was where I ran off to have my first lunch in Vietnam. It was where I found some peace (just some!) by looking over the water of the lake, the smoggy landscape in front of me and seeing my thoughts suddenly be organised in the dedicated drawers of my mind.

I was quite taken by the trees around the lake. Apparently called Bằng Lăng trees, I was touched by the way its branches seemed to reach for the water. The lake was faithfully working as a mirror, reflecting the image of the trees. I remember thinking these were very vain trees, just look at them, wanting to see themselves in the water, so proud of their beauty. As they should be.

Yet let’s go back to the lake. The Hoan Kiem lake is not only a place to relax – it is considered a sacred lake. Hoan Kiem actually means “Returned Sword” in the Vietnamese language. Legend tells that in the mid-15th century, the Dragon King sent Emperor Le Loi a magical sword, which was used to drive the Chinese invaders out of Vietnam. After successfully winning the battle, the Emperor visited the lake, jumped on the boat and a giant turtle surfaced. The turtle explained that he was sent by the Dragon King to retrieve the magical sword. Le Loi returned the sword, and the turtle disappeared into the depths of the lake.

While the lake is in itself an attraction, what will call your attention more than anything is the islet located at the south end of the lake, with a three-story tower on it. On foggy days it’s almost hidden, which made it even more mysterious to me – especially as I was soon to find out this has become the symbol of Hanoi. My Lonely Planet book referenced this islet only by passing so I had to put my fingers to work and find out a little bit more about it.

It goes by the name of Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) and it is a lot more recent than one might suppose (the greyish colour gives it the charm of an ancient origin). Rather, the tower was built in 1886 on the same site where Ta Vong Temple had been built (supposedly during the 17th or 18th centuries) and its main purpose was to provide the Emperor with a comfortable place to for fishing. Well, this temple is said to have disappeared (I really could not find more information).

This tower was built under French occupation and, funny enough (and I could not find many sources confirming this, so take it with a pinch of salt) it was a musician who received permission from the government to build the tower, to honour Le Loi. I have tried to understand who was this musician and also why would the French be all right with helping build a monument that going to honour a hero of the Vietnamese independence from the Chinese (when the French themselves were invaders). There are many loopholes in this story in my opinion – but things get even more interesting when it was found out that this musician actually planned to bury his father in this place all along. His father’s body was then removed from the structure.

Yet, the French would eventually make the tower truly French – which I also found quite interesting. There was once a Statue of Liberty in Hanoi, of course, a miniature of the one you will see in New York, placed by the French on top of the tower in 1890. There are very few pictures of this, but I found the below. The statue was removed by the Vietnamese government in 1945 after French control was overthrown.

Statue of Liberty in Hoan Kam Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – sourced from:

How interesting is this lake, wouldn’t you agree? A sacred lake, a magical sword, giant turtles, a disappearing temple, a new tower and a body – and the statue of liberty! No wonder I was so attracted to it.

Yet, there is more to see in the lake – and that’s on the north side, the Ngoc Son Temple. And this is where the noises of the city will magically disappear and you can have peace. Pay the entry fee of 30,000 VND (just about 1.30 USD/1 GBP/1.20 EUR) and enjoy the calm for a while. That is what I did, letting the fumes of incense get into my system, for those were preferred to the smokes of the cars and motorbikes I had been ingesting so far.

Located on an island in the sacred lake, the Ngoc Son Temple is accessible through a bridge. Ngoc Son stands for Jade Mountain. The temple was erected in the 19th century to commemorate a military commander of the Tran Dynasty – Tran Hung Dao, who led the Vietnamese Army to several victories over the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century (an imperial dynasty of China). The temple also pays tribute to Van Xuong De Quan, the God of prosperity in ancient Chinese culture and Taoist philosophy. Despite driving the Chinese away and having gained independence, the Vietnamese culture has had understandably a very strong influence from the thousand-year enemy.

Inside, I was also so impressed with the lush plants and flowers, really providing escapism from the bustling city, a place of reflection, a place for one to be in touch with nature. As I kept exploring Vietnam, I would come to know how good they are with plants. f course the weather also helps, but there is a talent for landscaping that I have not seen anywhere else. I suppose a lot of it also comes from Confucianism and Buddhism – again carried to Vietnam through the Chinese Empire.

And a kind stranger, also seemingly a solo traveller like myself, kindly offered to take a photograph of me (after I took some of hers). She actually managed to take a photo I liked (I have in general given up asking strangers to take photos of me, as they typically fail to fulfil my standards – which are very low, I simply ask not to cut feet or top of heads!)

Love, Nic


10 thoughts on “The mysterious Hoan Kam Lake in Hanoi

  1. It’s crazy the lake doesn’t have more of a billing in your Lonely Planet guidebook, it’s such an iconic part of Hanoi and definitely a must-do! It has such an interesting history, I hadn’t realised there used to be a miniature statue of liberty on top of the Turtle Tower. I enjoyed your write up and your photos are great, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment 🙂 it is indeed a shame that the book barely mentions it, but I suppose they also need to keep things short and practical – so I’m here to tell the stories!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Sounds strange to me as well 🙂 Because the Hanoians see the lake as the center of the Old Quarter. From there, you can easily navigate around. I often hear them saying “gặp ở bờ hồ” which means “meet you at the (Hoan Kiem) lake”.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Just to clarify the lake itself is mentioned, the main recomendation even being to have a walk around the lake (it was definitely one of my favourite things about Hanoi) – it is the Turtle Tower that was barely mentioned, and I found this monument so interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It is! Aside from being the resting place for the Emperor, the islet used to be home for turtles. There were a few giant Yangtze living there, but the last one died in the 2016. If I remember correctly, its taxidermy is placed in Ngoc Son Temple.

        I also didn’t know that there was a liberty statue atop the tower 🙂 Quite interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This brings back warm memories of my time exploring around this magical lake. It’s been fun getting your own perspective Nic. Turtle Tower does have a special, mystical feel to it, I enjoyed reading about the history and learned something new re: the former Statue of Liberty. What a curiosity, I wonder what became of it. You made me laugh with the bit about other people and photos… it’s so true.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Leighton! First time I heard about the train street of Hanoi was on your site and I kept thinking about it when I was in Hanoi (will write a little piece about it as well)! I would assume they destroyed the statue as an act of rebellion…it was interesting though how hard I had to dig only to find these stories 🙂


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