Legend claims in the mid-15th century Heaven sent Emperor Le Thai To (Le Loi) a magical sword which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths to restore the sword to its divine owners, inspiring the name Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Swordake. The ramshackle Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), on an islet near the southern end, is topped with a red star and is often used as an emblem of Hanoi.
The lake is not only special in her history. The water color of Hoan Kiem Lake is not commonly found in other lakes elsewhere in the country: greenish, with dark or light shade depending on the reflection of the sky. The lake is full of tortoise, which is second to none to be found among Vietnamese lakes. If you are lucky, you will catch sight of these giant animals rising out of water. And because tortoise is considered a sacred animal in Vietnam’s Culture (along with dragon, phoenix and unicorn), Hoan Kiem Lake then become a holy place that nurtures tortoise.
Before and even after Hanoi’s massive expansion in 2009, Hoan Kiem lake is still a pride of all Hanoians and the center for any distance measurement. Nowadays, it’s still a gathering place yet new Hanoians may live too far to count their distance to the lake. Still, as you walk by, you will be able to witness the pace of life in this peculiar city.
If you can wake up early in the morning, at about 5 a.m., you will see lines and lines of oldies and teenagers doing anything from yoga to tai-chi to aerobics. It looks as if the whole city was up and running for morning exercise. They work out in group or by themselves, with or without equipment. In the course of one of the high profiled meetings in Hanoi, an Australian prime minister also joined the early jogging around the lake.
In the afternoon to the South end you can see a matrix of Motorbikes twisting along the lake. Blending in is a gang of “cyclo” – the famous three-wheeled carriers that take tourists with cameras handy around. To the North end where the old quarters lies, an influx of colourful clothes and shoes will dazzle you, together with the smell of trees and coffees.
When Darkness takes over, you can see couples holding hands walking side by side along the lake, trying to breathe in the breeze of summer night or keep warmth against the winter cold. If you have time and really want to observe Hanoi’s life, sit down on one of the stone bench, enjoy the view and have a good talk with some local friends over an ice-cream cone.