The present-day Hoan Kiem Lake is a popular stop for couples' wedding photos and fitness buffs' morning workouts. And for the past few hundred years, the lake has served as a place of worship and a cradle for legends: standing by itself as a major reason to visit Vietnam.
Hoan Kiem Legendary Turtles
Hoan Kiem Lake's name points to the legend that is said to lie beneath its depths: Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means "Lake of the Returned Sword", alluding to the legend that the future Vietnamese emperor Le Loi received a sword from a magic turtle at the lake's edge. Le Loi drove the Chinese out of Vietnam with the sword, which was then reclaimed by the turtle after the invaders had left.
(The Thang Long Water Puppet theatre nearby tells the tale, in aquatic marionette form of course.)
The lake's turtles have largely passed into legend, due to pollution and the paving-over of the turtles' egg-laying grounds on the lakeshore. The last known turtle resident in the lake died in 2016. Today, the number of surviving turtles in Hoan Kiem Lake remains unknown.
Getting to Hoan Kiem Lake
The lake is bordered by the streets of Pho Dinh Tien Hoang to the north and east, Pho Hang Khay at its south end, and Pho Le Thai To on the west.
The sidewalks around the lake are shaded by trees, so the short walk (less than ten minutes) it may take you to walk from one end of the elongated lake to the other is bound to be pleasant even in sunny weather.
Once you cross to the lakeside, you'll find Hanoi at its most charming: old men playing Chinese chess on benches facing the lake, affianced couples getting glamour shots done in full wedding regalia, and (depending on the time of day) joggers and speed-walkers getting their morning constitutionals, all against the placid backdrop of the lake's waters.
What to Do Around Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is one of Hanoi's key landmarks, a useful point of reference for getting your bearings around the city. Immediately to the lake's west lie a bustling fashion district clustered around Pho Nha Tho and Pho Na Chung. North of the lake, the Old Quarter's narrow streets are just waiting to be explored. South of the lake lies the French Quarter and the great eats of Hai Ba Trung.
If you've been hotfooting it around the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake's shores are a perfect place to stop for a breather. You might want to order a coffee at the Hapro Coffee Kiosk on Pho Le Thai To (location on Google Maps), or dig deeper in the Old Quarter's streets for their authentic Hanoi eats.
Tourists may check in at a wide range of hotels around the Hoan Kiem Lake's vicinity: the Old Quarter has a number of low- to mid-budget hotels to choose from, while the stylish hotels at the French Quarter may suit those with more money to burn.
Hoan Kiem Lake's Ngoc Son Temple
Hoan Kiem Lake's reflecting waters are punctuated by the Tortoise Pagoda (Thap Rua) at the south end and Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake's north end.
Ngoc Son Temple may be reached by crossing The Huc (Morning Sunlight) Bridge, a graceful, red-painted wooden bridge. Built in the 1400s, Ngoc Son is not just a museum, it's an active place of worship, where monks and devotees perform their religious duties. The smell of burning joss sticks pervades the air, which as a result feels thick and heavy.
The temple complex contains a number of interesting structures. The Pen Tower on the island's hill is a relatively recent addition; the Moonlight Tower (Dac Nguyet Lau) serves as a gateway into the temple from the bridge; and two walls display the names of students who passed the national examinations hundreds of years ago.
The temple's main building houses altars, shops, and a large stuffed tortoise.
To enter Ngoc Son Temple, an entrance fee must be paid just before crossing the bridge - VND 30,000 Dong ($1.30, read about money in Vietnam), available at a booth to the left of the bridge entrance. The temple is open daily, from 8:00am to 5:00pm.