Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital in the northern part of the country. It’s existed for over a thousand years, celebrating it millennium in 2010. While the city is divided into many districts, there are a few key districts that travelers will most likely travel through. One of the most distinct and vibrant of these districts is the Old Quarter or Hoan Kiem District.
The name is derived from local legend. Emperor Le Loi was supposedly given a magic sword from the Dragon King to help during the revolt against Ming China. Several years later, after victory against the Chinese, Emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked for the magic sword back. Concluding that the turtle was reclaiming the sword for his master the Dragon King, Emperor Le Loi returned the sword. The emperor then renamed the lake from Luc Thuy (green water) to Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake).
Today, the lake remains a vibrant green, with the Turtle Tower residing on a small island near the center of the lake. Large soft shell turtles have been seen in the lake for many years – however they are dying out, with the last known wild turtle having been found dead in January, 2016. There are an estimated 3 remaining turtles of the species.
On a larger island in the northern end of the island resides Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain). The temple was erected in the 18th century to commemorate the 13th century military leader Tran Hung Dao who fought against the Yuan Dynasty of China. The temple also commemorates a scholar Van Xuong, and a Confucian Master Nguyen Van Sieu.
You can access the island via the Huc Bridge (Morning Sunlight Bridge), a bright red bridge of traditional Vietnamese design. Entry to the temple costs 30,000 Dong each (~$1.50).
While the temple is small, it certainly has a charm to it. The island is surrounded with Banyan trees, whose roots and limbs seem to form a wall of tranquility from the energy of the surrounding city. You’ll find gardens, pagodas, and bonsai trees surrounding the temple itself.
Within the temple, there is a shrine, a gift shop, and a small room of information in regards to the turtle and legend. If you’re lucky you’ll come across the island’s resident kitty. We didn’t disturb it as it was sleeping in a loaf when we were there.
Surrounding the lake is the Hoan Kiem District, or Old Quarter. Here you’ll find a good many of the cities tourist spots including the Water Puppet Theater and Women’s Museum. As well, you’ll find great food ranging from high-end to street vendor, authentic local to western or corporate. This district is also a bit on the hectic side – immediately surrounding the lake is a large sidewalk on which to stroll along, however venture just a bit past it and you’re walking through the traffic to see everything. But it’s certainly worth it to discover the many treasures here, including a fabulous street full of art galleries. Just be sure to mind your feet and watch your step.