Although not at its geographical center, after the expansion of Hanoi into a major metropolitan area in 2009, little Hoan Kiem Lake remains the very heart of life in Hanoi.
The legend of Hoan Kiem lake
According to a 15th Century legend, a giant turtle presented Emperor Le Loi with a magic sword with which to defeat Chinese invadors. In accordance with their pact, the Emperor returned the sword to the turtle after a glorious victory in battle. Thus, the lake was named Hoan Kiem, or “restored sword.”
The lake itself is like a living thing with a personality that changes continuously with the hour and the season. Some of your most vivid memories of Hanoi might come from the 45 minute walks you take around Hoan Kiem at sunrise, at midday, and again after dark.
Shortly after dawn, hundreds of people take their daily exercise on the footpath that circles the lake. If you arrive around six you will see a dozen badminton games, scores of old people practicing Tai Chi, and many shirtless young men jogging or stretching.
The surrounding attractions
During the day the lake belongs to tourists and to workers from surrounding government offices. Tour busses and taxis park at the North end of the lake, near the gates and foot bridge which lead to the Ngoc Son Pagoda. Scores of young people sell post cards, maps, and paperback books here. Others shine shoes or offer to memorialize your visit with photos taken with must surely be war-era 35mm cameras. Although persistent, they are seldom rude. Many speak wonderful English and are well worth having a conversation with.