The symbolic and geographical heart of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake has been the focal point of the city’s public life for hundreds of years. It continues to be a place where locals do tai chi and aerobics on green fields, where three-wheeled motorbikes weave along narrow paths, and couples savour the romance of an evening. The lake is within short walking distance of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and is captivating at all times of the day.
The lake’s surface twinkles through unusual shades of green and is occasionally pierced by small turtles. Pathways circumnavigate the lake and it’s an easy stroll all the way around. Towards the northern shore, linked by a narrow bridge, is Jade Island and the 18th century Ngoc Son Temple. This iconic structure creates the favourite lakeside photo and is unmissable from most places along the water. Dinh Nam Huong is less popular structure but an equally impressive piece of architecture along the shore. Visitors who come before sunrise are warmly welcomed into the communal yoga and tai-chi sessions, while the evenings are a perfect time for strolling hand in hand.
Exploring Hoan Kiem Lake doesn’t require any transport, although the three-wheeled bikes provide a charming means of seeing everything in a short amount of time. Any public transportation going to the Old Quarter should leave visitors within a few minutes’ walk to the water. When the Australian prime minister visited, he was famously photographed joining the locals on an early-morning jog around the lake.
A wonderful legend gave the lake its name. Hoan Kiem translates as the “lake of the returned sword”, harking back to when a golden turtle god emerged from the water and asked Emperor Le Loi for his magic sword. The Emperor did return the sword, but only after he fought off the Ming Chinese army. A small turtle stands in the centre of the lake and honours this legend.