Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a center point of Hà Nội, with many things often referenced in distance from the lake. The lake has been romanticized, and characterized since the beginning, and made the subject of poems and literature as well. One of the reasons why Hoàn Kiếm Lake is so beloved by the people is because of the legend behind the lake. In 1407, northern Vietnam was invaded by the Ming Dynasty, an oppression which last about 20 years. The Chinese were overthrown due to the efforts of Le Loi, one of Vietnam’s most celebrated heroes. In 1417, Le Loi began gathering a following and mustered enough soldiers to begin the revolt against the Chinese. It took 10 years of fighting, but they were finally able to oust out the Chinese and declare sovereignty of Vietnam in 1427. Vietnam and China have a history of fighting for centuries. Although this invasion of Vietnam was shorter than the previous three invasions, it was a very atrocious and demeaning attempt to spread Chinese culture in Vietnam. For this reason, Le Loi is one of Vietnam’s most celebrated heroes, for having led the country to freedom in such a short period of time. There are many poems and legends told of Le Loi, but the most famous one is of his sword said to have been a gift to save the country. The way the story goes is that a fisherman in Thanh Hóa Province named Lê Thận accidentally caught the blade in his nets, brought it to his house, and forgot about it. Le Loi came to his house one day, the fisherman now one of the rising soldiers in Le Loi’s following, and saw the blade give off a beam in the corner of the house. The fisherman gave Le Loi the blade, which they found had “Thuận Thiên” or “heaven’s will” inscribed on it, and Le Loi found the second part of the sword, the hilt, in a tree some time later after a defeat from the Chinese army. These two pieces fit together perfectly, and it was said that when Le Loi used the sword it made him appear taller and more powerful. With the help of the sword, Le Loi was able to lead Vietnam to victory.
After Le Loi became king he went for a cruise around Hồ Lục Thủy (Green Water Lake) on a small boat when a turtle called the Golden Turtle emerged from the water, and, speaking in human language, asked the king to return the sword to his master, Long Vương (Dragon King). The kind surrendered the sword willingly, understanding that he was only meant to hold on to it for the purpose of freeing Vietnam, and no more. The turtle then disappeared back into the water and no one has been able to locate the sword to this day.
It is believed that the Golden Turtle that inhabits the lake today is the same turtle that took the sword from the King over 500 years ago. There have been a few turtles spotted in the lake throughout its history, but there is one that is a distinct species of its own, and the one believed to have been the one to receive the sword. On rare occasions, people catch a glimpse of the Golden turtle peeping its head above water before disappearing back into the lake’s green waters. Sometimes, the turtle has even been spotted rested on the little islet on the south-end of the lake. On the islet, there is not a small tower called the Thap Rùa (Turtle Tower). On the opposite end, there is another small islet where you can find the Ngoc Son Temple which you can reach by crossing The Huc (Morning Sunlight) Bridge.
Today, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is regularly visited by locals and tourists. In the morning hour as early as 5am you can see people dancing, walking, and teaching exercise classes around the lake. On these sidewalks, you don’t need to worry about motorbikes whizzing by you, so many like to come here to exercise in peace and escape the chaos of the busy downtown. The lake has been romanticized for centuries and is a popular spot for couples to walk side by side and enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes, you will see couples taking their wedding photos on the lake, along with just photoshoots in general. Depending on the season, the trees of decorating the lake change from green, to yellow, to bare, to reddish orange. Something about the waters of the lake just make it the perfect place to take a break and reflect. Ask any Hanoian, and they will have their own reason for cherishing the lake. Come visit at nighttime and you will see the sidewalks as well as the turtle tower be lit up, making the lake just as scenic as the daytime.
Whether you believe the legend of the “Returned Sword” and the turtle, Hoàn Kiếm Lake is truly one of Vietnam’s treasures. This lake has seen it all. Thousands, probably millions, have walked its edges since the beginning of Vietnam’s long 2000-year history and beyond, and just as many have lost tract of time gazing at its waters. Hoàn Kiếm is a truly beautiful and cherished place in Vietnam and we are sure that you too will fall in love with it during your visit. By Nancy Vazquez