Moon gazing pavilion
Dragon headed horse relief
Cầu Thê Húc Bridge
Hoàn Kiêm Lake, lake of the returned sword
Giant golden incense burner
Entrance gate
Hoàn Kiêm Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tháp Bút, Pen Tower
Koi fish
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Legends, myth and marvellous sights come together in a remarkable location

Hanoi, Vietnam

Located in northern Vietnam, the thousand-year-old capital of Hanoi is a blend of historical fascination and bustling modernity. At the heart of this city lies a lake. Surrounded by three main streets – Hàng Khay, Lê Thái Tổ and Đinh Tiên Hoàng, the bustling streets do nothing to dampen the quiet magnificence of the waters and surrounding landmarks. Back when the country was divided by kingdoms, Hoàn Kiếm Lake served as a parade ground for the royal court. Comprising an area of twelve hectares, now the lake sits at the forefront of public life. Tourists and locals alike regularly flock to its waters, which comes as no surprise. Hoàn Kiếm offers something for everyone – history enthusiasts, the spiritually inclined or aesthetic admirers.

Ming general Zhang Fu

We begin the story by rewinding the clock about six hundred years. In 1407, the kingdom of Đại Việt (modern-day Vietnam) was undergoing its fourth era of northern domination. Following the Ming invasion of the late fourteenth century, the Chinese government established an occupation that lasted twenty years. Ming general Zhang Fu, a huge proponent of Vietnam’s absorption into the Chinese empire, claimed that over one thousand members of Vietnam’s elite wanted to be recognised by the reigning government. However, this occupation was not welcomed by all. While there were pockets of approval for the Chinese settlers, local dissidence and revolts flared up.

 Vietnamese independence from China

Among the rebellion’s leaders was Lê Lợi. Born into a prominent landowning family, Lê Lợi was a senior scholar-official until the Chinese came into power. Refusing to serve the new rulers, he raised arms against them. As the years went on and the fighting showed no signs of ending, the Ming Emperor wanted to cede Vietnam and shift focus on political tensions further north. But general Zhang Fu was determined to bring Vietnam into the fold. It wasn’t until 1428 that the Chinese occupation came to an end, and Lê Lợi helped declare Vietnamese independence from China.

Emperor Lê Thái Tổ

Once Lê Lợi’s army secured the lowlands, they steadily forced the Chinese to retreat and successfully recaptured Hanoi in 1426. Lê Lợi’s victorious recovery of Vietnam led to him becoming the country’s most honoured mediaeval hero. He then ascended the throne as the emperor Lê Thái Tổ and established the Later Lê dynasty, which lasted for nearly 360 years.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake legend

 Going out onto the capital’s lake, Lê Lợi intended to enjoy a day of boating. Out of nowhere, a large golden turtle named Kim Quy rose above the waters. The turtle asked for the return of the magical sword the Sea God gave him, back to the Dragon King. Lê Lợi did as the magical turtle requested. To commemorate this event, the emperor changed the lake’s former name Lục Thủy (green water) into Hoàn Kiếm, the lake of the returned sword.

Cầu Thê Húc Bridge

In the northeast corner of Hoàn Kiếm, a broad brick pathway leads towards a stunning red lacquered bridge. At the end of the brick road sits the wooden bridge, named Cầu Thê Húc (the bridge where light is absorbed or welcoming the morning sunlight bridge). Constructed in 1865, the design of the lacquered wooden structure is typical of the Nguyen dynasty. On the bridge, architects poetically labelled it with the words “the place where morning sunlight rests”.

Pen Tower

The aptly named Tháp Bút (Pen Tower) was designed to resemble a pen with its nib pointing to the sky. Built in 1865, the tower was commissioned by scholar Nguyễn Văn Siêu. Four metres tall, Tháp Bút is comprised of five sections. In its body, the words “Ta Thien Thanh”, meaning “Writing to the blue sky”, are emblematic of the harmony Sieu envisioned between nature and people.

Moon Gazing Pavilion

The entryway, called Đắc Nguyệt Lâu (moon gazing pavilion), is a square open construction. Above the passing point, a circular window opens to each cardinal point. The wall of each window is decorated with an opulent painted bird and Chinese calligraphy. Stepping inside the temple grounds, bougainvillaea blooms in sunset oranges, fuchsia pink and soft cream tones. Dragons and turtles are common motifs throughout the compound, as are phoenixes and turtles. Broad-leafed palm trees, daisies and frangipani trees snake through the perimeter and interior.

Even as never-ending traffic goes on around the lake, Hoàn Kiếm exudes an unaffected serenity. No surprise that no matter the hour, there are always people flocking to its waters for a moment of peace.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn