Located in the heart of Vietnam’s capital, Sword Lake (also known as Hoan Kiem Lake) is a popular tourist destination famous for its peaceful and cultural beauty, along with historical significance. Its unique charm attracts millions of visitors each year, including locals and foreigners, making it a top choice for those visiting Hanoi.
History and Legend of Sword Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake plays a prominent role in the spiritual lives of Hanoians due to the legend surrounding its name. According to the tale, Le Loi, the King of Vietnam, came across a shining bar that his friend had caught while fishing. The King asked for the bar, brought it home, and turned it into a sword. The sword had the words “Thuan Thien” inscribed, meaning “harmonious with heaven.”
The King believed the sword was a gift from heaven and used it in the battle against the invading Ming army, eventually achieving victory. After that, while boating on the lake during a leisure trip, the King noticed an enormous golden turtle rising above the water. The turtle asked the King to return the sword to the Dragon King, and without hesitation, the King agreed. In commemoration of this event, the King renamed the lake from Luc Thuy (meaning “Green water”) to Hoan Kiem lake (meaning “the lake of the Returned Sword”). This story has been passed down through generations of Vietnamese and is even taught in schools today.
What to See around Sword Lake
Sword Lake is not only special in terms of its history but also due to unique characteristics not found elsewhere in Vietnam. The lake’s water displays different colors depending on the reflection of the sky, ranging from green to dark or light. Additionally, the lake is home to tortoises, and visitors may have the opportunity to see these giant animals rising out of the water to sunbathe.
Another feature that makes the lake worth visiting are the many attractions built inside it, such as Thap Rua (the Turtle Tower) and the beautiful The Huc Bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple. The temple’s unique architecture and setting are a must-see. Many other spots in the surrounding area are also worth a visit. Below are some recommended destinations.
1. Ngoc Son Temple
Located in the center of Sword Lake, Ngoc Son Temple is easily visible from any side of the lake. Its name, “Temple of the Jade Mountain,” is associated with the location of Jade Island. Built in the 18th century, the temple is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a war hero who successfully defended Vietnam against a Mongolian invasion with 300,000 soldiers in the 13th century. Visitors to the temple can explore its altars, artifacts, and a preserved 250 kg specimen of a giant turtle, all of which are fascinating features of this historical site.
2. The Huc Bridge
Built in the late 19th century, The Huc Bridge is a beautiful and historic masterpiece of traditional Vietnamese architecture, connecting the Ngoc Son Temple to the lake bank. The bridge has religious significance as a symbol of Buddhist architecture and is well-known as “the bridge where light is absorbed.”
The bridge is enchanting at sunset when its red color contrasts with the soft orange hues of the setting sun, and it is often illuminated at night, creating a stunning reflection on the water below. Overall, the Huc Bridge is a must-see attraction that embodies Vietnamese culture and history.
3. Turtle Tower
Located in the heart of Hoan Kiem Lake, Turtle Tower is a significant landmark, having witnessed a long period of Vietnam’s history with all its ups and downs. During the French occupation, the revolutionary flag of Vietnam was raised atop the tower, constantly reminding the Vietnamese to rise and fight against the invaders. Despite not being built in a specific Vietnamese style, it remains a symbol of patriotism and unity for the Vietnamese.
4. St. Joseph’s Cathedral
On the west side of the lake lies the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a historical building constructed in 1886. For more than a century, it has remained one of the largest churches in Hanoi and a popular place for local Vietnamese Catholics to come and pray. The church is open to the public, but please remember to dress appropriately and do not take pictures inside. After visiting the church, it would be a great idea to sit in a nearby café and enjoy the view of this beautiful structure.
What to Do around Sword Lake
As a focal point of Vietnamese and also Hanoians’ lives, Sword Lake has a lot of activities to do for both locals and tourists. Below are some suggestions of what to do around/near this beautiful lake.
1. Walking, Running and Biking
Walking or running around Sword Lake is an unforgettable experience. In the morning, visitors can take the opportunity to admire the sunrise by waking up early and heading to the lake. In the afternoon, they can catch a glimpse of the sunset, enjoy the beautiful landscapes, listen to music, and try local food.
In addition, visiting the Walking Street in Hanoi is worth a try. Located in the area around Sword Lake and the famous Old Quarter, the walking street is open every weekend from 7 pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday. People of all ages, locals and foreigners alike, often wear headphones and sunglasses while running around the lake. Cycling around the lake in the early morning and watching the Vietnamese locals practice Tai Chi is also a great experience.
2. Doing Exercise and Dancing
Sword Lake is a truly beautiful location to exercise and recharge. It is easy to see people from different backgrounds and walks of life coming together to do exercises or dance around the lakeside in the early morning and late afternoon. The lake is surrounded by a variety of plants and trees, creating a lush green landscape that is truly breathtaking. All these make Sword Lake a peaceful and relaxing place to be.
3. Watching Water Puppet Show in Thang Long Water Puppet Theater
The one-hour show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater includes 17 short sketches featuring traditional puppets. A Vietnamese orchestra accompanies the performance, playing music on wooden bells, drums, bamboo flutes, cymbals, and horns to enhance the stories.
The puppet performances attract audiences due to the flawless movements of the puppets controlled by puppeteers behind a screen. This theater is a popular attraction for Vietnamese locals and foreign tourists who want to experience and learn more about Vietnam’s legendary traditional art form.
Sword Lake, located in the heart of Hanoi city, is an excellent showcase of Vietnamese culture and the lifestyle of Hanoians. A visit to this iconic site is an absolute must when traveling to Hanoi. Plan your visit today and make some lasting memories of Vietnam.