Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Temple of Jade Mountain

Very nearby to me is a lake known as Hoan Kiem. It is a very central area in Hanoi, with the Old Quarter with all its bustling touristy life on one side, and historic area with monuments and temples and small parks on the other, showcasing much of what Hanoi is proud of.

I had some time to kill this afternoon and I wanted to wander around it as I had been past it and it has some of the most beautiful lush trees hanging their sad branches down towards the green waters, making it a true oasis in the middle of Hanoi where many Vietnamese people go to relax with their partner, read a book, meditate or have a snooze.

Having so many noisy streets bounding it, it is perhaps amazing that people can switch off from the busy city around them and appreciate the tranquility that the lake provides, but it seems they do and as the taxis and motorbikes rush past on one side, and the cyclos pedal down the other amongst heavy traffic, people sit in the cool shade of the trees beside this beautiful lake and breathe a sigh of momentary relief.

Hoan Kiem Lake, or Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means “Lake of the Returned Sword” and the legend says that Emperor Lê Lợi handed back a magic sword called “Heavens Will” at this spot which he used to emerge victorious in the revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty to the Golden Turtle God Kim Qui who lived in the lake, thereby changing its name from Luc Thuy (“Green Water”) to its present name.

The building on the tiny island in the centre of the lake is known as Turtle Tower, or “Thap Rùa” and is part of the legend. The small island near the north side of the lake which is accessible by a small bridge is known as Jade Island on which stands “Đền Ngọc Sơn”, the Temple of the Jade Mountain. The temple honours Tran Hung Dao, a 13th century military leader. Even the bridge has a name; “The Huc”, meaning “Morning Sunlight Bridge”. Buildings on Jade Island include “Thap But” the Pen Tower, “Dai Nghien” the ink-slab, “Dac Nguyet” the Moon Contemplation Pavilion and “Đình Trấn Ba” the Pavilion against Waves, all of which have historical significance.

The Jade Island is currently accessible for a fee of 20,000 dong per adult and there are great opportunities for photographs and you will likely find far more Vietnamese people proudly taking their photo on this island than you will foreigners. Inside the temple, traditional souvenirs are sold, but thankfully noone will try and do the hard-sell on you. You can also hear a little bit of history inside from the attendants and see some traditional architecture, dining settings and shrines.

Personally I was wary of the large number of people going over on the bridge, but most people just walk around for five minutes and leave. Despite being a small island, there are plenty of places to sit and relax and if you’re walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and you want to take a break and grab something to drink, this is the place to do it although there is no snack shop on the island, there is a drinks fridge of sorts. I think the nicest thing about visiting this island temple is perhaps that because of its cultural significance to Vietnamese people, noone will run up insisting you buy a t-shirt or something. The souveniers are inside if you want them, but if you just want to relax by the lake and take some photos for your memories, you can do that without feeling pressured or rushed. Truly a beautiful place to relax and clearly a site of major cultural significance to Vietnam.

I had originally promised my friend Thao I would show her the best photos of Jade Island and the temple, but when they finished uploading and I reviewed them, I realised to my amusement that I had very few photos of the buildings themselves and had almost exclusively taken photos of people. I love photos of people, and if you are going to take photos of a Vietnamese cultural landmark it makes sense to have regular Vietnamese people in the photo enjoying it. The people who visit this temple centuries after its construction are as equally important as the structure itself and that is why it is in a way more important to me to show photographs of Vietnamese people relaxing at this location than to take bland photos of the architecture and shrines.

The Temple of the Jade Mountain today is a place for children to laugh and skip, for teenagers and parents to take photos by the bonsai tree which always stands at the end of the Pavillion against Waves, and for old men to sit around deeply engrossed in a game of cờ tướng (Chinese chess).

My favourite photos of the day ? So many to choose from because I loved the many photos of Vietnamese people relaxing in beautiful locations. The photo of the boy meditating was exciting to take, because I was so sure he would move before I snapped it, but it was edged out of the top three by the photo of the girl looking wistful on the tree stump for it’s still life and peacefulness, the brother and sister sitting on the stone bench in the shade for its innocence and beauty, and one with the most character of the day surely is the one of the old men playing cờ tướng.

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