The legend of the turtle and the sword- Hoan Kiem Lake

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Unaffected by the hustle and bustle happening around, Hon Kiem Lake looks so still and unperturbed like a green mirror. On a pleasant february morning eleven years back I bade good bye to Hanoi after a month long stay in Nghệ An -a province in North Vietnam- hardly expecting to visit Hanoi once again. If you wish for something with all your heart it’s likely that the wish may be fulfilled. I was reassured of this when I could go to Ha Long Bay a second time. The weather in December remains the same then and now; the air was cold and the sky was a dull grey. Ravi and I have a photograph (bigger than a postcard) of a ten year younger us with broad smiles, standing in front of the lake. I was excited to visit the lake once again and was eager to see the historic red Huc bridge ( The Rising Sun Bridge). The picturesque surroundings of the lake, the Turtle Tower on a small islet, the bright red Huc bridge and a temple on another small island in the lake called Jade Mountain island are the chief attractions in the Old Quarter of the city.

Ho Hoan Kiem and Thap Rua

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Huc Bridge or The Rising Sun Bridge

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Hoan Kiem Lake or Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, (The Lake of the Restored Sword) also known as Ho Guom lake (Sword Lake) is located in the heart of the city in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Wide walkways, beautiful trees with leaves of different sizes and hues surround the lake. There are small patches of gardens and the place is the hub of  different activities. The lake premises vibrate with life- It is interesting to watch people from different walks of life; you get to see street vendors, people who come to discuss business, young couples, old people who play chess, the young who play a popular Vietnamese street game where the players kick a feathered shuttlecock with foot, tourists taking photographs. Nonetheless it has its own laidback charm unlike the sophisticated Saigon. We tried to recall the exact location of the famous Restaurant Bobby Chin. It was somewhere in the perimeter facing Hoan Kiem Lake, but is closed now. Some years back we met Bobby Chin with his crew in a small Indian restaurant in Saigon and later he opened a restaurant in Saigon too. I treasure a copy of his ‘Wild, Wild East’.

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Old and young, regular walkers and tourists

Favourite photo spot for the newly weds

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In 15th century, Vietnam was invaded by the Chinese and a great hero called Le Loi resolved to vanquish the Chinese and free his country. Legend has it that a giant golden turtle swam to Le Loi and handed over a sword with magical powers to help him conquer the invading Chinese army. The sword, Thuận Thiên (Heaven’s Will) became synonym for victory. After ten years of war the Ming Chinese were vanquished by him and Vietnam was independent. From then Le Loi was known as King Le Thai To. While boating in the Green Water Lake (Luc Thuy) a giant golden turtle appeared and took the Le Thai To’s sword from the scabbard and disappeared into the deep waters. The king knew that the sword was restored to its rightful owner and he renamed the lake, Hoan Kiem Lake. Lo! Legends of different lands have many similarities. It is interesting to draw parallels between legends and stories. In the Arthurian Legends, The Lady of the Lake hands over the powerful sword to King Arthur and after his last battle Arthur orders his trusted knight Bedevere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. The knight is tempted to keep the sword for himself and fails twice to accomplish his mission but a third time he throws the sword into the lake. A woman’s arm rises, takes the sword and silently slips under the water.

 

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 People walking across the red Huc Bridge to the Ngoc Son temple

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In honour of the giant turtle there is a small tower on a small islet in the lake. This is known as Thap Rua or Turtle Tower which was built in the 19th century to commemorate the golden turtle. This three tiered tower is another focal point of Hanoi. Turtles have a prominent place in Vietnamese beliefs and legends and are considered sacred. Turtle Tower is illuminated after sunset and the shimmering reflection in the waters provides a magnificent sight.

Thap Rua/ Turtle Tower

 

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Turtle Tower during day light and at night

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At the northeastern edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, there stands a temple called Ngoc Son temple dedicated to a national hero and ancient philosophers. A great military hero of the 13th century Tran Hung Dao sits on the principal altar, Van Xuong a scholar and La To a patron saint of physicians, Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian master are also honoured in the temple . The war hero Tran Hung Dao defeated the Mongol army sent by the emperor Kublai Khan. The same Kublai Khan who appears in  Coleridge’s Kubla Khan!!  (A favourite poem of mine…”In Xanadu did Kubla Khan /a stately pleasure-dome decree”) Here, in Hanoi a temple is constructed to honour a general who defeated an armed force of thousands of soldiers sent by the Mongol emperor Kubla Khan!  Ngoc Son temple stands on a small island called Jade Island. The temple was crowded when we visited. A 6ft long giant soft shelled turtle weighing 250 kg is preserved inside the temple. People believe that this is the legendary golden turtle. It is also commonly believed that the descendants of the giant turtle still live in the lake.

Den Ngoc Son or The Temple of the Jade Mountain

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The altar with offerings. Not to miss the fragrant citrus fruit called Buddha’s Hand

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The Giant Turtle- the preserved soft-shelled turtle on display

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Fragrance of Faith

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The iconic scarlet red Huc Bridge ( Morning Sunlight Bridge or Rising Sun bridge) spans across the lake connecting the lake bank to the temple of the jade mound. This arched wooden bridge painted bright red is stark and is a spectacle to see. Many tourists and locals were standing on the bridge taking photos of the Turtle Tower and the temple.

 

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Eleven years ago, in 2005 a friend in Hanoi gave us a parting gift on our way to the airport and he told us that it was a framed embroidery piece depicting Hon Kiem lake and the pagoda. Unfortunately our baggage weighed over the airline limits and another friend took it from the airport for safekeeping. Unlike the Giant Golden Turtle who recovered its sword we could not restore that piece of art till now. Many a time I have tried to imagine the picturesque beauty of that unopened gift.

 

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