29/09/2009 | 08:57:44

Hoan Kiem lake

The area around Hoan Kiem Lake represents the physical heart and spiritual soul of Hanoi. Many Hanoi residents do not feel their day is complete without a visit to the lake, especially at times of changing seasons. To catch a glimpse of the head of a giant turtle rising out of the water is considered extremely lucky. Walking around the lake, you can see aspects of the city as it was formally, as it is now and, increasingly, as it will be in the future.

The lake, known in the past as Luc Thuy (Green Lake) and Le Petit Lac (Small Lake) is now called Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Returned Sword). The area surrounding the lake is often affectionately referred to as Bo Ho (Lake Shore).

Hoan Kiem Lake in the past

Hanoi has been the capital city for almost a thousand years. Ly Thai To founded the city in 1010, calling it Thang Long (ascending dragon) after seeing a dragon rise to the sky as he sailed up the Red River.

As the city grew, the Citadel became the center of administration, but the people of Hanoi lived and worked around Hoan Kiem Lake, in the part of the city now known as the Old Quarter. It is here that the craft guilds set up their workshops to meet the needs of the mandarins and the wealthy, as well as the artisans and poorer members of society.

The lake was linked to the To Lich River, which in turn flowed into the Red River enabling small boats to come into the center of the city. Naval exercises took place in its waters and the main access to the surrounding temples was by boat. The lake area was not as clearly defined as today and around its green waters was a marshy area of ‘villages’ and temple complexes, linked by narrow roads and wooden bridges. The lake was a source of fish, with rice, fruit and vegetables grown in the fertile soil. In the past, the life of the city was in the lake, whereas now it flows around it.

For a short time in the 1800s, Nguyen kings moved the seat of government from Hanoi to Hue, but by the end of that century it was once again in Hanoi. While not the capital, the city was still important and it was during that time the Bao An Pagoda and the Ngoc Son Temple were built. The former is no longer standing but the latter is still one of the most visited and important temples of the city.

In the sixty-five years of the French colonial era, Hanoi was the capital of both Tonkin and the French Indochinese Union (Tonkin, Annam, Cochin-China, Laos and Cambodia) and was considered the Paris of the East. From 1886 the area around the lake was drained and the waters enclosed. Existing buildings were razed to make way for the tree-lined boulevards seen today.  Hoan Kiem Lake was the site of many imposing administrative buildings, with their slate roofs and shuttered windows that still form part of today’s landscape.

Ly Thai To, the King who founded the city so long ago, stands large and proud in the park named after him, looking towards the lake from the east. Others who have played an important part in the history of both Vietnam and Hanoi are recognized in the temples and pagodas around the lake.

However, the most important of these is Le Loi, who became king Le Thai To in 1428 and founder of the Le dynasty. It is his legend that gives the lake its name ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword’. A small statue of Le Loi looks towards the lake from a tall pillar on the west side.

 Hoan Kiem Lake today

Both Vietnamese and foreign visitors to Hanoi are drawn to the area around  Hoan Kiem Lake. A picturesque oasis in the middle of a busy city, the lakeside is attractive for walking, exercising, socialising and relaxing. It is also a key area for the business, cultural, social and religious events of the people of Hanoi. Early in the morning, even in winter, it is a place of activity when groups of men and women come together to practice Tai Chi, often with large bright red fans.

Others may be jogging or walking. Ho Chi Minh stressed the importance of physical exercise to keep the body and mind healthy. A smattering of foreigners, also enjoying exercise in the early morning air, often joins Hanoi residents.

As you stroll around the lake later in the day, you will see chess games in progress, lovers sitting side by side, elderly men drinking tea while chatting or reading, tourists both foreign and local, admiring the sights, and people praying. During the time of the war between Vietnam and the United States, Hanoi was bombed. Underground shelters were built, allowing people to open the round lids and drop down to safety.

By day, the intense green color of the water, caused by copper deposits in the ground under the lake, blends with the profusion of trees shading the grassy borders. After dark the lake takes on a magical appearance, with the lights on Turtle Tower joining those from surrounding buildings. It is late into the night before the roads and walkways around Hoan Kiem Lake become quiet and empty.

Places of Worship

Places of worship in Vietnam reflect religious complexities. There are different types of religious buildings. A temple is a place for the worship of various saints and heroes, both national and local. A pagoda is a place of worship housing one or more statues of Buddha (and sometimes having a monastery attached), but within the complex there is often an altar to the Mother Goddess along with statues of Taoist gods, deceased monks, heroes and learned people. There are also communal houses that serve a variety of social and religious functions.

Buddhism spread throughout Vietnam from the coastal region inland along the Red River, brought by monks from India and Sri Lanka. In northern Vietnam, the Mahayana school of Buddhism is followed, which believes in the compassionate path of the Bodhisattva and the potential of Buddhahood for all people. Anyone who practices wholeheartedly for the liberation of all beings from the cycle of suffering can be called a Bodhisattva.

Both pagodas and temples can be found around Hoan Kiem Lake./.

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