The legend of Hoan Kiem Lake

According to legend, Hoan Kiem Lake is where Le Loi returned his magic sword to the Golden Turtle.

The Story of Le Loi

Le Loi was born in about 1384 and is one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes. He was the youngest of three sons of an aristocratic nobleman in Lam Son, Thanh Hoa province, in the far south of the country. Le Loi became a landowner and an administrator in the area of his birth.

From 1407, Vietnam was under the domination of the Ming Chinese, who caused great hardship to the people. Le Loi pledged to free his country from Chinese rule after he personally witnessed the destruction of a Vietnamese village by a Ming military force.

In 1418, on the day after Tet, Le Loi resigned his position and moved into the hills near his home. From here he called on the people to join him and to rise up against the invaders. At the outset his force numbered about 500 people.  Under the leadership of Le Loi they used guerilla tactics, staging raids and ambushes against the Chinese army in the north, to undermine its morale.

By 1425, the revolt had spread throughout Vietnam and the Ming occupational army had been ground down and destroyed. The new Ming Emperor wished to end the war with Vietnam, but his advisors urged one more effort to subdue the rebellious province so he sent in a large army of some 100,000 men. While the Chinese thought this would suffice, Le Loi’s army was considerably larger, numbering about 350,000 soldiers as well as horses and elephants, Psychological warfare was also used and Le Loi’s military adviser, Nguyen Trai, stressed the importance of moral strength. He said it was “better to conquer hearts than citadels.”

The final battle took place in 1426 at Tot Dong. The Chinese general, Liu Shan, was captured and executed by the Vietnamese. Then the Vietnamese lured the Chinese army into Hanoi where it was surrounded and destroyed in a series of battles. All told, the Chinese army lost over 70,000 men.

Le Loi becomes King Le Thai To

In 1427, after ten years of war, the Chinese recognized the independence of the Viet people. The following year Le Loi became king with the title Le Thai To (founding king of the Le) and established his headquarters in Hanoi. He was generous to the defeated Chinese, giving them 500 junks and thousands of horses to take them back to China.

Once declared king, Le Thai To embarked on a significant reorganization of the Vietnamese government, clearly based on the Confucian system. The Le government rebuilt the infrastructure of Vietnam, constructing roads, bridges and canals. Land was awarded to soldiers who had contributed during the war against the Ming. Agriculture was encouraged, new currency was minted and new laws and reforms passed. The Confucian system of selecting government administrators by examination was restored and exams were held at regular intervals. The country was encouraged to be self-sufficient in food and became economically powerful. The Le Dynasty lasted until 1788, with Hanoi the center of government.

Le Loi is looked upon as the perfect embodiment of the just and wise leader. During the short time that he was a king he laid the foundations for the future greatness of Vietnam. Every town has a major street named after Le Loi. In Hanoi his royal name is used for Le Thai To street, where his statue, and a temple dedicated to him, stand.

The Legend of the Returned Sword

Of the many legends and stories told about Le Loi, the most famous concerns his magical sword. Similar to King Arthur and his sword Excalibur, Le Loi was said to have a sword of great power. The legend tells that the blade of the sword, inscribed with the words ‘The Will of Heaven’ (Thuan Thien), came from the Dragon King in his underwater palace. A fisherman, who later joined Le Loi’s army, caught the blade of the sword in his net. The hilt was found by Le Loi himself in a banyan tree. The stories claim Le Loi grew very tall when he used the sword and that it gave him the strength of many men.

The story relates how one day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam as an independent country, Le Loi was out boating on the Green Water Lake (Luc Thuy). Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Le Loi’s belt, and dived back into the depths, carrying the glowing sword in his mouth. Efforts were made to find both the sword and the turtle but without success. Le Loi then acknowledged that the sword had gone back to the Dragon King with the Golden Turtle (Kim Quy), and he renamed the lake ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword’ (Hoan Kiem Lake).

The Turtle Tower

At the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is an islet on which stands a small tower. Called Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), this structure honors the magic turtle that still guards the sword of Le Loi.

The story goes that around 1886, a Vietnamese mandarin in the service of the French, persuaded the government to allow him to build a tower on the islet. What he kept secret was his intention to bury his father’s remains on the Turtle Islet, a place considered favorable according to traditional feng shui belief. However, the people of the city discovered his plot and they removed his father’s body.

On the top of Turtle Tower there used to stand a version of the Statue of Liberty, placed there by the French. The statue was destroyed when the Tran Trong Kim government took over the city from the French administration in 1945.

Although only a shell of a building, with pointed Gothic arches not at all in the style of Vietnamese architecture, and built by one remembered as a traitor, Thap Rua has become an important symbol of both peace and patriotism to the people of Hanoi. The revolutionary flag was often hoisted here during the era of resistance to French rule. The green area around the tower is where the turtles bask in the sun and lay their eggs./.