Hanoi's Lakes - Hoan Kiem + West Lake

    Hanoi is home to several lakes, of which Hoan Kiem Lake between the Old Quarter and the French Quarter is the most famous. However, there are several other lakes in Hanoi, including West Lake, Thien Quang Lake, and Truc Bach Lake. When visiting Hanoi, be sure not to miss its lakes, which are one of the most unique features of this bustling capital.

    Hoan Kiem Lake

    Hoan Kiem Lake is a relatively small lake, with its banks turned into a lovely park. “Ho Hoan Kiem” translates literally as “Lake of the Restored Sword”. The lake takes its name from an ancient legend, in which the emperor Le Loi returned a magic sword to the Golden Turtle God who resided in the lake. Today, the lake holds a small pagoda in its centre known as Turtle Tower (or Thap Rua) in honour of the sword's return.

    Besides the legend, real soft-shell turtles can sometimes be spotted in the lake. These large turtles are critically endangered animals, so spotting one is a real treat.

    Near Hoan Kiem's northern shore is Jade Island, home to the Jade Mountain Temple (or Ngoc Son Temple). Erected in the eighteenth century to honour a thirteenth century military leader, you can reach the temple by crossing a bright red wooden bridge.

    The park around Hoan Kiem Lake is usually filled with street vendors, old men playing chess, and, if you get to the park early enough in the morning, locals beginning their day with Tai Chi.

    West Lake

    West Lake (or Ho Tay) is located in the very centre of Hanoi. The largest lake in Hanoi, its shore runs 17 km. Surrounding West Lake are well-tended gardens, high-end hotels, and villas. A popular place for recreation, West Lake has long been a central part of life in Hanoi. The Vietnamese have several legends surrounding the creation West Lake, including a story of an evil, nine-tailed fox who wanted to harm local residents, and a giant whose bronze bell brought a rampaging golden buffalo to the area. In actuality, however, the lake was formed when the red river changed its course.

    Throughout history, West Lake has been a key feature of Hanoi. Kings built palaces and temples around the lake, and today's “modern palaces” of high-end villas, hotels, and restaurants continue that tradition. Points of interest for history buffs are the Tran Quoc Pagoda (the oldest pagoda in all of Vietnam), and the Quan Thanh Temple (one of ancient Hanoi's Four Sacred Temples).

    Thien Quang Lake

    Not far from West Lake, Thien Quang, which means “Buddha's Light”, was named for a village located along the southeastern corner of the five hectare lake. Other villages also surrounded the lake, but as Hanoi grew, these villages were absorbed by the city. Unfortunately, the French filled in part of the lake in order to build more streets in the 1930s, transforming the lake into its present size and shape. The traditional village populations at that time were displaced, most of them moving to the western side of the lake (today, 31 – 33 Tran Binh Trong Street).

    Also known as “Halair Lake” and “Halais Lake”, Thien Quang today occupies a relatively quiet area, surrounded by a park with walking trails. Visitors might see young boys fishing with bamboo poles along the lake's edge.

    Truc Bach Lake

    Students of the American Vietnam War may know Truc Bach Lake as the place where the American 2008 presidential candidate and Arizona senator, John McCain, was shot down. McCain parachuted from his plane into the lake and nearly drowned. A group of Vietnamese men pulled him from the lake, at which point he was mauled by a mob and made a prisoner of war. To this day, a monument erected in celebration of this event stands on the western shore of the lake.

    Built in the 1600s when a narrow dyke was constructed in order to divide West Lake for the purpose of raising fish, Truc Bach Lake is dotted with historically significant sites. The Vien Truc Lam palace is one of these, which was originally a place of worship, and later became a prison for “errant ladies”. The ladies living in the prison were forced to weave, and the silk fabric they produced there became famous throughout Hanoi. On the southwestern corner is the Holy Mandarin Temple, and in the east is Chau Long pagoda. An Tri temple is also nearby.

    Hanoi's lakes, along with the parks and historical landmarks surrounding them, are definitely worth a visit as you explore Hanoi. If possible, try to make it to the lakes early one morning as the sun is rising. West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake especially are very beautiful as the sun comes up, and a beer on West Lake watching the sun set is a great way to end a hard day's exploring.