Legend has it that Emperor Lê Lợi was fishing on Hoàn Kiếm Lake, when a turtle god emerged and asked for his magic sword. Although the sword, which he had used to defeat the invading forces of the northern Ming, was precious to him, Lê Lợi was not about to second-guess a god. The turtle took the sword in his jaws and brought it to the depths of the lake, where it remains to this day.
Today, Hoàn Kiếm functions as Hanoi’s heart and soul. It’s not a large lake, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty, atmosphere and popularity. This is where Hanoi spends its free time, whether to take a stroll, hang out with friends, or find foreigners to pester for interviews. (Maybe that last one is just bad luck, but during our short walk around the lake, we were approached for interviews four separate times.)
At a leisurely pace, a full circuit of the lake takes about 30 minutes to complete… which sounds easy, until you’ve experienced Hanoi’s summertime heat. We had timed our walk with dusk, avoiding the day’s worst temperatures, but were still drenched in sweat after about five minutes. The climate here is no joke; it was early June, and we were already hitting 100°F with sky-high humidity and a breeze which came straight from the depths of hell.
Until fairly recently, Lê Lợi’s Turtle God was thought to have been mere legend. But in 1968, a fisherman actually killed a huge turtle in the lake with a crowbar, proving in the saddest way possible that at least part of the legend was based in fact. Hanoi had to wait until 1998 for another sighting, when an amateur photographer captured evidence of another giant turtle in the lake. This one, affectionately named Cụ Rùa, was believed to be the very last surviving member of the species called Rafetus leloii. Sadly, his body washed up in January of 2016, dead of natural causes. The species is now classified as extinct, although given how elusive they are, there’s reason to hope that Hoàn Kiếm is hiding other turtles.
On a small island at the north of the lake, connected to the shore by the picturesque Cầu Thê Húc bridge, is Đền Ngọc Sơn, or the Temple of Jade Mountain. Built in the 19th century, the temple is dedicated to Prince Trần Hưng Đạo, a 13th-century hero who led the Vietnamese nation in fending off three Mongol invasions. The temple is lovely, although it also contains the stuffed body of the giant turtle which was bludgeoned to death in 1968.
Temple of Jade Mountain