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Lost splendor of Hoan Kiem Lake haunts a lover

(No.9, Vol.3, Oct 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Book cover of ‘Around Hoan Kiem Lake and Beyond’.

Photographer Quang Phung is an original Hanoian who set aside almost his entire life to take photographs of Hoan Kiem Lake [Lake of the Returned Sword], in Hanoi, one of the most important icons for Vietnamese. His book of photographs ‘Around Hoan Kiem Lake and Beyond’, published in 2011, constitutes only a small portion of his immense corpus on Hoan Kiem Lake. Today, he still ardently photographs Hoan Kiem Lake with all his emotions and experience. Viet Van talked with him about the lake.

It’s hard to believe that after so many years you are still not tired of Hoan Kiem Lake?!
‘How could I get tired of it when I still constantly see its beauty? Whether on days of blistering sun or pouring rain, I still walk out to Hoan Kiem Lake. Just look at these photographs I took only yesterday…’



Do you still remember the first time you went out to Hoan Kiem Lake?
(Pauses in silence…) I guess when I was about five years old [and my home was on Hang Gai St.], I went out to Hoan Kiem Lake for the first time. To me it was an adventure. Hoan Kiem Lake was like a door that opened up life for me.’

And your memories of that day?
‘At Hoan Kiem Lake on that day, many trees grew up naturally along the edge of the lake. Later, the French wanted to make the area around Hoan Kiem Lake into a botanical garden with abundant trees, and they brought teak trees from India. (Today, five trees as tall as a five story building remain; the teak leaves are as big as a fan).’
‘In the old days, the path around the edge of the lake was an all-dirt path. Grass grew, enshrouding the lake. Prawns as clear as glass inhabited the grass. All you needed was a half meter stick and a thread of string and you could snatch the prawn. The landscape and the people seemed intimate with one another.’

At that time, did anyone often go out to stroll around the lake and when was it most crowded?
‘Only original Hanoians who were here for ages stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, while peddlers and those working their trade don’t have free time to amble around the lake. Hanoians have lived in cramped townhouses for ages, so they really crave the space around Hoan Kiem Lake.’
‘I still recall that at the end of 1954, not long after the liberation of the capital, the Hanoi government issued a resolution that clearly indicated that Hoan Kiem Lake was a tranquil space bestowed by nature. Because of that, anything noisy or boisterous was pushed far away from Hoan Kiem Lake. Races were not organized and parades were not participated in around Hoan Kiem Lake. On the eve of the Lunar New Year in those years, nothing was organized at Hoan Kiem Lake out of fear that people would trample on the grass, pluck tree buds, and throw trash out on the lake. The lighting around the lake was also appropriate. Before the French occupation, there were fourteen poles around the lake. On top of each pole was hung a bronze oil lantern. At dusk, people would go light them. The setting was quite hallowed with a touch of something mysterious.’

Do you feel sad that Hoan Kiem Lake is like it is now?
‘I am forced to witness the gradual loss of the old trees. Because the roots of old trees like the Dracontomelon and Banyan tree shoot out gnarled roots, they chopped all the uneven roots of the old trees when paving the road, so when the wind blows lightly the trees can topple. And then around the lake, there must be 300-500 lights that are virtually headlights. People had to dig deep-down to 70cm-and chop down the roots of clustered trees. Then, when they lowered the subterranean electric cable, they had to cut tree roots.’

And are Hanoians also different?
Hoan Kiem Lake today has become a place for people from all over to rest. For those who have walked far and are tired, what could be more comfortable than lying down for respite on the stone benches at the edge of the lake? But many people lie down too much in an unsightly way. Even exercising around the lake should come to an end by 7am, but at 8 or 9am, many people still go bare-chested and wear shorts or pajamas to exercise, which is untoward. Recently there’s a ‘dance’ club that gathers at the nine-root freshwater mangrove tree and plays strident music, which wears on people out for a walk. One more notable thing is that the households that have dogs around the lake and belong to Hang Trong and Le Thai To wards all take their dogs out to the lake so they can relieve themselves. Many tourists have stepped on dog excrement, to their exasperation.

So according to you, what needs to be done in order to return Hoan Kiem Lake to its natural beauty?
Hoan Kiem Lake is one of Hanoi’s most precious treasures. Transforming Hoan Kiem Lake in the direction of modernization and ‘concretization’ is mistaken. Hoan Kiem Lake should not be dazzling like it is at present. Pay attention and attend to the nearly dozen trees that are threatened by termite nests. A culture and tourism police force needs to be set up in order to protect the cultural character of Hoan Kiem Lake. If a rickshaw driver bullies or imposes undue payment on a tourist, someone needs to be there to intervene right away. The organization of activities around Hoan Kiem Lake should also be a consideration to fend off the noise.

You took tens of thousands of photographs of Hoan Kiem Lake over almost sixty years. When you look back and compare the Hoan Kiem Lake of today with that of yesteryear, what emotion strikes you the hardest?
‘I’m almost eighty years old and on the last path of my life, so I am reminiscent, commiserative, and passionate about things of the past. Concrete buildings and skyscrapers cannot enter the memories of men. Modern life often leaves people jaded. Formerly, I used to think that the saying ‘when shall we get to the past?’ was comical, but now it’s truly heartrending. People could not imagine that Hoan Kiem Lake would be so polluted and riddled with garbage. So much money has been poured into it, yet without any thorough resolution…’



‘Hoan Kiem Lake remains a place that salves those in most pain. I’m accustomed to mothers who are fed up with their children, come out to Hoan Kiem Lake, and sit beneath the Brush Tower; the girls who are forsaken by their lovers and come out to sit at Hoan Kiem Lake; as well as the parting tears of many students when summer arrives.’
Photos provided by Viet Van

Photos provided by Viet Van
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