(No.2, Vol.5,Mar-Apr 2015 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Photo: Tran Quang Tuan
Photo: Do Huu Tien
Photo: Bui Dang Thanh
Hoan Kiem Lake from the air in early 20th century.
Photo from the archive of Nguyen Anh Tuan
Photo: Duy Tuong
Photo: Lai Dien Dam
Photo: Lai Dien Dam
A turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake.
Photo: Ha Dinh Duc
Describing the image Hoan Kiem Lake or Sword Lake,
and analysing its delicate but no-less-important role in creating the architecture and urban signature of Hanoi is absolutely not easy. The lake is considered as the culmination of myths, the foundation of beauty, the heart of Hanoi, a wonderful bucket of flowers in the centre of the city. It’s the place people live in the present, the past and the future at the same time.
A rich history of national mythology, a favourable location and convenience for shopping, walking and contemplation all work together to give the lake a special charm. Since the colonial days, the French have done much to add value to this spot by applying modern urban planning. They scraped the bottom of the lake, built a stone embankment, planted trees, and surrounded the lake with parks and squares, adding more functionality with each component. After the liberation, the lake became a space for the occasional promenade and for people from the countryside to stop for an ice-cream, crowded only during the New Year days. Then, little by little, the need for a leisurely walk grew. Water, big green trees, a feeling of space and spirituality combine to make the place more relaxing than elsewhere in the city.
The symbolic value of water
Originally, Hanoi was surrounded by rivers and protected by dikes. The change of flow formed countless lakes, some connected by underground channels. The lakes are a signature feature of Hanoi that contributes to the feng shui, architecture and personality of the city itself. The lake’s quiet blue mirror seems to reflect our glorious past and impresses with tranquillity and fertility. The water and trees represent Vietnamese human nature and way of life.
Few places in Hanoi have as many intermingling cultural layers and features as the Hoan Kiem Lake. Remnants of the feudal era seem so timid among the modern structures. Something French still hangs on tight here. Many new boxy structures try to stand tall to show a new vitality, but their immaturity is quite obvious. The dwellers around the lake have also changed a lot. Newcomers have replaced those who used to make the place feel unique. But some of the old habits have survived. Young ones still love to date here. Aged people seem to never have left their chess boards and marble benches. Some even come here to discuss literary issues. The lake is really the best place to learn about the city’s life, because its look and feel changes constantly and yet remains constant. It is the centre which blows life into all activities. It witnessed all the ups and downs of history. The very special Hanoi way of life seems to have spread out from right here.
Modern cities boast vertical high-rises which grow taller and taller. In Hanoi, the space over lake surfaces creates a balance and difference for the city. A lake is an entity in its own right, and also a vital component of the whole. It gives air and space to the city, reduces population density, and relieves pressure and anxiety. By its location, the Returned Sword Lake creates a mutually beneficial relationship between the Ancient Quarter and the French Quarter. It is the most poetic feature a city like Hanoi can dream about, and it has it all.
Legend and symbol
It is one of the last oases in the city where one can find open-air refuge from the fuss of the ever-advancing real estate business. Perhaps that’s because the lake is a legend and a symbol, spiritual and sacred, mythical and poetic. The legend of the sword and the golden turtle is mentioned often, and each time an enormous old turtle emerges on the lake surface, the people Hanoi once again feel a surge of deepest emotions. It is also the place that hosts many cultural and social events, where cultural values and spiritual bonds have crystallized through a thousand year history. Hoan Kiem Lake is part of the city and the country it represents, a materialization of what our people have purified and refined, which is simplicity, spontaneity, harmony and sophistication.
- ‘Ho Guom ngay va dem’ (Sword Lake, day and night), by Phan Cam Thuong, printed on Ray of Light journal no. 3/2004.
- ‘Ha Noi va hinh tuong cua nuoc’ (Hanoi and the symbolism of water), Christian Pðdelahere de Loddis, in the book ‘Ha Noi Chu Ky Cua Nhung Doi Thay’ (Hanoi, cycle of change), Science and Technology Publishing House, 2003.