Hoàn Kiêm Lake sits in the middle of Hanoi, both physically and metaphorically. It plays a vital part in the history of this ancient city. Locals and tourists alike are drawn to its shores for relaxation, exercise and people watching. Most places around the city identify themselves based on where they are in relation to the lake.
The literal translation of the name means something like “Lake of the Restored Sword”, referring to an ancient legend (of course). The story goes that a General forged a sword from metal given to him by a turtle in the lake, and used it to drive the Chinese back in a war. After the war, the same turtle asked the Emperor to return the sword back to the lake. He tossed the sword into the water, and the tortoise carried it back into the depths of the lake. This legend holds the imagination of all who visit, especially as they see the many large turtles living in the lake.
Legend or not, this lake holds a special place in the hearts of all Hanoians. The lake is host to a wide variety of activities all day. Every morning, locals will use the lake as a background for their morning exercise routines. There will be people practicing Tai Chi, groups of women doing dance routines, individuals performing calisthenics, and many other forms of exercise
During the daytime, the lake is a place for relaxation and respite from the heat. Retired men will play checkers, and tourists will walk along the lake pathway under the cover of massive trees. At night, the lake area is a haven for young couples sharing quiet moments. Photographers will often use the lake as a background for wedding photographs at night. It is a place for all Hanoians.
On a small island towards the north end of the lake, rests the Jade Mountain Temple, which is one of the most revered buildings in this capital city. You can reach the temple by crossing a red wooden arched bridge. This is definitely worth a visit to get a glimpse of the religious history of Hanoi.
Each time I visit Hanoi, I am eager to spend time at the lake. Because of its location, it’s the base for most people that visit Hanoi. Most of the best hotels are walking distance from the lake, as are most of the best restaurants. And the popular Old Quarter district borders the north end of the lake.
As a photographer, this is where I take a large part of my favorite photos from Hanoi. I would make a few visits at various times, because the scenery is always changing. My advice to get great photos of the lake is to rise early and arrive by 6 am, for the start of activities. You’ll be amazed at how many people are already there, starting their days with exercise. The locals are usually quite happy to let you photograph them, and even happier if you join in.
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