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Early morning sees Hoan kiem Lake at its best, stirring to life as walkers, joggers and Tai chi enthusiasts limber up in the half-light. Space is at a premium in this crowded city, and the lake’s strip of park meets multiple needs, at its busiest when lunch – hour hawkers are out in of force, and easing down slowly to evenings of old men playing chess and couples seeking twilight privacy on benches half – hidden among the willows. The lake itself is small –you can walk round it in thirty minutes – and not particularly spectacular, but to Hnoians this is the soul of their city.

Squat, three-tiered pavilions known as the Tortoise Tower ornament a tiny island in the middle of Hoan Kiem, “Lake of the Restored Sword’. The names refer to a legend of the great Vietnamese hero, Le Loi, who led a successful uprising against the Chinese in the fifteenth century. Tradition has it that Le Loi netted a gleaming sword while out fishing in a sampan and when he returned as King Le Thai To, after ten years of battle, he wanted to thank the spirit of the lake. As he prepared the sacrifice there was a timely peal of thunder and the miraculous sword flew out of its scabbard, into the mouth of a folder turtle sent by the gods to reclaim the weapon. At least one hardy giant turtle still lives in the lake, but the one you’re most likely to see is a heavily varnished specimen captured in 1968. It’s preserved and on view on a second island accessible via the striking The Huc Bridge, an arch of red-lacquered wood poetically labeled the “place where morning sunlight rests”. Beside the bridge stands a nine-meter-high obelisk, the Writing Brush Tower, on which three outsized Chinese characters proclaim “a pen to write on the blue sky”.

Crossing over to the island you find the secluded Den Ngoc Son, “temple of the Jade Mound”, sheltering among ancient trees. This small temple was founded in the fourteenth century and is dedicated to an eclectic group: national hero General Tran Hung Dao, who defected the Mongols in 1288, sits on the principal altar; Van Xuong, God of Literature; physician La To; and a martial arts practitioner, Quan Vu; in the antechamber, look out for the dragon heads, carved with bulbous noses and teeth bared in manic grins.

 

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