Hoan Kiem Lake, Home of Hanoi’s Giant Turtle

HANOI, Vietnam — Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as Sword Lake, Ho Guom, or Lake of the Returned Sword) is at the very heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and a cultural heart of the city. And it’s rather beautiful.

Hanoi's Turtle Tower and Island on Hoan Kiem Lake Reflection
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Filed Under: Vietnam

There’s a lot to be said for having a body of water in the middle of a city. Hanoi has a lot of lakes, but Hoan Kiem Lake is in its cultural and historic heart. It may not be big–it’s much smaller than West Lake–but the Old Quarter wraps around it, making for a scenic and relaxing escape from the chaos and bustle of the Old Quarter’s streets.

In the middle of the lake is a small island with a small stone Pagoda. You can’t get to it–there are no bridges or boats to the island.

But you can get to the other slightly bigger island on the lake–Jade Island. To get there, you cross a small bright red wooden bridge (The Huc Bridge) that leads to the entrance of an 18th-century Buddhist temple–the Temple of the Jade Mountain.

The glassy waters on the lake at night set off the city lights beautifully, enhanced by more lights around parts of the lake wall and on Jade Island.

And then there are those turtles. The lake’s name translates as “Lake of the Returned Sword.” It’s based on a legend of a turtle stealing–or, more accurately, reclaiming–a sword from Emperor Le Loi. The story goes that the emperor had been given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) to smite the Chinese Ming Dynasty. After successfully fending off the invaders, the emperor was boating on Hoan Kiem Lake when a giant turtle rose up and snatched the sword from him and disappeared into the depths, never to be found again. It was explained as the Golden Turtle God reclaiming the magical sword.

There are, it turns out, giant turtles in Hoan Kiem Lake, but they’re very elusive and there’s probably only one of the revered creatures left in the lake. Sightings are rare.

But in April 2011, one of the famous turtles was captured for the first time to receive veterinary care. There are only three other living examples in this species known–one other in another lake in Vietnam and a pair in a zoo in China, so the long-term prospects for the species aren’t great, to say the least. The one in Hoan Kiem Lake was estimated at 80 to 100 years old and weighing in at around 440 pounds.

Photos of Hoan Kiem

Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake at Night with Lights
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
The Huc Bridge lit up with red lights. On the left is the main bank; on the right is Jade Island. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Turle Tower Hoan Kiem Lake in the Mist
Turtle Tower in the middle of the lake. It’s not accessible to visitors. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ngoc Son Temple Hanoi The Huc Bridge
The Huc Bridge during the day, looking towards Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain). Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Ngoc Son Temple Hanoi Turtle and Sword Painting
Some of the artwork depicting a turtle with a sword on its back on the gate to Ngoc Son Temple. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Group Doing Tai Chi at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
The banks of Hoan Kiem Lake are popular for the locals to do their morning Tai Chi. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
The Huc Bridge. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
An art sculpture in the form of a book celebrates the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. You can see The Huc Bridge in the background. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Hanoi Street in the Rain
A busy street on a side of the lake. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Hoan Kiem Lake with Couple on Park Bench
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Hope and Love for Peace Sculpture Hanoi
The Hope and Love for Peace Sculpture on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Hanoi's Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake at Night with Reflection
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Artist sketching at Hoan Kiem Lake
An artist sketching Turtle Tower in the smog. Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

What to Know Before You Go

It’s just part of the landscape of downtown Hanoi, so it’s accessible day and night.

You can’t go to the Turtle Tower pagoda in the middle of the lake that’s pictured in the top photo, but you can cross the red Huc Bridge to visit Ngoc Son Temple that juts out onto the lake.

More About Hoan Kiem Lake

  • Also known as “Sword Lake” or “Lake of the Restored Sword”.
  • Associated with a 15th-century legend involving Emperor Le Loi and a magical sword.
  • Located in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
  • Home to the Ngoc Son Temple, an 18th-century temple dedicated to various historical and mythological figures.
  • Features the Huc Bridge, a red wooden bridge connecting the temple to the lakeshore.
  • Turtle Tower, situated on an islet in the lake, symbolizes Hanoi’s history and legends.

Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as Sword Lake or Lake of the Restored Sword, is a significant cultural and historical site in Hanoi, Vietnam. Situated in the city’s bustling Old Quarter, the lake is central to a 15th-century Vietnamese legend involving Emperor Le Loi and a magical sword. According to the tale, the emperor received a sword from the Dragon King to fight against Chinese invaders. After successfully defending Vietnam, the sword was returned to the dragon in the lake.

The Ngoc Son Temple, located on a small island within Hoan Kiem Lake, is a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. Accessible via the iconic red Huc Bridge, the temple is dedicated to Confucian and Taoist philosophers, such as Van Xuong, and Vietnamese national heroes like General Tran Hung Dao. Visitors can admire the traditional Vietnamese architecture and learn about the temple’s history and significance.

Another notable feature of the lake is Turtle Tower, which stands on an islet in the southern part of the lake. The tower, also known as Thap Rua, commemorates the legendary tale associated with the lake and serves as a symbol of Hanoi. Early morning visitors to the lake can witness locals participating in yoga and other exercises, while on weekends, the surrounding area transforms into a lively walking street.

What’s Nearby to Hoan Kiem Lake

  • Hanoi Opera House: A beautiful colonial-era building showcasing performances and events.
  • Dong Xuan Market: A large, bustling market offering a variety of goods and local cuisine.
  • St. Joseph’s Cathedral: A neo-Gothic church dating back to the late 19th century.
  • The Temple of Literature: An ancient Confucian temple complex and Vietnam’s first national university.
  • Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre: A unique cultural experience showcasing traditional Vietnamese water puppetry.

How to Get to Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake is situated in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The nearest major airport is Noi Bai International Airport (HAN), located about 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the city center. From the airport, visitors can take a taxi or arrange a private transfer to reach the lake and surrounding attractions. Public transportation options, such as buses and the Hanoi Metro, are also available to navigate the city.

Hoan Kiem Lake FAQs

Where is Hoan Kiem Lake located?

Hoan Kiem Lake is located in the heart of Hanoi, Vietnam. It is situated in the city’s Old Quarter and is surrounded by historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops.

What is the size of Hoan Kiem Lake?

Hoan Kiem Lake is approximately 12 hectares (29.6 acres) in size. It has a circumference of about 1.75 km (1.09 miles).

What is the significance of Hoan Kiem Lake?

Hoan Kiem Lake, also known as the ‘Lake of the Returned Sword,’ is a symbol of Hanoi’s history and culture. According to legend, Emperor Le Loi returned a magic sword to the Golden Turtle God at this lake after successfully driving the Chinese out of Vietnam in the 15th century.

What are some popular attractions around Hoan Kiem Lake?

Popular attractions around Hoan Kiem Lake include the Ngoc Son Temple, the Huc Bridge, the Turtle Tower, and the Old Quarter. These attractions are easily accessible and provide a glimpse into the rich history and culture of Hanoi.

Is it possible to walk around Hoan Kiem Lake?

Yes, you can easily walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. A pedestrian path runs around the entire lake, allowing visitors to enjoy a leisurely stroll while taking in the beautiful surroundings and historical landmarks.

Are there any special events or activities at Hoan Kiem Lake?

Hoan Kiem Lake is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, with various events and activities taking place throughout the year. Some popular events include weekend night markets, cultural performances, and morning exercises by the lake.

Reading Recommendations

If you’d like to dive deeper with some reading before your trip or during, here’s an excellent list of books of various genres related to Hanoi put together by Vietnamese novelist and poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »