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What to see in Hanoi - Part 4

 

Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake situated in the heart of Hanoi, this delightful body of water also lies close to the hearts of the Vietnamese people. With legend in the early 15th century, during the Minh Chinese occupation, General Le Loi was presented with a magical sword by a divine, golden turtle, which lived in the lake’s waters.

With the help of this sword, Le Loi expelled the Chinese from Thang Long, presently - Hanoi and established himself as Emperor Le Thai To. Some time later, when the emperor was sailing on the lake, the divine turtle once again rose to the surface of the lake and reclaimed the sword. Since then, the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem or the lake of Restored Sword.

 

 

In the mid-19th century, a small pagoda called Thap Rua or Turtle Tower was built to commemorate this supernatural event. Located on an islet in the center of the lake, the structure has since become a prominent city icon.

On an island at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake stands Den Ngoc Son or Jade Mountain temple, one of the most beautiful and revered religious buildings in the capital. The temple can be accessed by an attractive red-painted, arched wooden bridge. This is the celebrated The Huc or Rising Sun Bridge. Dating from the Nguyen Dynasty in the early 1800s, the temple’s building is exquisitely preserved. Decorated with upswept eaves and elaborate carved dragons, the predominant colors are red, gold, yellow and black. The temple was established by a mandarin named Nguyen Van Sieu. A stylized stone ink slab rests atop the temple’s gate, while nearby, a tapering stone pillar represents a traditional writing brush and called Pen Tower. The ideograms on the stele translate as “writing on a clear sky.” In the antechamber, a giant turtle that died in the lake in 1968 is carefully preserved. Den Ngoc Son is dedicated to the spirits of the soil, medicine and literature as well as to Tran Hung Dao, the general who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century.

To the east of the lake is the large, bronze Statue of Ly Thai To, honoring the great founder of Thang Long. The statue, which has already become quite popular with Vietnamese and foreigners to Hanoi, is venerated with incense and flowers.

Today, Hoan Kiem lake is one of the city’s most popular venues, generally packed with couples taking a stroll, people practicing Tai Chi and old men playing chess. The lake also plays a major role during the city’s Tet celebrations with stages for live music and a huge fireworks display.

 

Ngoc  Son Temple

Hoan Kiem Lake was already considered the most beautiful lake in Hanoi when Ngoc Son Temple was built on an island in the 19th century. Initially, the temple was called Ngoc Son Pagoda and was later renamed Ngoc Son Temple, since temples are dedicated to saints.

Saint Van Xuong, considered to be one of the brightest stars in Vietnam's literary and intellectual circles, was worshipped there. National hero Tran Hung Dao is also worshipped after he led the Vietnamese people to victory over the Yuan aggressors.

The temple as it is today is the result of renovations made by Nguyen Van Sieu in 1864. A Confucian scholar, Nguyen Van Sieu had a large pen-shaped tower built at the entrance of the temple. On the upper section of the tower, also called Thap But, are three Chinese characters Ta Thanh Thien, which literally means "to write on the blue sky” is to imply the height of a genuine and righteous person's determination and will; Dai Nghien, meaning "ink stand", is carved from stone resembling a peach placed on the back of the three frogs on top of the gate to the temple; and The Huc, meaning "where rays of morning sunshine touch".           

 

 

On the way to the temple there are several parallel sentences (cau doi), written on the walls. These cau doi were part of traditional word puzzles played by educated individuals.

The lake and the temple offer plenty of trees and shaded spots in which to escape the busy city streets. To get there head towards the old town and the main post office which is located next to the lake. Tickets are purchased at a booth located on the left-hand side before you cross the bridge. The temple opens at 08:00 and closes at 17:00 every day and its best to get to the lake as early as possible to watch the locals do their morning yoga and Tai Chi. To get to the temple, walk across the flag-lined bright red Huc Bridge ( The Huc Bridge) across to Jade Island.

 

National Museum of Vietnamese History

The National Museum of Vietnamese History is housed in a magnificent example of Indochinese architecture, which was until 1910 the French consulate and the residence of the governor general.

 

 

The building was also home to the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO), during which time it became a museum to exhibit EFEO finds. Over time the building deteriorated, and it was not until the early 1930s, following a seven-year renovation, that what you can see now was realised. The entrance gives on to an impressive two-storey rotunda with exhibits all around and in many galleries to the rear.

The contents are as fascinating as the building. The ground floor traces Vietnam's ancient history, from the first Neolithic finds through to those of the 15th century. Some items date back as far as 10,000 BC and feature more than just the requisite pottery shards and axe heads. The jewellery, tools and household items archaeologists have unearthed -- along with human and animal remains -- paint a compelling picture of the people who inhabited the region long ago, and provide a sense of how they are tied to Vietnam's modern inhabitants. There's also an excellent selection of bronze drums dating back as far as 500 BC. Ancient military history is also touched on. Corny dioramas of famous battles aside, some of the wooden spikes used by Tran Hung Dao to skewer the Mongolian fleet in 1288 are on display.

The upstairs of the rotunda has a small though impressive collection of Champa pieces -- if you missed the Champa Museum in Da Nang, now is your chance. The rest of the second floor goes from the 15th century up to the 20th. Some familiar sights are here in terms of temple statuary and pearl-inlay furniture, but the statue of Guan Yin -- the 'thousand armed, thousand eyed' manifestation of the Bodhisattva -- is second only to the one in the Fine Arts Museum

Other unusual exhibits include a scroll from the 1920s adorned with the characters for Long Life written 100 different ways. There's also a sculpture garden on the west side of the building where some old pieces have been left to suffer the ravages of acid rain, including a stellae bearing the oldest epitaph in Southeast Asia, dating from the 3rd century AD.

There's a charge for photographing the exhibits, and the price goes up if you want them to open the displays to eliminate the glare. Guided tours are available on request.

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