Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

Location: Hoan Kiem Lake is located in the center of Hanoi.

Characteristic: Hoan Kiem Lake also called Lake of the Restored Sword. The name Lake of the Restored Sword is derived from a legend.

Hoan Kiem Lake is an enchanting body of water right ill the heart of Hanoi. Legend has it that in the mid-15th century, Heaven gave Emperor Ly Thai To (Le Loi) a magical sword which he used to drive the Chinese out or Vietnam. One day alter the war, while out boating, he came upon a giant golden tortoise swimming on the surface of the water; the creature grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of the lake. Since that time, the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) because the tortoise restored the sword to its divine owners.

The forlorn Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower), topped with a red star, on an islet in the middle of the lake, is often used as an emblem of Hanoi. Every morning around 6 am, local residents can be seen doing their traditional morning exercises, jogging and playing badminton around this lake.

West Lake (Ho Tay)

Location: West Lake is in Tay Ho District, Hanoi.

Characteristic: West Lake, also called Ho Tay, is the biggest lake in central Hanoi, covering 500ha. In the past, West Lake used to be part of the Red River. West Lake, a beautiful spot in Hanoi, was once a resort for mandarins and kings.

Two legends explain the origins of Ho Tay (West Lake), also known as the Lake of Mist and the Big Lake. According to one legend, Ho Tay was created when the Dragon King drowned an evil nine-tailed fox in his lair, which was in a forest on this site. Another legend relates that in the 11th century, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Khong Lo, rendered a great service to the emperor of China, who rewarded him with a vast quantity of bronze from which he cast a huge bell. The sound of the bell could be heard all the way to China, where the Golden Buffalo Calf: mistaking the ringing for its mother’s call, ran southward, trampling on the site of Ho Tay and turning it into a lake.

In reality, the lake was created when the Song Hong (Red River) overflowed its banks. Indeed, Song Hong has changed its course numerous times; alternately flooding some lands and creating new ones though silt build lip. The flood problem has been partially controlled by building dikes. The highway along the east side of Ho Tay is built upon one.

The lake was once ringed with magnificent palaces and pavilions. These were destroyed in the course of various feudal wars. The circumference of West Lake is about 13km.

The Tran Quoc Pagoda is on the shore of Ho Tay just off D Thanh Nien, which divides Ho Tay from True Bach Lake. A stele here dating tram 1639 tells the history of this site. The pagoda was rebuilt in the 15th century and again in 1842. There are a number of monks’ funerary monuments in the garden. This is one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam.

On the south side of the lake is a popular strip of outdoor seafood restaurants (see Places to Eat later in this chapter) while the north side has been ear-marked for the development of luxurious villas and hotels.

Thang Long Imperial Citadel

For its three criteria of age-old historical and cultural values, being the center of regional political power for almost 13 centuries without interruption and diversified relic systems, the Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – Ha Noi was recognized as a world cultural heritage site by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on 1st August, 2010. Before that, it was named among the top ten special national relic sites (first batch) in the decision 1272/QD-TTg which the Prime Minister signed on August 12, 2009.

The magnificent, imposing Hanoi Citadel has stood the test of time over 8 centuries in the land of Thang Long (present-day Hanoi). In the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), the Thang Long (Hà Nội) Citadel was built as replacement of Dai La Citadel. During the dynasties of the Tran (1225-1400) and the Lê (1428-1788), the Thang Long Citadel underwent some repairs. Under the Nguyen Dynasty, Phu Xuan (Hue) was made the capital of the country and the Hanoi citadel only served as the seat of the General Govenor of the North. As the capital city of Viet Nam under the Ly, Tran and Le dynasties, it homes of many precious cultural-historical relics of the ancient Thang Long imperial citadel to discover.

Doan Mon was the only gate to Tu Cam Thanh. It overlooks south – the most important direction in traditional architectural works, especially ancient structures, according to the Vietnamese people. Under the Nguyen dynasty, Doan Mon was upgraded to have two more side entrances. In 1998, the Ministry of Defence handed over the Doan Mon relic, which covers a total land area of 3,681.5 sq. m, to the Hanoi People’s Committee. The relic site has been open to the public since October, 2001.

Bac Mon remains the only entrance to Hanoi Citadel under the Nguyen dynasty. It lies on Phan Dinh Phung street. Embedded in the outer wall of Bac Mon is a stone board carved with the date April, 25, 1882, and marks of two cannon balls fired by the French troops during their distance attack targeted the citadel from the Hong (Red) river. Two wooden doors of Bac Mon has already been restored with each measuring 12 sq. m in size. The doors weigh about 16 tones and slide on copper wheels weighed approximately 80kg. Above the citadel gate sits a shrine dedicated to Governor Nguyen Tri Phuong and his successor Hoang Dieu, who led Hanoians to defeat the French colonialists’ attacks twice.

Stone dragons in Kinh Thien palace are the only vestige of Kinh Thien palace. Four stone dragons that divided the staircase leading to Kinh Thien palace into three were carved in mid 15th century. The dragons are typical of the sculpture in the Le So dynasty. Made from green stone, the dragons all have a rising head with round bulging eyes, long branched antlers, manes flowing backward, and a half-open mouth holding in a gem. The body of the dragons is serpentine with tail getting smaller and back having cloud-shaped scales. Stone dragons in Kinh Thien palace partly reflect how giant the palace was.

Dragon House was built on the site of Kinh Thien palace by the French colonialists in 1886. Kinh Thien palace was in the heart of Thang Long imperial citadel. It was located on Long Do (the naval of the dragon) mountain, which was regarded as the vital point of the ancient Thang Long citadel. In 1010 after settling in Thang Long capital city, King Ly Thai To ordered the building of a central chamber for the capital city on top of Long Do mountain and called it Can Nguyen palace, where the most important royal rituals were held. In 1029, King Ly Thai Tong commanded his men to construct a central chamber called Thien An on the site of Can Nguyen palace. Thien An palace was then renamed Kinh Thien palace under the Le dynasty. When the capital city was moved to Hue in the central region under the Nguyen dynasty, Kinh Thien palace became the out-of-town palace for the kings and mandarins of the Nguyen when they visited the north. In 1886, the French colonialists demolished the out-of-town Kinh Thien palace and built the two-storey seven-room dragon house which acted as a command office of the French artillery. Since the Vietnamese army took the control of the capital city in 1954, the dragon house has become the headquarters of the Vietnam People’s Army.

Hau Lau (also called Tinh Bac pavilion) was located behind the out-of-town Kinh Thien palace and it currently lies on Hoang Dieu Street. Hau Lau stood north to safeguard peace for the Kinh Thien palace in accordance with the principle of Feng Shui so it acquired the name Tinh Bac Lau or Hau Lau (a pavilion in the back). It was also called the pavilion of princess given it provided accommodations for concubines accompanying King Nguyen during his business trips to the north. Hau Lau was destroyed in 1870 and it was then rebuilt into a military camp for the French troops. At present, Hau Lau acts as a showcase room exhibiting artefacts excavated from the surrounding area in October 1998, and photos portraying Hanoi through different historical stages.

Archaeological site at 18 Hoang Dieu is about 87 meters from Kinh Thien palace. It houses vestiges of palaces of the Ly, Tran and Le dynasties. The lowest layer of the site was found a part of the eastern area of Dai La citadel under Cao Bien’s reign of the Duong dynasty. The higher layers were reserved for palaces of the Ly and Tran dynasties and a part of the center of the eastern palace of the Ly dynasty. The top layer revealed a part of the centre of Hanoi Citadel in the 19th century. History revealed that Thang Long imperial citadel changed a lot but its centre, especially Tu Cam Thanh, remained nearly unchanged. As architectural structures inside the imperial citadel have been rebuilt and upgraded several times, this explained for the findings of layers of architectural vestiges and artefacts at the archaeological site at 18 Hoang Dieu. Here, archaeologists dug out many important architectural vestiges and a great deal of porcelain and ceramic wares used in the imperial citadel through various stages of development. The findings paved the way for researchers to study ceramics made in Thang Long in general and ceramic wares used in Thang Long imperial citadel through different dynasties.

Temple of Literature Hanoi

The Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) is a pleasant retreat from the streets of Hanoi. It was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, who dedicated it to Confucius (in Vietnamese, Khong Tu) in order to honour scholars and men of literary accomplishment.

The temple constitutes a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture and is well worth a visit.

Vietnam’s first university was established here in 1076 to educate the sons of mandarins. In 1484 Emperor Le Thanh Tong ordered that stelae be erected in the temple premises recording the names, places of birth and achievements of men who received doctorates in each triennial examination, commencing in 1442. Though 116 examinations were held between 1442 and 1778, when the practice was discontinued, only 82 stelae are extant. In 1802 Emperor Gia Long transferred the National University to his new capital, Hue; Major renovations were carried out here in 1920 and 1956.

The Temple of Literature is made up of five separate courtyards divided by walls. The central pathways and gates between them were reserved for the king. The walkways on one side were solely for the use or administrative mandarins; while those on the other side were for military mandarins.

The main entrance is preceded by a gate on which an inscription requests that visitors dismount their horses before entering. Kim’: Van Pavilion, at the far side of the second courtyard, was constructed in 1802 and is a fine example of Vietnamese architecture. The 82 stelae, considered the most precious arte facts in the temple, are arrayed to either side of the third enclosure; each one sits on a stone tortoise.

The Temple or Literature is 2km west or Hoan Kiem Lake (see Central Hanoi map). The complex, which is 350m by 70m, is bounded by Pho Nguyen Thai Hoc, Pho Ton Duc Thang, Pho Quoc Tu Giarn and Pho Van Mieu. Enter from Pho Quoc Tu Giam. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 7.30 to 6 pm (8 am to 5 pm from November to March); the entrance fee is 12,000d (US$0.85).

If you’re looking for a great place to eat near this site, try Koto; just across the road on Pho Van Mieu (see Places to eat later in this chapter).

Hanoi’s Old Quarters

Hanoi’s Old Quarter, or 36 Pho Phuong (36 Streets), with over a thousand years of history, remains one of Vietnam’s most lively and unusual places, where you can buy anything from a gravestone to silk pyjamas.

Hanoi’s commercial quarter evolved alongside the Red River and the smaller To Lich River, which once flowed through the city centre to create an intricate network of canals and waterways teeming with boats. As the waters could rise as high as 8m during the monsoon, dikes, which can still be seen today along Tran Quang Khai, were constructed to protect the city.

Exploring the maze of back streets is fascinating; some streets open up while others narrow down into a warren of smaller alleys. The area is known for its tunnel, or tube, houses – so called because their small frontages hide very long rooms. These tunnel houses were developed to avoid taxes based on the width of their frontage onto the street. By feudal law, houses were also limited to two storeys and, out of respect for the king, could not be taller than the Royal Palace. These days there are taller buildings (six to eight storeys high) but there are no real high rise buildings.

In the 13th century, Hanoi’s 36 guilds established themselves here with each taking a different street (hence the name 36 Streets). Hang in Vietnamese means ‘merchandise’ and is usually followed by the name of the product that was traditionally sold in that street. Thus, Pho Hang Gai translates as ‘Silk Street’ (see the boxed text ‘Meaning of the 36 Streets’ for others, however these days the street name may not necessarily correspond to what Is sold there.

Opportunities to lighten your load of dong are almost endless and as you wander around you’ll find wool clothes, cosmetics, fake Ray Ban sunglasses, luxury foods, printed T-shirts, musical instruments, plumbing supplies, herbal medicines, gold and silver jewellery, religious, offerings, spices, woven mats and much, much more (see also the Shopping section in this chapter).

Some of the more specialized streets include Pho Hang Quat which has red candlesticks, funeral boxes, flags and other temple items; and Pho Hang Gai which is somewhat more glamorous with silk, embroidery, lacquer ware, paintings and water puppets – the silk sleeping bag liners and elegant Vietnamese ao dai are very popular with travellers. Finally, no trip to the Quarter would be complete without a trip to Dong Xuan market, on Pho Hong Khoi and Pho Dong Xuan, which was rebuilt after a 1994 fire.

A stroll through the historic Old Quarter can last anywhere from a few minutes to the better part of a day, depending on your pace and how well you navigate the increasing motor traffic plaguing the streets. However long, or whatever detours you might take, the following course will provide you with a good dose of Vietnamese culture, and some insight into the country’s long history.

A logical starting point is the Ngoc Son Temple in the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake. After crossing back over the bright red Huc Bridge, stop for a quick look at the Martyrs’ Monument, erected to those who died in fighting for Vietnam’s independence. Head north on Pho Hang Dau past the Water Puppet Theatre (see the ‘Punch & Judy in a Pool’ boxed text in this chapter) and you’ll soon be surrounded by shoe shops selling every shape, size and style, demonstrating how serious Hanoians are about their footwear. Crossing over Pho Cau Go, pop into the colourful flower market which occupies the narrow eastern terminus of Pho Gia Nhu.

Back on Pho Hang Be; continue north to the ‘T’ intersection with Pho Hang Bac. Near here are several shops that carve intricate gravestones (most bearing an image of the deceased) by hand. A short detour north on Pho Ma May will lead you to the Memorial House at number 87 (see the main text entry earlier in this chapter), an exquisite Chinese merchant’s home that was recently restored and opened as a museum.

Return to Pho Hang Bac and head west past a strip of snazzy jewellery shops, then right onto Pho Hang Ngang past a row of clothing shops, and right again onto Pho Hang Buom; this will take you past the small Bach Ma Temple (White Horse Temple). As you pass the pagoda, with its red funeral palanquin, look for its white-bearded temple guards, who spend their days sipping tea. Legend has it that Ly King used the pagoda to pray for assistance in building the city walls because they persistently collapsed, no matter how many times he rebuilt them. His prayers were finally answered when a white horse appeared out of the temple and guided him to the site where he could safely build his walls. Evidence of his success is still visible at Cua O Quan Chuong, the quarter’s well-preserved Old East Gate at the eastern end of Pho Hang Chieu, near the intersection with Pho Tran Nhat Duat.

Head west, back along Pho Hang Chieu past a handful of shops selling straw mats and rope to reach one of the most interesting streets, Pho Hang Ma (literally ‘counterfeit street’), where imitation ‘ghost money’ is sold for burning in Buddhist ceremonies – it even has US$5000 bills! Loop around and follow your ears to the sounds of skilful blacksmiths pounding away on metal on the corner of Pho Lo Ren and Pho Thuoc Bac. Moving south on Pho Hang Duong, head right past the towel shops onto Pho Lan Ong, a fantastic row of herb sellers filling the street with succulent aromas.

Finally, head south past the tin box makers (opposite the mirror shops) on Pho Hang Thiec, then left toward the interesting shops selling Buddhist altars and statues along Pho Hang Quai. Time permitting, loop around and zigzag west over to check out the leather shops along Pho Ha Trung, working east again to end the tour at the superb, neo-Gothic St Joseph Cathedral (see the main text entry earlier in this chapter). If you’re feeling a bit knackered from the walk, a few steps from the church along Pho Nha Tho there is an alluring cluster of stylish restaurants and cafes.

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