Friday, March 13, 2015

Sword handling turtles

Ho Hoan Kiem is a picturesque lake located near the shopping district of Ha Noi. It has a very interesting legend behind it. 

Emperor Lê Lợi who ruled Vietnam in the 13th century was said to have a very powerful and magical sword which was given to him by one of the Gods to fight the Chinese Ming dynasty. One day when the emperor was boating on the lake, a giant turtle rose up and took the sword away from him. Searching for both turtle and sword proved futile. Emperor Lê Lợi  was convinced that the sword had returned to the Gods. The water body was then renamed Ho Hoan Kiem i.e. Lake of the Returned Sword. 

In the midst of the lake is a structure very European in architecture. It's origins are strange but today it's known as Thap Rua i.e. Turtle/ Tortoise Tower in honour of the turtle in the legend. The tower has probably stood the test of time as no one is allowed on it except for maintenance purposes.

The Turtle Tower standing like a silent sentinel
in the midst of the lake
A species of soft-shelled turtles are inhabitants of the lake though they are sighted very rarely. People gaze into the waters hoping to catch sight of the sacred ones which is considered incredible good fortune. I did too but it wasn't to be my lucky day.

On another island closer to the shore is a temple reached by a red wooden bridge. The Ngoc Son Temple (The Temple of the Jade Mountain) has been dedicated to various figures since it was built but today it is dedicated to three figures - a 13th century Vietnamese military general, a Confucian master and a literary figure. 

The temple has three gates before the bridge and a fourth one after crossing the bridge. The gates have auspicious letterings, signs and symbols on them. 

Gates 1 & 2 of the temple

Gate 3: The top & side panels with auspicious
sculptures & messages on it 
Gate 3: the other side, facing the temple
Inside the shrine besides the altar and offerings to it, there are many interesting artefacts - ancient weapons, sculptures of auspicious birds & animals, intricately shaped bells, huge porcelain vases and decorative flowers. 

Large bells with intricate forms on it
Worship continues here to this day
In a chamber to one side of the main shrine, there is a glass encased body of a giant tortoise that used to live in the lake. The description next to it says it was preserved in 1968. The tortoise then weighed 200 Kgs, it was 2m in length and 1.2m in width. Wow!

A view of the lake from the temple premises
Hoan Kiem has pretty landscaping, walkways and park benches around it making it an a hub for people to rest, relax and enjoy quality time with family and friends. Even late into the night, the area is a buzzing with life. Somewhat akin to Marine Drive in Mumbai or India Gate in Delhi (minus the persistent hawkers). 

A quaint souvenir store outside the temple that seemed
to blend into the temple environs.

A view of the bridge to the temple
Night-time view of the lake. Visible is the red bridge
and in the distance the lit-up Turtle Tower
A detailed description of the Ngoc Son Temple can be found here

The Vietnamese have dedicated the same temples to different saints and prominent figures over time which I found quite complicated to follow. Ngoc Son itself has been the site of various dedications, this avatar is its fourth.

Thanks to this trip to Hanoi, I also realised there is a difference between a temple (Den in Vietnamese) and a Pagoda. The former can be a community place of worship or dedicated to special people - holy monks, ancestors, national heroes etc. while the latter is Buddhist and dedicated to the Buddha(s). 


  1. Great to know all these. I have never been to Vietnam. Loved seeing the pics.