Sunday, January 25, 2015

Turtle Tower, on the Lake of the Returned Sword

25 January 2015

We arrived in Hanoi on Thursday, exhausted after the train.  But we managed a little walk, just to get out and see our new neighborhood.

We're in the old part of Hanoi, the Hoan Kiem district - just a few blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake, which is about two miles (3 km?) in circumference.  More of a large pond, or baby lake, but very picturesque.  We haven't found a river that feeds into the lake, but since it's in the old part of the city we suspect it's a natural lake, maybe with an underground source of water.  (And there are very large koi in this lake, who jump at sunset!)

We couldn't figure out the fancy floral stuff at one shop, but it was pretty so I took photos.  We found a lovely café on the lake and enjoyed a leisurely lunch.  After the 15 hour train trip, it was nice to just sit in one spot for a while, not moving!

Hanoi is the capital of modern Vietnam, though with only 6.5 million people it isn't as large as Saigon (which has some 7.5 million people).  Hanoi lies at the heart of the Red River delta, and according to the local brochures is "a city of lakes, leafy boulevards, and local parks.  Nestled along wooded boulevards among the city's two dozen lakes you will find architectural souvenirs left by all who conquered this great valley, from the Chinese who first came in the last millenium, to the French, booted out last century.  Although a city of historical importance, and the social and cultural center of Vietnam, it is a surprisingly modest and charming place, far slower and less developed than Saigon in the south.  Hanoi has retained its appealing sense of old world, despite the onset of a brisk tourism trade."  

Our neighborhood is certainly all that!  Trees, flowers, fountains, buildings in the French colonial style next to modern (and boring) structures, little bakeries with banh croissant or banh pain socola (chocolate), and umpteen ca phe (coffee) shops - which literally sell only coffee and tea drinks, nothing else.  And the usual Vietnamese vendors with carts or bicycles or yokes balanced on shoulders, selling everything from fried doughnut like things to gorgeous fruit and vegs to sunglasses and trousers and hats.  About 90% of the time the vendors have the conical hats that are also worn in rice paddies.  So there's the old world Vietnam feel to the city, and the old world French colonial feel to the city.

We've walked around Hoan Kiem lake a few times; the lake is surrounded by trees and flowers, still blooming in the cool climate hovering between 50-70 F (10-20 C).  And the walkways around the lake are a very popular spot for locals as well as tourists - even during the chillier evenings, the lake is crowded.  

There are two islands in Hoan Kiem, the larger housing the Ngoc Son temple (Or Temple of Jade Mountain).  Built in the 18th century, the temple is accessible via little curved red bridge, and seems to be busy all the time!  We didn't visit the inner temple, but I wandered through the outer gates, which were covered with beautiful bas relief murals.  Okay, the tiger isn't so great - but the rest of the murals are wonderful, so colorful and full of life and movement.  I love the way water and clouds are portrayed!

There's also a little shrine out in front, on a rocky hill (no idea if this is natural or man-made) - but people were walking up and making little offerings in the shrine.  Nothing is labelled, we have no idea if this is the jade mountain for which the temple is named (and it didn't look greenish, just grey rock) -  just one of those scenic but mysterious places one encounters on the road.

We walked by the place that was set with all the flowers outside, and there were people inside eating at the tables.  Shiny metallic confetti all over the ground.  Smiling happy young people in the traditional ao dai - though I'm not sure if that's what the men's outfit is called.

We asked if this was a wedding - the response was yes but not really.  We aren't sure if it was a reheasal dinner, or a practice wedding, or maybe a mock wedding.  But the older people inside were having a great time at the fancy meal, and tourists like us were taking photos of the very attractive people all dressed in their finery.

Toward the other end of the lake from Nguc Son Temple, on a very tiny island with no connecting bridge, there's another little temple, almost just a tower.  According to online sources, this is the Turtle Temple, or Thap Rua in Vietnamese.  According to legend, Emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake, when the Golden Turtle God Kim Qui surfaced and asked for his golden sword.  A golden dragon god had given Le Loi the sword previously, so the emperor returned the sword and renamed the lake Hoan Kiem, Lake of the Returned Sword.  It's unclear whether Le Loi built the Turtle Tower or not, but it definitely is linked to this legend.

We've been enjoying walking around the city, including to the night market one evening.  We ended up sharing a table at dinner with a friendly young French couple, and walked around the night market after our meal.  It's always interesting to meet other travellers on the road, people who have taken time off from work or maybe, like us, have retired to living on the road.  

Anyway, the night market went on and on for blocks and blocks, streets closed in one direction and stands set up in the center of the road, selling food and clothing and household goods and souvenirs and, well, just about anything smaller than a kitchen sink.  A little bit of everything.  

We'll keep walking around Hanoi and eventually head further out, to exciting sites like the Temple of Literature.  (No idea what it is, but we love the name.)  And plan some visits to places like the famous Ha Long Bay, and who knows where else.

Oh, I forgot to mention - just north of Hué is the DMZ, the de-militarized zone from the Vietnam War.  Given how we felt/still feel about involvement in some of these wars, we skipped it.  And I guess our train went through the DMZ.  Just wanted to mention it since many people are interested in these historic sites.  But we gave it a miss.

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