Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake)

Hoan Kiem Lake is the central attraction in Hanoi’s French Quarter — the oldest part of town. It’s also at the center of a legend, one that’s commemorated by the Turtle Tower, erected by the French in the late 19th century. According to Vietnamese legend, Emperor Le Thai To used a magical sword in his battle against the Chinese. After winning the war, Le Thai To met an enormous turtle while rowing on the lake. The turtle took the sword from him before sinking back into the lake, giving the lake its name – Hoan Kiem translates to “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

0 - Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), Vietnam
1 - Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), Vietnam
2 - Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), Vietnam
3 - Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), Vietnam

The legendary turtle is based on real denizens of the lake – an enormous turtle lived in the lake as recently as 2015, although they are now believed to be extinct. On a visit to the nearby Ngoc Son Temple, you can see one of the preserved giant turtles on display in a glass box. At the time of its death, it weighed 550 pounds, and biologists estimated its age at approximately 500 years old.

The French built the tower in 1886, and it looks especially pretty lit up at night. It’s easy to see from anywhere on the path that follows the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. The French initially topped the tower with another version of the Statue of Liberty, but the Vietnamese government removed it in 1945. Today, it’s considered an important symbol of Vietnamese patriotism.