Hoan Kiem Lake, Home of Hanoi’s Giant Turtle

Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as Sword Lake, Ho Guom, or Lake of the Returned Sword) is at the very heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and a cultural heart of the city. And it’s rather beautiful.

Hanoi's Turtle Tower and Island on Hoan Kiem Lake Reflection
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Filed Under: Vietnam

There’s a lot to be said for having a body of water in the middle of a city. Hanoi has a lot of lakes, but Hoan Kiem Lake is in its cultural and historic heart. It may not be big–it’s much smaller than West Lake–but the Old Quarter wraps around it, making for a scenic and relaxing escape from the chaos and bustle of the Old Quarter’s streets.

In the middle of the lake is a small island with a small stone Pagoda. You can’t get to it–there are no bridges or boats to the island.

But you can get to the other slightly bigger island on the lake–Jade Island. To get there, you cross a small bright red wooden bridge (The Huc Bridge) that leads to the entrance of an 18th-century Buddhist temple–the Temple of the Jade Mountain.

The glassy waters on the lake at night set off the city lights beautifully, enhanced by more lights around parts of the lake wall and on Jade Island.

And then there are those turtles. The lake’s name translates as “Lake of the Returned Sword.” It’s based on a legend of a turtle stealing–or, more accurately, reclaiming–a sword from Emperor Le Loi. The story goes that the emperor had been given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) to smite the Chinese Ming Dynasty. After successfully fending off the invaders, the emperor was boating on Hoan Kiem Lake when a giant turtle rose up and snatched the sword from him and disappeared into the depths, never to be found again. It was explained as the Golden Turtle God reclaiming the magical sword.

There are, it turns out, giant turtles in Hoan Kiem Lake, but they’re very elusive and there’s probably only one of the revered creatures left in the lake. Sightings are rare.

But in April 2011, one of the famous turtles was captured for the first time to receive veterinary care. There are only three other living examples in this species known–one other in another lake in Vietnam and a pair in a zoo in China, so the long-term prospects for the species aren’t great, to say the least. The one in Hoan Kiem Lake was estimated at 80 to 100 years old and weighing in at around 440 pounds.

Photos of Hoan Kiem

Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake at Night with Lights
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The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
The Huc Bridge lit up with red lights. On the left is the main bank; on the right is Jade Island. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Turtle Tower Hoan Kiem Lake in the Mist
Turtle Tower in the middle of the lake. It’s not accessible to visitors. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Ngoc Son Temple Hanoi The Huc Bridge
The Huc Bridge during the day, looking towards Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain). [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Ngoc Son Temple Hanoi Turtle and Sword Painting
Some of the artwork depicting a turtle with a sword on its back on the gate to Ngoc Son Temple. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Group Doing Tai Chi at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
The banks of Hoan Kiem Lake are popular for the locals to do their morning Tai Chi. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
The Huc Bridge. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
An art sculpture in the form of a book celebrates the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. You can see The Huc Bridge in the background. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Hanoi Street in the Rain
A busy street on a side of the lake. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
[license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Hoan Kiem Lake with Couple on Park Bench
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Hope and Love for Peace Sculpture Hanoi
The Hope and Love for Peace Sculpture on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Hanoi's Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake at Night with Reflection
[license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
Artist sketching at Hoan Kiem Lake
An artist sketching Turtle Tower in the smog. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]
The Huc Bridge Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi
In the background is The Huc Bridge lit up at night. [license topic=”Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi”]

What to Know Before You Go

It’s just part of the landscape of downtown Hanoi, so it’s accessible day and night.

You can’t go to the Turtle Tower pagoda in the middle of the lake that’s pictured in the top photo, but you can cross the red Huc Bridge to visit Ngoc Son Temple that juts out onto the lake.

License Photos of Hoan Kiem Lake

If you’d like to download any of my photos from Hoan Kiem Lake, you can license them directly from Alamy here. It includes most of the photos displayed on this page, as well as others. Pricing depends on the type of use, and there are licenses for various types of uses, including personal use and editorial publication.

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David Coleman / Photographer
by David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »