Hanoi has a lot of lakes. The city, built on lowlands between rivers, is even sometimes known as the “city of lakes.” They provide a scenic and tranquil respite from the crushing traffic and incessant bustle in other parts of the city.
Unfortunately, as you’d expect from a bustling, industrialized city of several million people (estimates range from 3.5 to 7 million) in a country with a decidedly mixed record of dealing with environmental challenges, most of those lakes are severely polluted. It’s not unusual for thousands of fish to turn up floating belly-up on the surface. And that, for the environmental health of the city and residents, not to mention the local fishermen, isn’t a good sign.
I came to when I hit the water. Wearing about fifty pounds of gear, I touched the bottom of the shallow lake and kicked off with my good leg. I did not feel any pain as I broke the surface, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t move my arms to toggle on my life vest. I sank to the bottom again. When I broke the surface the second time I managed to inflate my life vest by pulling the toggle with my teeth. Then I blacked out again.” [John McCain]1
Ho Hoan Kiem (Hoan Kiem Lake) sits in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the cultural and historic heart of the city. While not especially big, the lake is a beautiful setting for the Thap Rua (Turtle Tower) and provides an aquatic home to the elusive and revered Hoan Kiem Turtle. The Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain) sits on a small island on the southern end. And the tree-lined banks of the lake provide a calming setting for locals doing their dawn Tai Chi or an evening stroll.
Not far from the Old Quarter, Ho Tay (West Lake), Hanoi’s largest lake, is picturesque in a different way. It still boasts some temples and parks on its shores. But it also has apartment buildings that some of the city’s more affluent residents call home. West Lake is a popular place for recreation boating and fishing, although with all the pollutants in the water I’m not sure I’d knowingly eat the fish that’s caught there, regardless of how fresh it might be.
Right next to it, separated only by a narrow, artificially built roadway, the much smaller Ho Truc Bach (Truc Bach Lake) is famous for a different reason. It’s here that John McCain crashed when shot down in October 1967 during a bombing mission to knock out, for a second time, a power plant on the lake’s shores. But his plane was downed by the city’s formidable antiaircraft defenses–at the time Hanoi was one of the most heavily protected cities in the world. He landed in the water, weighed down with equipment and seriously injured. Fighting his way to the surface, he was dragged from water by North Vietnamese, beaten, and then taken to Hao Lo Prison, known sarcastically by the POWs as the Hanoi Hilton.1
Photos of Hanoi’s Lakes
I have more high-resolution images of Hanoi’s lakes.
Travel Advice for Vietnam
You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Vietnam (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.
Health & Vaccinations
The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Vietnam here.