In a city of dust and noise, Hoàn Kiếm Lake (or the Lake of the Restored Sword) was a blessing for tired eyes and ears. Brains filled with car beeps, motorcycle revs and the chaos of civilisation, the lake materialised out of the traffic as if in a dream. I can’t even guess how many times we walked around it during our time in Hanoi. After months travelling, living and loving every aspect of South East Asia I admit we were sick of moving all together. Even the crazy energy of a city couldn’t keep us going. So we relaxed for a time, but for the most part we walked. Eschewing taxis, tuk-tuks and rickshaws for good old footpaths and the promise of a shanks pony adventure.
Mostly we saw life, in all its grit and glory. But we also saw the Lake of the Restored Sword and the temple that sat in amongst it, joined to the mainland by a red and golden vein of a bridge. The lake has a grand fable, as many Vietnamese landmarks do. Many years ago the emperor of the time was boating on the lake when a golden turtle god surfaced and requested the emperors magic sword, so given to him by the Dragon King during his revolt against the Chinese. The emperor gave up the sword, and so named the lake to commemorate the event, as if a giant golden turtle asking you for a magical sword wasn’t memorable enough on its own. The temple within the lake, is known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, an 18th century relic that begged our exploration. Though we wandered past it several times, put off by crowds and tourist hoards, a rainy day drop in visitors was too good to refuse.
Over the bridge and inside the temple red is a dominating colour. It covers roofs and doors at every turn. In enormous brass pots filled with sand, tiny forests of incense sticks burn, slowly stroking the humid air with their smoky tendrils. For a time, we walk in silence, simple enjoying the feel of the place. Now we are well and truly separate from the chaos of Hanoi, and the air inside the temple swallows the noise of reality. Above our heads, banyan trees loom over us, their hair brushing our shoulders on its way to the ground. Left alone I imagine that it would consume this entire place, but for now humans keep it in check. Through the leaves and branches, sunlight filters down and plays light tricks with random rays on the incense smoke. It is a discovered beauty rarely truly discovered I think as person after person rushes through, snaps their obligatory tourist shot and leaves.
We lean for a moment on the wall around the temple and look out over the lake. It isn’t very deep, and we can see fish chasing bugs flittering across the surface. On the other side of the lake, Turtle Tower sits commemorating whatever the truth or fairytale was that happened here so many years ago. I look down into the water and consider the possibilities. Maybe this isn’t an island at all.