Friday, May 04, 2012

Hoan Kiem's temple and turtle

In Hanoi's Old Quarter there's a lovely peaceful lake called Hoan Kiem.
At the north end of the lake there's a little island with a temple, reached by a picturesque red bridge.
The Temple of the Jade Mountain is a Buddhist temple that draws both sightseers and worshipers. It has a dusty little gift shop where you can buy incense to burn as an offering. The temple is dedicated to a 13th century military leader who fought against the Chinese, and to a Confucian scholar who helped restore the temple in the 1800s.
Is this the scholar or the warrior? I don't know. He had plenty of offerings, though, from Chinese money to piles of cookies, rice and fruit, including Buddha's hand citron (which makes a mighty tasty infused vodka, as my friend Jen can attest!).
The island also has a pretty pavilion where chess players gather.
The temple also pays homage to a denizen of the lake – a giant turtle god that gave a magical sword to the Emperor Le Loi to vanquish his enemies. That task accomplished, the turtle took back the sword and gave the lake its name: "Hoan Kiem" means "Lake of the Returned Sword."
In fact, there does live in the lake a species of giant, soft-shelled turtle that is now near extinction. In a room off the temple there is the preserved body of one that was captured and accidentally killed in 1967. It was 6 feet long and weighed 440 pounds!
It is said to be very lucky to see a giant turtle in the lake, and many believe there is only one left. Last year, there was great concern about the health of a turtle that was spotted with some kind of lesions on its head and body. It was captured and treated with antibiotics, then returned to the lake.
As it happened, we were strolling around the lake a couple of days later when we spotted a crowd peering into the water and pointing. People were hopping off their scooters and running over to the edge with great excitement. "It must be the turtle!" I said to the Sergeant, and we ran over, too. We couldn't get very close, but sure enough, there was the turtle, peeking out of the water.
We felt very lucky indeed!
Later we told the receptionist at our hotel that we had seen the turtle, and she said the newspapers and radio have special reports when there are turtle sightings, and you can even get a text message alert when it's been spotted.

Hanoians take their turtle-watching very seriously.

But even if you don't see the turtle when you visit Hanoi, Hoan Kiem is the perfect place to to enjoy some natural beauty in the heart of the bustling city.


  1. What a colourful place. Congrats on your turtle sighting.

  2. Any idea why they leave cookies as an offering? And why cookie tins are on the altar?

  3. Hi Richard. Most Buddhist altars have candy or cookies as an offering. I don't know why; maybe Buddha has a sweet tooth. The tins imply that these are expensive cookies.