Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hoan Kiem Lake

The lake seen from atop of the City View Café

This lake is the beehive of Ha Noi's old quarter and is often used as a point of reference for easy orientation. It is considered by Hanoians to be the very heart of their capital, though it isn't the largest, nor the cleanest, nor the most awe-inspiring.

Very fancy tai chi for 6:00 am with red fans

As this was our second trip to the capital, we were already familiar with its ambiance, the "hot spots" surrounding it, but we had missed the 6:00am tai chi rituals that occurred every morning. Frankly, I was not that motivated to get myself out of bed to view or participate, so the first time, Chuck went solo with his camera and must have shot himself silly out of photos.

Naturally, after he returned and could hardly contain his excitement, it was very difficult to refuse going. And a great percentage of the 500 or so photos he had originally taken were blurred, so a do-over was in order. Of course, breakfast was on my mind, as this is something one simply cannot miss,-all you need to do is look at the spread laid at our beck and call every morning, and you know what I'm talking about. However, he mentioned that there was a French bakery where one could indulge right at lakeside. Ironically, we did go back to that very spot where we had lunch with a business associate of mine the next day. It was heavenly, and you could not get better views of the lake except if you were on a high floor, which we did as well.

So, what is it about this lake and the temple which seems to float on the water? and the inimitable red lacquered Huc bridge which appears to have been crafted from elves borne out of a fairy tale? Yes there is a legend which surrounds Hoan Kiem Lake, and it only adds to the romantic feeling as you meander through the walkways, and splendidly planted nooks and crannies all around this spot of water.
I bet as you look at these photos that you are wondering if this is really Viet Nam. The country has stopped being a "war" a long time ago. It is vibrant, fast, aromatic, colorful and extremely welcoming.

It's about a warrior called Le Loi and a golden turtle who swallowed his sword, as the turtle had the wisdom to realize that once the Chinese had been driven away, Le Loi didn't need his sword anymore. You'll find Le Loi to be a main artery in Sai Gon, and we'll get to that eventually. I'm sure many other things are named after this 15th century hero of the Viet Namese people.

It is reported that this lake was once part of the Red River (it's huge, and we were there up close when we went west of Ha Noi to a pottery village) and moved eastward through thousands of years' changes in the topography. Originally name Luc Thuy lake, it was changed to Ho Hoan Kiem, which means Lake of the Returned Sword, by Le Loi.

At the north end of the Lake, Lord Trinh Giang built Khanh Thuy shrine on Ngoc island, which was destroyed and rebuilt into a pagoda. It is now referred to as Ngoc Son Shrine. We did not go into the shrine, but did make our way through the huge portal, immediately after which there is a recessed spot onto a rocky hill where one can burn incense and offer a prayer or blessing. This time, I had the camera and took pictures as Chuck negotiated his way up, studied the movements of the woman before him, and repeated her motions and came down. The aroma of incense is quite intoxicating and adds to the spiritual feeling that reigns along the lake.

the lake at night

Occasionally one will see lovers sitting on a bench, but it's not very often, as Viet Namese, especially in the north, are not quite as emancipated as their brothers in the south, or the West for that matter. There is no public kissing whatsoever, but it is, without a doubt, one of the most romantic places to be and see. Also amazing and inspiring are the scores of older generation Viet Namese either exercising, or speaking French. The younger generation aspires to speak English and many to whom we talked dream of going to America. Hard to believe, isn't it?

soaking the sun at City View Café

Seeing the lake from up high is a treat, as I mentioned before. We were lucky to catch the sun in Ha Noi for lunch one day, and had the most exquisite spaghetti al fresco. The year before, we had dinner at Kim Quy, an elegant restaurant opposite that high building and across the water fountain, and the night views were reminiscent of Paris. You can never tire of Hoan Kiem Lake or what adorns it, no matter what time of day it is.

the fountain taken from Kim Quy Restaurant on the second floor

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