Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) sits on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of old Hanoi. Built in the 18th century and reached via a red bridge lined with colorful flags, the temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century. Other figures honored at the temple include the scholar Van Xuong and Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian master and writer. The altars were piled high with offerings which included towering pyramids of cookies and Choco-Pies. I thought this was a bit unusual until I realized that I would also like to eat Choco-Pies in the afterlife. Hopefully my relatives will take note.
Legend has it that in the 15th century, a golden turtle grabbed the magical sword of Emperor Le Loi when he was boating on the lake and disappeared under the water. The Emperor had used this sword, sent to him from Heaven, to vanquish Chinese invaders. As all attempts to find the turtle and the missing sword were fruitless, the Emperor believed that the turtle had captured the sword to restore it to its owners in Heaven. Therefore, he renamed the lake Hoan Kiem, or Lake of the Restored Sword. To commemorate the event, a tower was erected in the center of the lake.
Giant, soft-shelled turtles once populated the lake, though today only one remains. Affectionately referred to as Cu Rua (great grandfather), the Hoan Kiem turtle is actually female. She was briefly captured in 2011 for medical treatment, during which time she weighed 200 kilos and was determined to be around 100 years old. Her last companion in the lake was killed by a fisherman in the 1960s and is now on display in a side room of the temple. Experts disagree on the exact species of the lake turtle; some say that she is the last of her kind while others insist there are three others living in Vietnam and China.
At night the lake and its surrounding park transform into an outdoor community center where Hanoi’s citizens gather in droves. Some sit on benches near the illuminated temple bridge while others practice their dance moves with abandon. Most impressive are the hundreds of people – some in their pajamas – who power walk around the lake’s perimeter. They all follow the same direction and seem to move en masse, like flocks of geese migrating in formation. I would advise against trying to walk against the flow.
Ngoc Son Temple Address: Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam Entrance Fee: 20,000 VND (1 USD)
Would you join in the public dancing or stick to visiting the lake during the day?