Story: Truong Quy

Photos: Vu Miunh Quan, Nguyen Trung

Part of Hanoi’s unique charm comes from its many beautiful lakes

Hanoi stands out thanks to its lakes, which reflect the sky, and its roads built on ancient dykes and dams. The city is located by a bend in the Red River, whose sediment formed its base. This city of lakes, which lie scattered between rows of streets, has developed over centuries. Today, Hanoi boasts around twenty lakes that contribute to the city’s scenery and serve as focal points for the public lives of millions of residents. They are also fondly described in music and poetry as symbols of this thousand-year-old city.

West Lake at night

Reflections of history

“Here Sword Lake, the Red River, and West Lake – where lie the souls of our mountains and rivers,  a thousands years old”. The first line of The Hanoians, a song by Nguyen Dinh Thi, sums up the city’s prominent geography and history. The two best-known lakes are both related to the Red River, which flows across Hanoi and is the largest river in Northern Vietnam. They are vestiges of the Red River’s stream. After thousands of years, the river changed course and left behind a series of interconnected lakes and ponds.

A witness to Hanoi’s history that every Vietnamese person knows is none other than Sword Lake. Located in the southern end of the Old Quarter, the lake was originally named Ta Vong or Luc Thuy (Green Water). The name Sword Lake or Lake of the Returned Sword came from the legend of Emperor Le Loi returning his magic sword to Golden Turtle God. This incident is believed to have happened after Le Loi defeated a Ming invasion and founded the Le dynasty in the 15th century. The lake was once surrounded by royal palaces of Trinh lords and religious structures. However, not until the end of the nineteenth century did Sword Lake gain its present-day appearance. In 1885, the French colonial regime started zoning Hanoi to transform it into a “modern” Western-style city. They chose Sword Lake as the landmark linking the Old Quarter’s “36 Streets” to the north and the French Quarter to the south. 

Truc Bach Lake

While Sword Lake nestles within a city block of tree-lined boulevards, West Lake spreads over an area of 500 hectares (1235.5 acres). Together with Truc Bach Lake, it creates beautiful scenery in the northern part of the city. Its banks stretch for 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) and run through old villages and small streets. Between modern buildings lie historic sites such as the pagodas of Tran Quoc, Kim Lien, and Van Nien, as well as Quan Thanh Temple and Tay Ho Palace. The streets embracing these two lakes have long made their way into Hanoians’ dearest memories, and include Thanh Nien, Ngu Xa, and Quang Ba, to name a few. The name West Lake refers to its direction from the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Meanwhile, the name Truc Bach, literally White Silk, tells the story of royal concubines who left the imperial palace for a rural lifestyle and wove premium silk.

Traditional principles of feng shui dictate that religious structures should face a lake, with a body of water in the front and higher ground to the back. For this reason, temples and pagodas are often seen around ancient lakes. Some remaining examples include Dong Nhan Temple, which pays homage to the Trung Sisters and faces Huong Vien Lake; and Van Lake in front of the Temple of Literature. Our ancestors believed that reflecting surfaces not only accumulate the sacred qi of heaven and earth, but also create architectural harmony. These small lakes accumulate the life force that brings prosperity to the city. At the same time, they act as yin, which counterbalances the yang of the concrete jungle.

Giang Vo Lake

Timeless charm

Hanoi’s lakes continue to tell stories of the city’s ups and downs during the twentieth century. Hanoi’s phases of zoning and expansion saw the construction of many residential areas and collective housing blocks (KTTs) on the elevated land around well-dredged and shaped lakes. There came a series of man-made lakes such as Giang Vo, Thu Le, Ngoc Khanh, Dong Da, Van Chuong, Thien Quang, Bay Mau, Ba Mau, Thanh Nhan and others. They provide greenery and air purification for the residential areas. Designed to meet traditional concepts of feng shui, they suit the local climate and add space and fresh air to dense urban areas.

In the second half of the twentieth century, most newly-created lakes were linked to important public parks, for example, Bay Mau Lake in Thong Nhat Park and Thu Le Lake in the eponymous zoo. Lakes in KTTs improved the architectural aesthetics during the subsidy period. Their beauty was simple yet uplifting, reflecting the spirit of Hanoians during the city’s post-war development. Nowadays, these bodies of water are an ecological heritage of the capital.

Lakes nestled within city blocks remind us of our connection with the old Dai La – Thang Long Citadel by the Red River. For millennia, the river deposited layers of soil sediments and helped form the cultural values of this land. On early autumn mornings, while watching the mist gently rise from one of Hanoi’s lakes while hearing the echoes of temple bells, we suddenly realize that, despite urbanization, the city hasn’t lost its timeless charm.