Vietnam: Hanoi's lakes and temples

There's more to Hanoi than the wars and occupation I mentioned in my last blog post. Like the city's lakes and temples, which are peaceful places where the locals gather for their morning tai chi and to catch up with their friends and family in the evenings. If you want a taste of everyday modern Vietnamese life that's definitely less bloody, these are the places you should visit.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake is right by the Old Quarter, which in all likelihood will be the area you stay in if you're going for a cheap and cheerful Hanoi experience. (We stayed at 3* Hanoi Holiday Diamond Hotel, a one minute walk from the Old Quarter, and a mere £15 per night for bed and breakfast.) Historically the 36 streets that comprised the Old Quarter were each dedicated to one particular trade, but now on weekend evenings a night market is set up in the streets - you'll mostly find fake goods on the stalls, however, so it depends how you feel about that. Do eat tasty food like the locals in the Old Quarter at least once though, counterfeits aside - squat down on little plastic stools at the side of the road and enjoy a delicious bargain (separate blog on Vietnamese food coming later on).

Back to Hoan Kiem lake though, which is an area of calm in Vietnam's capital city - as much as Vietnam is able to do calm, that is. Known as the Sword Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword, legend has it that a Golden Turtle asked Emperor Lê Lợi for the sword that the Dragon King had previously given him to fight the Chinese. OK, you can't escape wars and occupation entirely in Hanoi, but it makes for an entertaining story. If you're lucky, you may just spot a turtle in the lake as well as there are currently three known ones living there.

The main temple in this area is located on Jade island. Đền Ngọc Sơn, aka the Temple of the Jade Mountain, is accessed by crossing Cầu Thê Húc (the red Welcome Morning Sunshine Bridge). Tickets cost 30,000 dong (£1) and, as with any temple you visit, cover up your shoulders and knees to enter Den Ngoc Son. Whilst it has a nice view across the lake, the temple was under renovation when we visited so we didn't get to see it looking its best.

If you want to hear more about the legend of the lake, as well as other Vietnamese folklore, over the road from the temple is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Shows are on frequently throughout the day, and tickets cost either 200,000, 150,000 or 100,000 dong (about £6.75, £5 or £3.35). OK, we were clueless most of the time as to what was going on, but it's cheap enough to forgive that - and there's something quite mesmerising about the puppetry. Whether you love it or hate it, you'll certainly have an opinion to share about it!

The other main lake in Hanoi is Trúc Bạch Lake which was originally part of  Hồ Tây (West Lake), until it was created by the introduction of a dividing road. On the Trúc Bạch Lake side you'll find the American Memorial, which marks where Senator John McCain was shot down during the Vietnam War. (OK, so it's harder than I thought not to mention war!) On the same side of the road, but further down, there's also the Quán Thánh Temple. We didn't visit Quan Thanh Temple because it's quite easy to get temple fatigue in Vietnam, in all honesty, but entry is 30,000 dong (about £1) if it's on your to visit list.

We did, however, visit the temple that sits on the West Lake side, and that temple was probably my favourite pagoda that we visited in Vietnam - the Trấn Quốc Pagoda (so I didn't feel *too* bad that we skipped the Quan Thanh Temple). Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi - it was originally constructed in the sixth century - and entry is free. Nestled on the side of the lake, the grounds contain a Bodhi tree grown as a cutting from the original tree in India in which Buddha sat underneath and achieved enlightenment. I found it a peaceful place - plus anywhere which has buildings painted in *that* shade of yellow gets my vote.

Finally, the Temple of Literature is the other worthy temple visiting in Hanoi, though temple is a bit of an understatement. It was originally built in 1070 as a university dedicated to Confucius, as well as scholars and sages in general. Today students head there for good luck before exams, returning as graduates to have their photos taken. Entry, again, costs 30,000 dong (£1), which is pretty standard pricing across Hanoi for sights.

I could write whole blog posts about each of these places in Hanoi, but hopefully the above taster is enough to convince you that if you're in Vietnam's capital, these are the sights worth visiting. Though, of course, it's not just about ticking off each place - it's about soaking up the atmosphere, observing local life and, maybe if you're that way inclined, offering thanks for the journey you're on in one of the many temples you may find yourself in.

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