In the heart of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake, and in the heart of the lake is Ngoc Son Temple. Surrounded by hanging trees and green waters, Ngoc Son Temple, also called the Temple of the Jade Mountain, combines artful beauty with ancient history and legend. It is the most popular temple in all of Hanoi, and a place you won’t want to miss.
Exploring the Temple
The original temple site dates all the way back to the 14th century, but the renovations of the current buildings are from 1864 by Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian intellectual. Most of his additions to the temple honor Confucian and Taoist scholars.
The entrance of the temple is the Three-Passage Gate, called Tam Quan. The first thing you’ll notice when you walk through the gate is Pen Tower, or Thap But. This tower is designed to look like a writing brush, and the characters down its side read “Ta Thanh Thien,” which means “To write on the blue sky.” Van Sieu had this built to celebrate the determination of righteous scholars.
As you go past the Pen Tower, you’ll come to another gate. Look up, and you’ll spot the The Ink-Slab, Dai Nghien. This is another symbol to honor Confucian literature.
Next up is the charming and iconic Huc Bridge. The bridge’s full name is the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge. Bright red and often lined with flags, this bridge is a good vantage point to take some beautiful pictures, and maybe spot the legendary turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Walk over the bridge, and head through the Moon Contemplation Pavilion, Dac Nguyet Lau. The symbols on this gate are prayers for protection.
Now you’ve reached the main temple! You can light a bit of incense and place it in the bronze brazier for the saints, then head inside. The first two altars are for Van Xuong, the guardian saint of literature, and Lac To, the protector of medicinal arts and patron of physicians.
The high altar is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, the legendary general who protected Vietnam from an invading horde of 300,000 Mongol warriors in the 13th century. He’s one of the most famous heroes of Vietnam, for good reason!
You can also find a lake turtle on display in a glass case inside the temple. He weighed 250kg and is guessed to have been over 500 years old. Some even claim that he was the same turtle from the legend of the lake.
Take your time exploring and maybe relax in the Pavilion Against Waves, Tran Ba Dinh, where local Vietnamese often go to play a round of chess in the afternoon.
The Legend of Hoan Kiem Lake
Ngoc Son Temple isn’t the only part of the lake with a colorful past. The lake itself is also a thing of legend.
The Chinese Ming Dynasty had invaded and occupied Vietnam in 1407. According to the stories, a Vietnamese god known as the Dragon King decided to help his people. He lent his magical sword, named ‘The Will of Heaven,’ to a man called Le Loi, and in 1418 Le Loi led a revolt against the Ming Dynasty. For ten years Le Loi fought against the Chinese invaders, and slowly pushed them back.
In 1428 Le Loi was crowned the emperor of Vietnam because he had managed to reclaim independence for his country.
A year after he became emperor, Le Loi was riding in his dragon boat across a lake in front of his palace. Suddenly a monstrous turtle surfaced and called out to Le Loi. He told the emperor that he had come to take back the sword for the Dragon King. Le Loi realized that he had done his duty for the god and for his country and so he heaved the magical sword into the water. The turtle snatched it up in his huge jaws and took it to the bottom of the lake to return to the Dragon King.
Le Loi renamed the lake Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Returned Sword, and he built Turtle Tower, Thap Rua, on an island in the middle of the lake to honor the turtle and his god.
If you are very lucky, you may spot the descendent of the legendary turtle. There is only one left in the lake, and it is considered a good omen if you happen to spot him.
Things to know before you go!
Ngoc Son Temple is open from 8am till 5pm. Give yourself one or two hours to fully explore the temple– longer if you want to walk around the lake! Tickets can be purchased at the booth just before you cross Huc Bridge, but are only necessary if you are going inside the main temple. They cost 3,000 dong (less than $1). It is usually less crowded if you go early in the day!
The temple is beautiful, and all the more memorable if you understand how much meaning, history, and purpose is etched into each and every piece.
Tags: Vietnam tours in Hanoi