Notes from Hoàn Kiếm

OCTOBER 28 — “You should go visit the lake, today the roads are closed,” said the proprietor of an Old Quarter boutique hotel my family stayed in during our recent brief Hanoi trip.

He spread a map on the table as we sipped cold pineapple juice, a respite in the muggy Vietnam morning. On the map, tourist attractions dotted the streets along with eating places and weirdly enough, airline offices — as if inviting visitors to just stay a little longer.

Our destination that morning was the Hỏa Lò Prison — the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” — so we asked him to trace the best route there, and we thanked him before heading out, our toddler tucked in the carrier.

We really did not have our minds set on visiting Hoàn Kiếm Lake, perhaps the most famous lake in Hanoi. Since it was one of the main tourist attractions, we thought we would pass it one way or another.

So we made our way to the “Hanoi Hilton”, witnessing the atrocities of French colonials on Viet dissenters and the “hospitality” the latter offered downed American pilots. We walked along the French quarter with its totally different architecture and vibe, past the picturesque Hanoi Opera House,

We knew we were in the vicinity of the lake long before we actually reached it.

Barriers were erected along the road adjacent to the one below the lake. They were free from cars, although sometimes you would see teens zipping around in electric scooters, while men walked their mopeds slowly under the watchful eye of the traffic police (only to scoot off when nobody was watching them).

The excitement was palpable, intensified the closer we got to the lake.

The wooden red Thê Húc bridge crossing Hoàn Kiếm Lake to the Temple of the Jade Mountain. — Picture by Zurairi AR
The wooden red Thê Húc bridge crossing Hoàn Kiếm Lake to the Temple of the Jade Mountain. — Picture by Zurairi AR

The first thing I noticed was four beautiful women wearing colourful traditional áo dài garments, a form-fitting long tunic worn over long pants. They were posing for a photoshoot in the middle of a crossroad.

For some reason, Hanoi folks love photoshoots. I hope to understand why one day.

In the background were hundreds, perhaps thousands of people just milling about the lake — taking a stroll, just sitting down admiring the view, some sipping coffee and sugarcane juice and green tea while sitting on those short-legged stools ubiquitous in Vietnam.

By my observation, perhaps eight in 10 were locals, and the rest were spellbound tourists like myself.

It was a Saturday. And it was then that I realised that the Hoàn Kiếm Lake is not just another famous lake, it is also the focal point of Hanoi life.

A little bit about Hoàn Kiếm. The name itself can be translated as “Lake of the Returned Sword”, referring to the legend of Emperor Lê Lợi returning his magic sword to the Turtle God, after he finished vanquishing the Chinese conquerors and the war was over.

“It symbolised his dedication to peace. That even with the possibility of another war coming, he was willing to part with his greatest weapon,” said a tour guide to us some time later.

In the past, the lake was the habitat of a specific variety, or even a unique species of turtle that could only be found there.

Fast forward to today, the last turtle was sighted in 2016, making the species effectively extinct. The Turtle Tower erected in the middle of the lake to honour the warrior Lê Lợi stands alone, the islet it was built on now long gone to the waters.

But the spirit of him seeking peace lives on in modern Hanoi. That Saturday we were there was also the Vietnamese Women’s Day, which is celebrated on a grand scale there. It was heartening to see men so enthusiastically organising the day’s events around the lake.

As we walked by, we could see a group of youths playing jianzi, or what Malays call “sepak bulu ayam” — to keep a weighted shuttlecock in the air with your feet. It is called đá cầu in Vietnam, and is some sort of a national sport. There were also other traditional games played, we spotted one similar to congkak, played with tiny white pebbles.

Just a few steps away, two groups of teens were synchronised dancing to booming music, mostly K-pop, as the appreciative audience cheered them on. At times, a few took centre stage, showing off their moves and competing against each other for fun. Who needs nightclubs when you can dance freely on the streets?

We thought all this excitement was merely because it was the Women’s Day. But we managed to return the next day on Sunday, and there were still as many people, still as much buzz. And the park and roads themselves remain relatively clean.

I could not help comparing this vim on a public square — which I had also recently witnessed in London’s Trafalgar Square — with our sedate Dataran Merdeka, partly because of restrictions by authorities and the City Hall.

As it is now, Dataran Merdeka has been closed until August next year for the River of Life project.

Here’s hoping that the new mayor understands that public squares belong to the public, and must always remain so.

And more importantly, for the Malaysian public to be carefree enough to let everyone let their hair down in such squares, with no judgement, no moralising.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.