Spent most of the day today around Hoan Kiem Lake visiting the temple and later attending a performance of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. I also visited nearby St. Joseph’s Cathedral and enjoyed sweet lemon tea at a nearby locals café. Everyone sits outside on tiny, close-to-the-ground benches to drink their tea.
Streets are blocked off for New Year’s Eve plans at Hanoi Opera House Square and Trang Fien Plaza in the lake area. I plan to head there on New Year’s Eve to ring in 2012. The Vietnamese celebrate two New Years. The second – Lunar New Year or TET Nguyen Dan – is observed January 23rd – 26th. The TET festival epitomizes the identity of Vietnamese culture.
“The Lunar New Year is observed in all of East Asia influenced by Chinese civilization, but each country celebrates it in a way peculiar to that country by making it conform to its psyche and historico-geographical conditions. Many rites, festivities, and practices of Vietnamese TET are distant variants of the Chinese model, and are even original creations which hark back to myths and legends of the pre-Chinese period which prevailed in an authentically Viet culture of the Bronze Age (first millennium B.C.) called the Red River Culture.”
In Vietnamese the name Hồ Hoàn Kiếm means “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword”. The lake has historical importance to the Vietnamese and is a public focal point in Hanoi. The atmosphere at the lake is pleasant and relaxed and it’s a very popular place.
“According to the legend, emperor Lê Lợi handed a magic sword called Heaven’s Will (which brought him victory in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty) back to the Golden Turtle God in the lake. Turtle Tower stands on a small island near the center of lake and is linked to the legend.” Large soft-shell turtles live in the lake and it’s good luck if you see one of the illusive creatures while visiting.
The species is critically endangered and the number of them living in the lake is unclear. “Stories of the Hoan Kiem turtle began in the fifteenth century with Lê Lợi, who became an emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Lê Dynasty. According to legend, Lê Lợi had a magic sword given to him by Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God. One day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam’s independence, Lê Lợi was out boating on a lake in Hanoi. Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from him, and dove back into the depths. Efforts to find both the sword and the turtle were unsuccessful. Lê Lợi then acknowledged the sword had gone back to the Golden Turtle God and renamed the lake Hoan Kiem Lake, The Lake of the Returned Sword.”
Jade Island is near the northern shore of the lake where the Temple of Jade Mountain stands. Erected in the 18th century, the Temple honors the 13-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in the fight against the Yuan Dynasty. Jade Island connects to the shore via wooden red-painted Huc Bridge (Huc, meaning Morning Sunlight).
Thang Long Puppet Theater is near Hoan Kiem Lake. Puppet shows are held there throughout the day and the performances are an “enchanting and lighthearted combination of comedy and intricately skilled puppetry”.
The troupe performs “vignettes” of daily life in the countryside and ancient tales, including the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake and the peaceful founding of Hanoi. Puppeteers stand in knee-deep water and use bamboo poles to extend wooden lacquered puppets from behind the screen and up through the surface of a small pond that forms the stage.
The audience is “suspended in disbelief and gets caught up in a magical hour of escape”. A group of musicians share a side stage next to the water and perform live music and songs. Water puppetry has been practiced in Vietnam for hundreds of years and was a favorite form of entertainment during flood season.
Initially this traditional entertainment celebrated the end of the rice harvest. Over time the performances entertained people during special events and ceremonies. The acoustics in the theater are great and I was lucky to get a seat near the front of the theatre. Tomorrow I’ll visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the night market.