Monday, March 12, 2018

Hanoi’s Shrinking Waters

                                    by Jim Goodman

Hoàn Kiếm Lake 
       What distinguishes Hanoi from other cities in the region is the large amount of water within its urban boundaries.  Every visitor knows picturesque Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the center of the old city, and probably the much bigger West Lake, and its subsidiary Trúc Bch.  But the city has many more lakes, plus innumerable scattered ponds.  Altogether, Hanoi has more water than any city east of Venice.
        It used to have much more.  West Lake began as a lagoon of the Red River until the early Lý Dynasty, when a landfill separated it.  Hoàn Kiếm Lake was connected to the Red River until the beginning of the 19th century.  H By Mu sprawled all the way to the southern wall of the Lý Citadel.  Other lakes, long since vanished, occupied most of what are now the city suburbs.  Many ponds lay within the old town environs until the French began filling them in. 
the Red River at Hanoi
       In prehistoric times the site of Hanoi was a lagoon within a gulf that lay at the confluence of the Red and Đung Rivers.  Over countless eons the gulf receded, disappearing under the layers of silt deposited by the two rivers.  The lagoon turned into a swamp with channels, lakes and densely forested islands.  The first pioneers arrived during the Bronze Age, settling on the islands and along the banks of the Tô Lch and Nhu Rivers, which are now in the western part of metropolitan Hanoi, grew rice, vegetables and fruits on small plots and supplemented this with hunting and fishing.
houseboats on the Red River near Long Biên Bridge
       Nobody knows the original village name, though in later centuries it became identified as Long Đ--“dragon’s navel.”  Near the Tô Lch River stood a small hillock, which the villagers believed was linked to the center of the earth by a long hole within the hillock.  The village continued to grow during the Chinese occupation, and when the Tang Dynasty came to power the Chinese shifted their administrative center from east of the Red River to Long Đ, which was becoming a more concentrated population and commercial center in the Delta.  In 621 they constructed a small citadel, of 1600 meters length, beside the Tô Lch.
West Lake, formerly Foggy Lake, in its usual weather conditions
       Chinese rule was never very secure, subjected to periodic local revolts and clashes with their rival Nanzhao, a kingdom in what is today Yunnan.  In the late 9th century the Chinese enlarged their citadel, renamed it Đai La and built a protective dike along the Red River.  But the Tang Dynasty fell in the early 10th century and in 938 Ngô Quyn captured Đai La, expelled the Chinese and re-established Vietnam’s independence. 
       Ngô Quyn made C Loa, the last capital of Vietnam before the Chinese conquest, the capital of his new state Đi C Viêt.  Đai La’s citadel fell into ruins, and some of the population moved to C Loa, but many residents remained.  The town was still inhabited when King Lý Thái Tô journeyed from Hoa Lư, the country’s capital since 968, to visit the site in 1010 and decided to transfer the capital.  According to legends, the king witnessed a dragon rising over the ruined citadel upon his arrival and so named the city Thăng Long—Rising Dragon.
preserved Hoàn Kiếm Lake turtle
       The new citadel, like Đai La, lay just south of West Lake, with the Tô Lch River serving as its northern moat.  Another large and long lake lay just west of the citadel.  The royal family, retainers, guards and high nobles all lived within its walls, while the commoners, mostly craftsmen and traders who served the palace, lived between the eastern wall and the Red River--the nucleus of what would later be the Old Town.  Stilted houses were still the norm and every house likely had a boat.  And some folks probably lived along the rivers in floating houses, a feature that has persisted down to the present on the western side of the Red River.
earliest map of Hanoi
       Lý Thái Tô’s successors created West Lake with a landfill to cut it off from the Red River.  Until 1547 it was called H Dâm Dàm—Foggy Lake—after its usual misty weather conditions.  Royalty rode pleasure boats on the lake and the earliest recorded water-puppet performance took place on the southern shore in the 11th century.  They also established the Temple of Literature on an island near the citadel in H By Mu, extended the dikes and built canals.  
       Because most nobles lived on estates far from the city, Thăng Long did not become very large during the Lý Dynasty, nor in the Trn Dynasty that followed.   Mongol invaders destroyed it three times in the 13th century and Chăm armies sacked it thrice in the 14th century.  Ming Dynasty Chinese occupied it 1408-28.  Only after their expulsion, and the foundation of the Lê Dynasty, did the city, now called Đông Kinh—the Eastern Capital—finally develop. 
Bẩy Mẫu Lake today
       The Lê Court demanded officials live in the city.  They mostly resided near the citadel, but the old town grew with guilds set up to service the palace and its government personnel.  Many ponds still existed in the old town, the Tô Lch River, wider and deeper than the scraggly creek that’s left of it today, was a prime transport artery from the city to the countryside and the body of water beside the old quarter, still connected to the Red River, changed its name from Lc Thu--Green Lake—to H Hoàn Kiếm—Lake of the Restored Sword, after a legend about the dynasty’s founder Lê Lợi.
Đông Kinh (Hanoi) riverfront, 1679
       A nobleman from Thanh Hoá province, he is supposed to have visited the lake when contemplating launching a rebellion against the predatory Chinese occupiers.  Casting his net for fish, he instead caught a magic sword and used it during the insurrection.  When he finally expelled the Chinese in 1428 he took a boat out onto the lake and a huge turtle, for which the lake had long been famous, emerged from the water and took the sword from his hand.  Mission accomplished, the sword had to be returned.
Hanoi in the late Lê Dynasty
       A specimen of one of these turtles, over a meter long, has been preserved at the temple on Ngc Sơn Island at the top end of the lake.  For centuries Hanoi residents kept their eyes open for a glimpse of one of these turtles whenever they walked along the lake. Their sight of it would be brief, as the turtle sucked up some air and plunged back beneath the surface.  Never a favorable environment for them after it was blocked from the river, the last turtle died just two years ago.  But before that, at the lakeside opening ceremony for Hanoi’s millennium celebrations in October 2010, the Hoàn Kiếm turtle popped his head above the water in full view of thousands.
Trấn Quốc Pagoda
       In the early 16th century, after a succession of four weak, incompetent, teenaged Lê emperors, Mạc Đăng Dung seized the throne and founded a new dynasty.  Some of the Lê family escaped to Thanh Hoá and, backed by the powerful Trịnh and Nguyễn families, eventually waged a long war against the Mạc and in 1592 captured Đông Kinh and restored the Lê Dynasty.  However, the victors had a falling out and another civil war resulted, this time pitting partisans of the Trịnh and Nguyển against each other.  The Nguyển wound up with autonomy over the south, while the Trịnh ruled the north.  The Lê emperor was just a figurehead for both sides.
Trúc Bạch Lake
      The warfare, sporadic anyway, did not affect Đông Kinh.  The old town continued to get more congested, while migrants filled in parts of the big lakes and made farms and villages on the outskirts of the city.  The long lake just west of the citadel was filled in and organized into an area known as the Thirteen Farms.  Immigrants from the countryside filled in parts of Bẩy Mẫu Lake, separating it from the Kim Ngưu River.
       Within the city itself, the Lê emperor and his entourage stayed inside a smaller, rebuilt citadel.  The Trịnh Lords set up their palaces near Hoàn Kiếm Lake, including one on Ngọc Sơn Island.  From here they would observe naval maneuvers on the lake, the boats sailing in from the Red River.  In the 18th century the palace was replaced first by a Buddhist pagoda, then temples to the god of war Quan Công and the spirits of literature and the soil.  In the early Nguyễn Dynasty a temple to Trần Hưng Đạo, hero of the Mongol Wars, also went up on the island. 
fishing at Bẩy Mẫu Lake
       At West Lake, in 1600 one of the city’s most venerable temples, Chùa Khai Quốc—Establishing the Nation Pagoda—was removed to an island in the southwest part of the lake. Originally built along the Red River in the 6th century, soil erosion threatened its stability.  In its new location it was renamed Chùa Trấn Quốc—Defending the Nation Pagoda.  In 1619 local residents built a causeway alongside it, which gave it easier access and also created Truc Bạch Lake beside it, which was used to breed fish.
       In the late 18th century, the city experienced another round of turmoil with the collapse of the Trịnh Lords regime, a brief occupation by the Chinese, the Tây Sơn Revolt and the capture of the city by Nguyễn Ánh in 1802.  Founding a new dynasty, he moved the national capital to Huế and ordered the old citadel demolished, a new one made and landfills to separate the Red River from Hoàn Kiếm, now truly a lake.
June flowers on the lake
Thê Húc Bridge
       More changes in the city’s water ratio ensued in the next few decades.  By the time Emperor Minh Mạng changed the city’s name to Hanoi in 1831, the big lakes that had sprawled over the southern and western parts of the area were much reduced.  Bẩy Mẫu split twice, with reclaimed land now separating it from its western half, creating Hồ Giảng Võ, and a road running directly south bisecting the eastern part. And the Temple of Literature was no longer on an island, though a small lake survived just across the street from the compound, where scholars still went for quiet study.
Tháp Rùa--the Turtle Tower
       More drastic changes occurred as soon as the French took over.  They began filling in the ponds in and around the old town and the lower part of the Tô Lịch where it ran into the Red River.  No ponds exist in the old town today, but the memory of them is still sharp.  The street Cấu Gỗ (wooden bridge) got its name from the bridge that crossed the stream coming from Hồ Thái Cực (Lake of Abundant Fish) next to it to Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  The next street up, Gia Ngu, means ‘fish market’ in literary Sino-Vietnamese.  The streets branching off Hạng Bông--Hàng Mành and Hàng Hòm--run slightly downhill, because there used to be a pond at the end.
       Before this development, in 1886 a Vietnamese mandarin working for the French persuaded authorities to allow him to build a tower on an islet in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, where the turtles used to bask in the sun and lay their eggs.  Called Tháp Rùa (Turtle Tower), it honors the magic turtle that seized Lê Lợi’s sword.  The mandarin who built it intended to lay the remains of his father there, but local people objected and removed the body. 
       The tower remained, though, and in later years the French added a statue on top similar to the Statue of Liberty in New York.  The Vietnamese official the Japanese installed during their occupation removed the statue in 1945.  Ever since, the tower has become the best-known monument in Hanoi.
B-52 wreckage in a Ba Đình  pond
       When the French finally departed from Hanoi in 1954 the city core was rather densely populated, but vast areas of farms and pastures still surrounded the settled area.  This situation continued until the late 1980s, when the new renovation policy (đôi mới) inaugurated rapid development of the city.  The rural belt around Hanoi quickly filled in with roads and buildings and in a few years a quarter of the city’s water area disappeared.  West Lake lost twenty percent of its water before the government stepped in to halt further encroachment.  Other lakes in the city, like Giảng Võ and Bẩy Mẫu also shrank considerably, while a quarter of the lakes existing a decade earlier completely disappeared. 
Triiều Khúc Pagoda and its pond
       The smaller ponds largely survived because they were often part of temple compounds.  One pond in Ba Đình district became a monument to the America War because it contains the wreckage of a B-52 bomber.  Currently, it seems likely that the size of the remaining lakes and ponds will remain constant.  After all, they do add to the city’s beauty, for the buildings around them that reflect in the water and the careful, harmonious layout of the ponds.  Like the beautiful, mid-19th century red wooden bridge to Ngọc Sơn Island, called Cấu Thê Húc (Morning Sunlight Bridge), they represent a prominent cultural characteristic and artistic achievement of Old Hanoi—the aesthetic marriage of architecture and water.

summer flowers at Hoàn Kiếm Lake
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Hanoi and its lakes are part of Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through Vietnam.  See the schedule at


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