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The capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, and located in the heart of this bustling city is Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Translated as “Lake of the Returned Sword” in English, its emerald waters guard a treasure that once aided a hero in his noble quest to save the country.
Discover what it is in the story below, and how the traditional art form of water puppetry spreads the tale far and wide through a quiz.
At the beginning of the 15th century, Vietnam was under the Chinese empire’s rule. Forced to follow the cruel orders of a foreign nation, people lived in constant fear and suffering.
Over time, the Vietnamese decided that it was time to defend themselves. War broke out with the rise of insurgent groups that fought against their merciless rulers.
Daily life continues for the commonfolk even in times of war. This includes Le Than, a fisherman who lives in a village of Thanh Hóa province.
It was another day of fishing at the river near his home. Le Than was growing restless underneath the scorching afternoon sun when he felt something heavy in his net. Thinking it was a large fish, he pulled up his fishing gear in anticipation. “Today is my lucky day!”
The hopes of a bountiful catch were dashed when Le Than grasped for the bottom of his net and found a long metal blade, rusty and dull, tangled inside. The fisherman saw no point in keeping it. “I can’t even use it to cut rope or slice fish.” Le Than let out a dissatisfied grunt and threw the blade back into the waters.
The disappointment from Le Than’s last fishing trip made him determined not to leave work empty-handed again. He cast his net in another area of the river the next day. Instead of lively fishes or scurrying crabs, he caught the same metal blade from before. This happened a few more times until Le Than finally decided to accept his fate.
“Perhaps this is the will of the heavens.” He brought the curious object home and kept it in his hut.
Not long after, Le Than decided to join his fellow countrymen in their fight for a better life. He became part of the insurgent group led by Le Loi, a wealthy landowner from the village of Nam Son. Whilst respected by the Chinese, he refused to work for them and poured all his efforts into steering his country towards freedom.
Le Than’s skills won the favour of Le Loi, and the two men often brainstormed military strategies in Le Than’s home. One day, a mysterious glow in the corner of his comrade’s hut caught Le Loi’s attention. It came from the blade that Le Than had cast away for a long time. When he brought it over to Le Loi for closer inspection, he was surprised to find the words Thuan Thien (Will of Heaven) engraved on its now-polished surface.
“It seems like the blade has found its rightful owner,” exclaimed Le Than, who handed the sword to Le Loi with no hesitation.
The period after Le Loi’s visit to Le Than’s house turned out to be one of great difficulty: The insurgent group’s loss against the Chinese became a blow to Le Loi’s morale, and his army was forced to retreat into the forest.
Le Loi climbed onto the branch of an old Banyan tree to hide. Just as he heaved a quiet sigh of dejection, a magnificent streak of light caught his attention. Its source seemed to come from a nearby branch.
The light guided him to a mysterious object underneath the branches, which he soon identified to be a sword hilt without a matching blade. It was made of horn and covered with precious jewels.
As soon as Le Loi returned to the military base, he placed the hilt onto the sword presented by Le Than—it was a perfect fit! Le Than and everyone else knelt upon this almost-unbelievable sight, “God has bestowed on you this magic sword.”
After this event, Le Loi’s army bounced back from defeat. With the magic sword, Le Loi gained the strength of a thousand men and won the subsequent battles against the enemy troops. The Vietnamese eventually claimed victory over their homeland.
Le Loi was crowned as Emperor Le Thai To after the war and founded the Le dynasty. He was content to see his people living peacefully and in safety.
One day, Le Loi took a boat trip around Luc Thuy Lake (Green Water Lake). He caught sight of a glimmering object among the lotus leaves. It turned out to be a giant turtle with a golden shell, who opened its mouth and began to speak.
“I have been sent over to you by my master, Long Vuong the Dragon King. Now that peace has been restored in the kingdom, please return the sword back to him.”
Le Loi took out the sword from his waistband and carefully handed it over to the turtle. He watched the turtle’s figure disappear into the depths of the river’s waters. Since then, the lake has been renamed Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and a Turtle Tower has been set up in its centre as a reference to the legend.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Hoàn Kiếm Lake, see if you can catch the rare sight of the turtle with a golden shell!
Illustrated by: Radha Waykool
Legends such as those of Sword Lake and other tales of everyday life are told through the unique Vietnamese art form of water puppetry. Find out more about it in the quiz below!