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Sep 19, 2023 / 18:41

Exploring heritage trees around Hoan Kiem Lake

The Hoan Kiem Lake area in the heart of Hanoi, famous for its lively pedestrian area with special dishes, is a botanical garden with "heritage trees".

On a typical Hanoi street, only one or two species of trees are planted in rows. But around Hoan Kiem Lake, visitors can find hundreds of trees belonging to a dozen or more species. Some have been given the unofficial title of "heritage trees" due to their great age and irreplaceable charm.

Two famous phoenix trees on Le Thai To Street

Two famous phoenix trees on Le Thai To Street form the romantic backdrop of Hoan Kiem Lake. Photo: Vietnam Tourism

Let's explore at the top of Dinh Tien Hoang Street, where a row of ancient dragon plum trees stretches past Hoa Phong Tower to the Hanoi Post Office. The nearby Dinh Le Street is also lined with similar plants. Around March and April, the two streets are colored yellow by the fallen dragon plum leaves.

About 40 years ago, Hanoians, both children and adults, climbed these trees to pick the fruits, which dangle like musical notes in the blue sky for the orchestra of cicadas to play their summer symphony. The citizens love dragon plums so much that the late writer Bang Son wrote: "The blood of Hanoians has the sour taste of dragon plums".

The ancient Bombax ceiba on Dinh Tien Hoang Street

Walking north past the Ly Thai To statue, you will come across a Bombax ceiba tree over 100 years old. It takes four adults with outstretched arms to fully encircle the trunk, while its red blossoms in late spring are as luscious as a maiden's lips, turning passersby into captivated admirers.

Although not planted in large numbers around the capital, Bombax ceiba trees are the familiar childhood friends of Vietnamese people, especially those living in the northern Delta and Central Highlands.

 Hoan Kiem Lake is adorned with the velvety red Hoa Gao or Bombax Ceiba flower every March.  Photo: Reatimes 

The ancient mango pine

Just a few dozen steps away, when you see Tran Nguyen Han Street on the other side of the road, you will have reached the familiar combination: an ancient mango pine tree and a cluster of nine Java olive trees. Because of their shape and leaf color similarity, the latter has long been mistaken for another species called "nine-trunked mango-pine". Only recently have they been properly recognized as mo trees - the Vietnamese name comes from their brown fruits looking like... wooden fish, or mo.

In both spring and fall, the mango pine trees produce thousands of red pendant flowers that resemble thousands of royal hairpins on the graceful hair of a princess. The tree is best known, however, when it and its nine neighbors change their leaves in winter, turning a corner of Hoan Kiem Lake yellow, sometimes even orange or red.

The unique cluster of Nine Java olive trees

Photographer Trinh Linh Giang shared his feelings about the unique Loc Vung or Java olive trees: "I started taking pictures of this Java olive tree when I got my first camera, about 15 years ago. The tree blooms in spring, while its leaves turn yellow in winter. These are the times when the tree looks the most charming.

The Loc Vung tree at Sword Lake during the leaf changing season. Photo: Huy Pham

The tree is one of the largest ancient trees on Hoan Kiem Lake and is familiar to many generations of Hanoi residents. Every one of its flowering or leaf-changing seasons draws flocks of locals and tourists here to take pictures. Especially when the leaves turn yellow, this corner looks like somewhere in autumn in Europe, Korea or Japan".

Continuing the walk along the wide sidewalk, visitors will reach Ngoc Son Temple. Beyond the Huc Bridge is the world of ancient curtain fig trees, their prop roots hanging over the lake like grandpas’ beards. One of them was once toppled by a storm and revived by the locals. The event is even mentioned in an excerpt from the short story Mot Nguoi Ha Noi (A Hanoian) in Vietnam's 12th-grade literature textbook.

The Banyan Tree at Ba Kieu Temple

From the temple, looking towards the Monument of Self-Sacrificing Defenders, you can see a huge banyan tree. It's called the Ba Kieu Temple Banyan Tree simply because it's been standing by the temple for hundreds of years. Legend has it that there used to be a red silk cotton tree on this spot, which was later surrounded by the banyan tree.

After some time, the first tree died, leaving a space inside the banyan tree. Among Hanoians, this is an iconic love story of a faithful couple who stayed together until one died, leaving the other with an unfillable void in his heart.

 The marvelous ancient banyan tree and Ba Kieu temple are across from Hoan Kiem Lake. Photo: To Quoc Newspaper

Dinh Tien Hoang Street ends at Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square. From the fountain facing the lake, visitors can see a large tree with heart-shaped leaves - the only Bodhi tree in the area. Closer inspection reveals rusty strings around one of its large branches facing the square. These strings were used to hang a mushroom-shaped loudspeaker.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Hanoians gathered under such loudspeakers, which were hung throughout the city, to listen to Uncle Ho's Tet wish poems on the last lunar night, to weep at the news of the Great Leader's illness and passing in 1969, to be warned of the bombers that devastated the capital in 1972, and to burst with joy on Liberation Day on April 30, 1975.

Leaving behind the famous Thuy Ta building and the Thuy Ta ice cream shop, you arrive at Le Thai To Street, lined with massive khaya trees. The species is considered the typical one of the French-built streets in Hanoi.

Hoan Kiem Lake is brilliant with Lagerstroemia and Flamboyant Flowers in summer. Photo: Kien Truc Magazine

Walking along the western shore, you will see the headquarters of the Nhan Dan Newspaper across the street. Its courtyard is home to the oldest tree around Hoan Kiem Lake - and probably in the entire downtown area: a banyan tree over 300 years old! Old banyan trees like this are the remnants of ancient Vietnamese villages. In 1835, Vu Tong Phan founded the Ho Dinh School under this very tree, right on the site of the newspaper building. It was one of the first private schools in Thang Long and greatly influenced the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc movement.

The end of Le Thai To Street intersects with Hang Khay Street, where a row of willow trees always creates a serene atmosphere. There is also an old saraca diving tree up to 20 meters high. Every summer, its orange blossoms, the red of the phoenix trees and the purple of the giant crepe myrtle trees around the lake, turn the whole area into a giant flower basket.

The ancient fig tree next to the Pen Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake. File Photo 

Other notable plants in the area include 30 sua trees that are decades - some even a century - old, about 10 tamarind trees that are about 130 years old, a row of orchid trees, four giant taek trees and seven tiger's claw trees, and a cluster of fig trees near Thap But or Pen Tower.

As the late writer Bang Son once remarked, the green trees around Hoan Kiem Lake are a Hanoi specialty that have entered the souls of many generations of musicians, photographers, and even ordinary people struggling to make a living every day. With or without official recognition, they are the indispensable heritage of the capital, an Eden for Hanoians and tourists alike.