Ngọc Sơn Temple is in the center of Hà Nội on a small island in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The lake is also called Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake) and was previously named Lục Thuỷ (Green Water) because its water is always green. In the 15th century, the lake was renamed Hoàn Kiếm (Returned Sword) because of a legend relating to Lê Lợi’s resistance war against Ming invaders.
When he was still living in his homeland Lam Sơn, Lê Lợi caught a sword which he carried with him through his 10-year insurgence against the Ming. After overcoming the invaders, he became king and established the capital in Thăng Long (Hà Nội). One day he was relaxing in a boat on Lục Thủy Lake when suddenly a giant tortoise appeared. Lê Lợi took out his sword and moved toward the tortoise but it snatched the sword from him and dived into the water. He knew the sword still belonged to the god who lent it to him to fight against the enemy and, after the battle, the god asked him to return it. Lê Lợi believed the god sent the tortoise to reclaim the sword so he renamed the lake “Hoàn Kiếm”, which means “returning the sword”. According to one of the 8 steles kept in the Ngọc Sơn Temple, this site used to be a hill 3-4 sào in width, and was said to be the best place for angling in the Late Lê Dynasty.
Previously there had been a temple dedicated to Guan Wu (a Chinese general in the Han Dynasty) built by Tín Trai from Nhị Khê Village, Hà Tây Province. Later it was repaired and widened to become the Ngọc Sơn Pagoda. In 1841, Tín Trai presented the pagoda to the Association of Good Deeds which worshipped Văn Xương Đế Quân, the saint of Taoist literature, because it did not have a temple of its own. The association removed the bell-tower and built a temple called Ngọc Sơn, honoring Văn Xương and his two subordinates, Khôi Tinh and Văn Giáp as well as Lã Động Tân, the patron saint of medicine (one of eight Taoist saints) and Guan Wu.
Trần Hưng Đạo (1226-1300), a Vietnamese general, scholar and master of the martial arts was sanctified as Đức Thánh Trần (Saint Trần, Hưng Đạo Vương Trần Quốc Tuấn). He was an outstanding military leader in the Trần Dynasty and led the army to victory over the Yuan-Mongol invaders three times in 1258, 1285, and 1288.
From 1859–1862, first provincial judge Nguyễn Như Cát and then Phương Đình Nguyễn Văn Siêu played an important part in collecting funds to rebuild Ngọc Sơn Temple as a continuous structure similar to what stands today. Passing through the gate, there is a five-storey stone tower on the left with a top shaped like a pen nib pointing toward the sky. There are three characters, Tả thanh thiên (Writing on the Blue Sky), on the side of the tower. Across from the Pen Tower is the Ink Slab support and an arched gate with a slab of stone carved in the shape of a peach half above it. Across from this slab is Thê Húc (Light of Dawn) Bridge with Đắc Nguyệt Lầu (Moon Viewing Tower) at the end along with the Trấn Ba (Preventing Waves from Crashing) Pavilion.
Ngọc Sơn Temple has three main sections: the external one is the bái đường (kowtowing place), the central section is for worshipping Văn Xương and the end section is dedicated to Trần Hưng Đạo.
Ngọc Sơn Temple is also a small museum preserving many precious relics from different historical eras including the stele writing entitled Ngọc Đế Son, (complied by Dr. Vũ Tông Phan in 1843), and 1,156 valuable carved wooden blocks for printing books on literature, medicine, and linguistics. On the walls and pillars there are parallel sentences and large letters and fantastic poems by many famous Confucian scholars who came here as sightseers. Particularly, there is a specimen of a rare Hồ Gươm turtle 2.1 meters in length, 1.2 meters wide and weighing 250 kilograms, that was found in 1967. The temple is made more sacred and beautiful by being placed on Sword Lake and relating to the legend of Lê Lợi returning the sword to the magical tortoise after gaining independence for the nation in 15th century.
Although it is located at the centre of a developing city, this site still maintains a sense of the poetic atmosphere of ancient Thăng Long. Thê Húc Bridge and Ngọc Sơn Temple have symbolized Thăng Long–Hà Nội for years.
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