Hoan Kiem is a useful locator for navigating the city; for addresses downtown, people generally give directions in relation to it. It's good to know how to get from the lake to your hotel. The lake is also the jumping-off point for exploring the Old Quarter, Hanoi's labyrinth of traditional craft streets in a sprawling maze on the north end of the lake. Lakeside is also a good place to find a bench and rest your toes after trundling around town, and you can find some good little cafes, particularly on the north end. Grab an ice cream and take time to stroll, or stop and watch the moon reflect off the surface of this magical lake. You might even spot one of the giant turtles that took back the sword of Le Thai To to herald peace in Vietnam; sightings of this rare breed of turtles are quite common. Willows hang over the lake and reflect in the rippling light of dusk.
Thap Rua is the small stupa that was built in 1886 by an obscure Mandarin official. The temple was at first despised and involved in a scandal in which the official tried to have his father's bones laid to rest at the pagoda base. But over time, tiny Thap Rua, which sits on a small island at the very center of the pond, has become something of the city's Leaning Tower of Pisa, Statue of Liberty, and Eiffel Tower all rolled into one. Just two tiers of window galleries crowned by a short tapered roof, the temple commands great respect despite its recent construction, and it's a popular focal point for swooning lovers at lakeside in Hanoi's "Central Park" -- the lungs of the city. The turtles that can be seen basking at the temple's base are said to be up to 500 years old and the very species that stole the sword and founded the fair city. Hanoians love their stupa of peace; in fact, recent initiatives to have the aging pagoda painted and restored -- the small stupa is covered in moss and is overgrown with weeds -- were met with staunch disapproval from Hanoi citizens. And so it is as it always was.