VIETNAM – Hanoi has a lot of lakes. The city, built on lowlands between rivers, is even sometimes known as the “city of lakes.” They provide a scenic and tranquil respite from the crushing traffic and incessant bustle in other parts of the city.
Not far from the Old Quarter, Ho Tay (West Lake), Hanoi’s largest lake, is picturesque in a different way. It still boasts some temples and parks on its shores.
But it also has apartment buildings that some of the city’s more affluent residents call home. West Lake is a popular place for recreation boating, fishing, sightseeing and a romantic dating place for couples, especially in sunset time.
Back in the mists of time, a gifted monk returned from China, bearing quantities of bronze as a reward for curing the emperor’s illness. The monk gave most of metal to the state but from a small lump he fashioned a bell, whose ring was so pure it resonated throughout the land and beyond the mountains. The sound reached the ears of a golden buffalo calf inside the Chinese Imperial treasury; the creature followed the bell, mistaking it for the call of its mother.
Then the bell fell silent and the calf spun round and round, not knowing which way to go. Eventually, it trampled a vast hollow which filled with water and became West Lake, Ho Tay. Some say that the golden buffalo is still there, at the bottom of the lake, but can only be retrieved by a man assisted by his ten natural sons.
More prosaically, West Lake is a shallow lagoon left behind as the Red River shifted course eastward to leave a narrow strip of land, reinforced over the centuries with massive embankments, separating the lake and river. The lake was traditionally an area for royal recreation or spiritual pursuits, where monarchs erected summer palaces and sponsored religious foundations, among them Hanoi’s most ancient pagoda, Tran Quoc. In the 17th century, villagers built a causeway across the lakes southeast corner, creating a small fishing lake now called Truc Bach and ringed with little cafes.
In the last decade or so, West Lake has once again become Hanoi’s most fashionable address, complete with exclusive residential development, lakeside clubs, spas and a clutch of luxury hotels. For now; however, a bicycle ride up the lake’s east shore still makes a pleasant excursion with one or two sights to aim for, while Hanoi’s newest cultural asset, the Museum of Ethnology, southwest of the lake, is best tackled by car or bus.
Alternatively, the attractions grouped along the causeway are only about 500m north of the Presidential Palace and can easily be combined with a visit to the monuments around Ba Dinh Square.
To entirely enjoy the beauty of West Lake, you can hire a bicycle for biking around Ho Tay in early morning or late afternoon, the best time to see sunrise and sunset in Hanoi. Or if you want something more challenging, SUP in West Lake would be a brilliant idea!