Ho Tay (West Lake): Where Yesterday meets Today

What better way to spend a hot, clear, sunny day than go sailing in calm water and enjoy a refreshing view? Such is among the many things that isn’t hard to do in a country like Vietnam. But of its numerous and vast corners, Hanoi is one place in the country that cradles the most beautiful lakes. With about 20 magnificent lakes, it is hard to resist the allure of this graceful city.

Let me take you to a quick tour to one of Hanoi’s most wonderful places to be - - - the West Lake (or Ho Tay). Located in its very heart, and known as the city’s largest lake, Ho Tay’s shores stretches up to 17 km long. It is surrounded with well-tended gardens, high-end hotels, and villas - - - its entirety spells a beautiful blend of the past and of today. The West Lake is a popular place for recreation. But apart from that, it has long been a central part of life in Hanoi.

There are many legends surrounding the lake’s past, among which includes a story of an evil, nine-tailed fox who wanted to harm local residents, and a giant whose bronze bell brought a rampaging golden buffalo to the area. But in truth, the lake was formed when the red river changed its course. Throughout history, West Lake has been a key feature of Hanoi. Kings built palaces and temples around the lake, and today's “modern palaces” of high-end villas, hotels, and restaurants continue that tradition. Points of interest for history buffs are the Tran Quoc Pagoda (the oldest pagoda in all of Vietnam), and the Quan Thanh Temple (one of ancient Hanoi's Four Sacred Temples).

But apart from the old tales, real-life stories surrounded this beautiful body of water as well. For locals, the West Lake is dearly attached to every childhood memory of every season of every year that passed. It is where many friendships and special relationships started, while others ended. The cherry blossoms that stood around it have provided shade to families and friends who came to enjoy a quick moment of peace and quiet away from the city’s busy streets.

During the summer young people get together at Phu Tay Ho Temple, which sits right in the middle of West Lake shore. Friends snack on steamed snails and pray at the temple for a fruitful new school year. Unmarried couples are usual visitors to this place especially on Sundays and on the first and 15th day of each lunar month. For people who want to pray for good fortune, the temple is among the first places they have in mind. The Thanh Nien Street, which separates West Lake and the Truc Bach Lake, is always teemed with dating young couples. Many of the married couples of today could recall most of their fondest memories to have started in this part of Hanoi. The romance that envelopes the entire West Lake had become famous inspiration for many poets, song-writers and artists in the success of their works.

Over time, developments started to take place around West Lake. But despite that, the lake stayed as serene and placid as how it was decades back. The entire 500ha around West Lake continued to serve as homes to village growing flowers and handicraft villages. The old pagodas and temples continued to stand and serve as havens of peace for those who come and seek it. But most of all, as it retained its allure for people from all walks of life, the atmosphere that is always there lingered and the very people that come to experience such atmosphere are never disappointed.

Confined by Modern-day Structures

Development is inevitable not just in Hanoi, but in entire of Vietnam as the country continues to move forward. Numerous cafes, restaurants, bars and modern-day entertainment spots stood one after the other around West Lake. In recent years, the area has also begun to host luxurious, up market events and establishments. If people want to switch from the humble entertainment in West Lake, they can quickly go for a fine dining experience at the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake Hotel’s Milan Restaurant. Watching the twilight from the 19th floor of Sofitel Hanoi with a bird’s eye view of the West Lake, the Truc Bach Lake and the Hong River is another special experience that does not come cheap. The restaurant serves oysters, barbecued meat and ice cream.

But how beautifully these latest century experiences intertwine with the simple joys and views that is in Ho Tay. Vietnam’s equivalent to Starbucks, Trung Nguyen Café, is located on a white boat floating right on the lake, and there are other boats that offer dinner cruises as well. Besides the modern cafés and bars, Nguyen Khac Hieu Street serves delectable treats for families to feast on. Special dishes like pho cuon, fried goose and many seafood dishes are popularly served to families all around the lake while they savor both delicious meals and unforgettable family affairs under the willow trees.

With all the precious moments that took place in West Lake, people will look beyond the modern-era structures and will continue to see the place as a haven of their fondest and oldest memories.