Located to the Northwest of Hanoi, with the total area of approximately 5.3 km2 and the perimeter up to 17 kilometers, West Lake (also known as Ho Tay) is the largest freshwater lake in the capital city of Vietnam. Along the shoreline of West Lake, there are many hotels, restaurants, and cafes built in Western styles besides Vietnamese historical sites. Many people have considered West Lake as “Hanoi Modern Quarter” which is larger, more modern and less crowded than Hanoi Old Quarter. West Lake is a romantic corner of Hanoi which has appeared in many songs, stories and, poems about Hanoi. This is a must-go destination with a lot of interesting things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I. HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS OF WEST LAKE, HANOI, VIETNAM
West Lake may be up to one thousand years old. A long time ago, it was the favorite place of Kings and royal families where they built many gorgeous palaces and royal architectural sites. Scientists have proved that West Lake in Hanoi now used to be a part of Red River, one of the longest rivers in Vietnam. Before that, local people used many legends and imaginary stories to explain how West Lake was created. Each legend or story was associated with a particular name of the so-called West Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam now. So, besides West Lake or Ho Tay (which means the Lake in the East of Hanoi), this place also used to be called by many other names. The two most well-known names are the Fox Corse Swamp and the Golden Buffalo Lake.
1. The Fox Corpse Swamp – Perhaps the oldest name of West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
This name was associated with a tale of the nine-tailed fox which has been transmitted from generation to generation. As for the legend, the total area of West Lake used to be rocky mountains which housed the monster nine-tailed fox. It had lived there for more than a thousand years and was able to transform itself into human shape. It often kidnaped children to eat and captured beautiful girls. To weed out this monster, Lac Long Quan (the King of Vietnam at that time) raised the water up to drown it, Then, the fox died, and the place where it was killed turned into a deep pool. Local people called it the Fox Corpse Swamp (literally the West Lake now)
2. The Golden Buffalo Lake – The most well-known name of West Lake, Hanoi Vietnam
This name was based on the legend about the Chinese golden buffalo. A long time ago, there was a monk whose name was Minh Khong. He was known for being invincible and possessing an extraordinary strength. Once, he was invited to China to save the son of the Chinese King from a fatal disease. In return for his help, the King allowed him to take as much jewelry as he wanted, but he only took a vast amount of black copper and sailed back to Vietnam. After coming back home, he had the black copper molded into a giant bell. He stroked the bell in order to signal that the whole country was in peace.
However, the echo flew over to China and woke the golden buffalo of China up. As for many Asian countries’ culture, black copper is the mother of gold. Believing that its mother was calling, the golden buffalo eagerly headed to where the bell situated. Unfortunately, it was lost as the bell. The buffalo was so infuriated that it trod the ground firmly and collapsed it, leaving a large area to fall into a deep hole. Soon after that, water filled up the hole and turned it into a lake. The buffalo stayed forever under the lake. People called it the Golden Buffalo Lake.
The lake started to be called West Lake or Ho Tay in 1573. About 20 years ago, there was an array of fisherman villages here, and no international tourists or even local people even thought about a stroll around there. It was not until 2010 when people built a paved road around the lake that it began to attract more and more visitors. Up to now, West Lake has been the most familiar name to Hanoians and Vietnamese people.
II. WHERE TO VISIT AROUND WEST LAKE, HANOI, VIETNAM
1. Truc Bach Lake – The corner of West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Truc Bach Lake is located to the Southeast of West Lake, Hanoi. It is separated from West Lake only by Thanh Nien Street, so tourists can walk there from West Lake within a few minutes. It used to be a part of West Lake until the 17th century when local people built a narrow dike to separate it from the rest of West Lake in order to raise fish.
In 1925, the French built Yen Phu electricity company right on the Northern bank of Truc Bach Lake which no long after that became the most important source of electricity of Hanoi till the 1980s. Since then, Truc Bach Lake became one of the most frequently attacked areas in Hanoi during the wartime. This place marked a gorgeous victory of Vietnamese army. In 1967, John McCain’s plane was shot down while bombarding over this area. John McCain jumped into Truc Bach Lake and was arrested by Vietnamese people. Nowadays, there is a monument built on the bank of Truc Bach Lake to memorize this historical event. Truc Bach Lake is much smaller than West Lake, so you can walk around. This is the place where you can find modern hotels, restaurants, and cafes.
2. Tran Quoc Pagoda – The 1500-year-old pagoda on West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
a. Historical highlights of Tran Quoc Pagoda
Tran Quoc Pagoda was a Buddhist pagoda originally constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De. This pagoda is nearly 1500 years old. It is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi and the second oldest pagoda in Vietnam, just after Dau Temple in Bac Ninh Province which is estimated to be 2000 years old.
When founded, the pagoda was named “Khai Quoc” which means founding the nation. Till the 15th century, it was renamed “An Quoc” which means securing the nation. In the 17th century, its name was changed into Tran Quoc Pagoda which means protecting the nation and remains until nowadays. Each name of the pagoda is attached to wishes of Vietnamese people in different periods of time in the history. Tran Quoc Pagoda was initially situated on the shores of Red River. However, when confronting the river’s encroachment, it was relocated on a small islet in the middle of West Lake.
b. Architectural highlights of Tran Quoc Pagoda
The architecture and structure of Tran Quoc Pagoda are typical for most Buddhist pagodas in Vietnam. Tran Quoc Pagoda consists of three major parts including The Upper House, The Front House, and The Garden of Towers.
The Upper House is literally the courtyard at the back of the pagoda. There situate the large shrine and the ancient Bodhi tree. The shrine was totally made of wood. This is the place that houses many priceless intricate worshipping statues engraved by skillful craftsmen. These statues are placed from low to high and small to big, so all can be seen through the door. In front of the shrine is a big ancient Bodhi tree. The Bodhi creates a holy atmosphere for the pagoda as it signifies a sacred and tranquil place.
The second part of Tran Quoc Pagoda is the Front house. This house consists of five compartments to worship the important monks who passed away and the Mothers. People come here to pray, especially on the first month of Lunar New Year. The last one is the Garden of Towers, the graveyard of monks which is considered as the highlight of the whole pagoda. There are totally 13 tombs and a big stupa. The stupa is composed of 11 floors with the height of 15 meters.
3. Quan Thanh Temple – The old temple on the Southeastern corner of West Lake
a. Historical highlights of Quan Thanh Temple
Quan Thanh Temple (also known as Tran Vu Temple) is a Taoist Temple built in the 11th century under the reign of Emperor Ly Thai To to worship Tran Vu, a Taoist deity. Now, it is located in the Northeastern of West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam. Quan Thanh Temple is supposed to protect Hanoi in the North. Quan Thanh Temple together with Bach Ma Temple in the East, Kim Lien Temple in the South, and Than Linh Lang Temple in the West makes the Four Sacred Temple of the capital city of Vietnam which protect the city from four directions.
So far, Quan Thanh Temple has been through many renovations. Its architecture has changed a lot in comparison with the original one. However, it still remains one of the pagodas that carry obvious and strong Taoist characters and spirits in Vietnam.
b. Architectural highlights of Quan Thanh Pagoda
Quan Thanh Pagoda consists of the beautiful gate, the shrines, the big bronze statue of Tran Vu insides as well as the banyan tree and many carved poems. Its architectural highlight is the big bronze statue of Tran Vu. The statue is placed in the center of the main shrine. It was made of black bronze by skillful artisans and presented to Quan Thanh Temple in 1677. With the height of 3.96 meters and the weight of nearly 4000 kilograms, this statue is the second biggest bronze statue in Vietnam.
As it can be seen from the statue, Tran Vu holds a sword and is surrounded by a snake and a tortoise. As for Vietnamese culture, snakes represent strengths, and tortoises symbolize for safety and longevity. Besides the big statue of Tran Vu, Quan Thanh Temple is famous for many other works of art including pillars, beams, styles, and parallel sentence poems.
It has been a tradition of Hanoians to go to Quan Thanh Temple to pray for health and luck on the first and fifteenth day of each Lunar month as well as on Tet Holiday. Quan Thanh Temple which is facing West Lake in Hanoi and takes a few minutes to travel from Hanoi Old Quarter is an ideal place for those interested in Vietnamese culture.
3. Tay Ho (West Lake) Temple – The holiest place of West Lake
a. Historical highlights of Tay Ho (West Lake) Temple
Tay Ho Temple is located a 7-minute walk from West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam. Tay Ho Temple was built in the 16th century and dedicated to Lieu Hanh Princess, a talented woman who was very good at folk music and poems. Nowadays, Lieu Hanh Princess is honored as one of the four Immortals of Vietnam.
b. Architectural highlights of and activities in Tay Ho Temple
Tay Ho Temple is a Buddhist architecture dating back to the 16th century. The whole complex includes a big Buddhist gate, traditional altars, and a large courtyard where stand a golden buffalo and her calf.
Tay Ho Temple is considered to be the holiest temple in Hanoi. People come here to burn the incense and pray for health and luck as Vietnamese people believe that the smoke from incenses can link us with the holy world. During the year, there are two big festivals taking place in Tay Ho Temple on the 3rd of Lunar March and the 13th of Lunar August.
4. Ancient villages near West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
a. Nhat Tan Village – The poetry flower garden on the edge of West Lake
Nhat Tan Flower Village, which is located on the edge of West Lake, is not the largest flower village but may be the most attractive one in Hanoi. There are various kinds of flowers blooming around the year such as pink peach, carnations, chrysanthemums, honeysuckles, yellow daisies, and globe amaranths. Many people come here to admire the beauty of flowers and take photos during the whole year, especially young people.
However, it is particularly crowded in the spring. Nhat Tan Flower Village is the supply for peach blossoms when Tet Holiday comes as peach blossoms are indispensable for most Northern families in Vietnam at Tet. Peach blossoms in Nhat Tan Village have been well-known for its big blooms, thick petals, and a variety of colors. Besides, people also grow kumquat trees during this period of time.
To meet the expectation of visitors, local people here have set up many beautiful backgrounds serving to take photos. Many couples come here to have their wedding photos taken. Nhat Tan Village is only half a kilometer far from West Lake, Hanoi. If you love fresh air and natural beauty of hundreds of plants and animals, don’t miss visiting Nhat Tan Flower Village.
b. Trich Sai Village – The series of pagodas and temples on the edge of West Lake
Trich Sai Ancient Village is located right on the edge of West Lake, Tay Ho District, Hanoi, Vietnam. It is said to be the home of Vietnamese silk cloth. In the past, the main occupation of villagers was growing mulberries, raising silkworm, and making silk. They produced the best kind of silk in Vietnam which was used among royal class and exported.
The whole complex of Trich Sai Village consists of many ancient houses, ancient streets, yards, and old trees. Actually, it is a series of pagodas and temples all of which, Phuc Loc Tho Pagoda and Thien Nien Pagoda are the two most famous ones. Although there have been many changes, Trich Sai Ancient Village on West Lake, Hanoi is still a place that preserves the charms and values of Hanoi and reminds Vietnamese people of our ancestors.
III. THINGS TO DO AROUND WEST LAKE, HANOI
1. Riding a bicycle around West Lake
As West Lake possesses the huge circumference of approximately 17 kilometers, walking around it is almost impossible. However, riding a bicycle is not a bad idea. West Lake is one of the most romantic corners of Hanoi; therefore, riding a bicycle around here at dusk or dawn is an ideal way to enjoy that romantic beauty of Hanoi and get relaxed.
It may take nearly two hours to complete a ride around West Lake. Many Vietnamese people consider riding as exercises and do it every day. If you don’t have that much time or are not interested in riding a bicycle but still want to discover the romantic beauty around West Lake, you can hire a cyclo which is always available around the lake.
2. Riding a swan boat on West Lake
Riding a swan boat on West Lake is most recommended for couples as it brings a private and romantic atmosphere, especially in the afternoon when the sun sets. Tourists can rent a swan boat right on the bank of West Lake with the price of VND 100,000 per hour. Each boat is for 1 to 2 people. West Lake is quite clean and fresh. You can bring foods and drinks or buy some Hanoi street food with you on the boat and enjoy the beauty of Hanoi from a new perspective.
3. Experiencing Trinh Cong Son Walking Street – The new cultural space
Trinh Cong Son Walking Street is located about 500 meters from West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam. It is named after a Vietnamese famous music composer. This is the second pedestrian street in Hanoi. It runs from Alley 431 on Au Co Street to Alley 612 on Lac Long Quan Street covering an area of 900 meters long. It is officially introduced to the public on May, 11th 2018, and happens every week from 17:00 on Friday to 23:00 on Sunday. Trinh Cong Son Walking Street is believed to offer additional entertainment and recreational activities around West Lake to both residents and visitors.
Along the street, there are 60 kiosks designed after the ancient architecture of houses in Hanoi and Hoi An where tourists can buy West Lake street food such as West Lake shrimp cakes, snail noodle, and steamed rice, or handicraft products and souvenirs. Besides, there is a big outdoor stage where they perform Trinh Cong Son’s music as well as puppet shows and Vietnamese traditional music like Quan ho. Trinh Cong Son Walking Street on the bank of West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam is an ideal place to get relaxed and exposed to Vietnamese culture on the weekend.
4. Getting in a good cafe with the extraordinary view of West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
a. Uptown terrace – The place with excellent view
b. Maison de Tet decor – The Western place near West Lake
c. October Cafe – One of the best places to enjoy the evening
d. Santorini Vibes Cafe– One of the best coffee and tea shops
IV. WHAT TO EAT AROUND WEST LAKE, HANOI, VIETNAM
1. A variety of street foods around West Lake
Vietnam is famous for a variety of delicious street foods. Hanoi is one of the paradises of street food. Around the West Lake, there are many delicious dishes, let find out the dishes and places to enjoy it.
a. Banh bot loc (clear flour cake) – The idyllic delicious food
Banh bot loc in West Lake is made of tapioca starch, shrimp, and pork belly. It is often used with sweet and sour fish sauce and herbs. This kind of food is very fresh and light.
Location: No. 198 Thuy Khue Street, Hanoi, Vietnam
Price: from VND 15,000 per bowl
b. Banh gio (pyramidal rice dumpling) – The traditional food of West Lake
Banh gio in West Lake is made of flour, meat, beef, mushrooms, spices, and pepper. The crust is very soft and light. All the ingredients blend together in a perfect way.
Location: Ly Tu Trong Flower Garden, near West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Price: from VND 25,000 per bowl
c. Banh ran (glutinous rice doughnut) – The cheap and delicious food
Like banh bot loc and banh gio, banh ran consists of pork, mushrooms insides. However, its crust is fried until it turns orange and crispy. There are two types of banh ran including sweet ones and salty ones to fit every taste.
Address: No. 242 Lac Long Quan Street, near West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Price: VND 4,000 per each
d. Yogurt coffee – The special kind of coffee in West Lake
Besides egg coffee, Hanoi has another special coffee – yogurt coffee in West Lake. The combination of yogurt and coffee creates a unique flavor that can’t be found anywhere else. This kind of coffee has been widely known in Hanoi for more than 10 years.
Location: No. 43 Yen Phu Street near West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Price: VND 15,000
e. Banh tom Ho Tay – The traditional flavor of West Lake
Banh tom Ho Tay is made mainly of shrimp and flour and fried. So far, this has become a traditional flavor of West Lake. Many people go to West Lake just for a dish of Banh tom Ho Tay.
Location: No. 01 Thanh Nien Street, near West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Price: from VND 100,000 per person
2. Good modern restaurants around West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
West Lake is considered the “Hanoi Modern Quarter”. There are many modern even luxury restaurants which can meet the requirements of all international visitors. Either if you prefer a modern and professional environment or you are looking for Western foods, check out these restaurants.
a. A la Folie Restaurant – The French restaurant right on the bank
b. Bromance and Beer Restaurant – The ideal place for beer lovers near
c. Summit Lounge Restaurant – The luxury restaurant with the whole view of West Lake
d. West Lake Shrimp Cake Restaurant – The place to enjoy a traditional food