As in the days of Vietnam’s emperors, during the last decade or so, West Lake has once again become Hanoi’s most fashionable address, complete with exclusive residential developments, lakeside clubs, spas and a clutch of luxury hotels. A lakeside walk makes a pleasant excursion with one or two sights to aim for. In the seventeenth century, villagers built a causeway across the lake’s southeast corner, creating a small fishing lake now called Truc Bach and ringed with little cafés.
Tran Quoc Pagoda © Trong Nguyen / Shutterstock
The Legend of West Lake
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 the 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.
Truc Bach Lake
The name Truc Bach derives from an eighteenth-century summer palace built by the ruling Trinh lords which later became a place of detention for disagreeable concubines and other “errant women”, who were put to work weaving fine white silk, truc bach. The causeway, or Thanh Nien, is an avenue of flame trees and a popular picnic spot in summer when a cooling breeze comes off the water and hawkers set up shop along the grass verges.
Fishing at Truc Bach © Aoshia VN / Shutterstock
Quan Thanh Temple
Although the summer palace no longer exists, the eleventh-century Quan Thanh Temple still stands on the lake’s southeast bank, erected by King Ly Thai To and dedicated to the Guardian of the North, Tran Vo, who protects the city from malevolent spirits. Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi’s oldest religious foundation, occupies a tiny spur of land off Thanh Nien, which separates West Lake from Truc Bach. About a kilometre north of the causeway, the red-tiled roofs of Kim Lien Pagoda provide an incongruous neighbour for the Intercontinental Hotel.
Tran Quoc Pagoda © Martinho Smart / Shutterstock
Museum of Ethnology
Out in the suburbs of Hanoi on Nguyen Van Huyen, a couple of kilometres west of West Lake, the Museum of Ethnology is a bit of a way out, and best visited with a rented vehicle, although it more than repays the effort, particularly if you’ll be visiting any of the minority areas. Spread across two floors, the displays are well presented and there’s a fair amount of information in English on all the major ethnic groups. Musical instruments, games, traditional dress and other domestic items that fill the displays are brought to life through musical recordings, photos and plenty of life-size models, as well as captivating videos of festivals and shamanistic rites. This wealth of creativity amply illustrates some of the difficulties ethnologists are up against – the museum also acts as a research institute charged with producing ethnologies for Vietnam’s 54 main groups plus their confusion of sub-groups. The grounds contain a collection of minority houses relocated from all over Vietnam, dominated by a beautiful example of a Bahnar communal house.
House in the Museum of Ethnology © Theerasak Namkampa / Shutterstock
Featured Image: West Lake, Hanoi © Vietnam Stock Images / Shutterstock