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.
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.
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.
It’s well worth wandering into the shady courtyard to see the 334-year-old black bronze statue of Tran Vo, seated on the main altar. The statue, nearly 4m high and weighing four tonnes, portrays the Taoist god accompanied by his two animal emblems, a serpent and a turtle. It was the creation of a craftsman called Trum Trong, whose own statue, fashioned in stone and sporting a grey headscarf, sits off to one side.
The shrine room also boasts a valuable collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poems and parallel sentences (boards inscribed with wise maxims and hung in pairs on adjacent columns), most with intricate, mother-of-pearl inlay work.
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.
A track runs right around the 17km circumference of West Lake, which is ideal for a long walk (3–4hr), bike ride (about 1.5hr) or a tour in an electric car (1.5hr). The electric cars depart from Tran Quoc Pagoda every half an hour and pass around twenty different sights along the route, including the Quan Thanh and Tay Ho temples. There’s often a fresh breeze coming off the lake, though admittedly it suffers badly from pollution due to the dense human habitation beside its shores.
Featured Image: Tran Quoc Pagoda © Martinho Smart/Shutterstock