Hanoi’s largest lake has surprisingly quiet, beautiful spots and a wide range of places to eat, drink and make merry.
Amidst the din of a modernizing city with new urban areas and all that they bring – high-rise buildings, congested streets and other mayhem, the West Lake exerts a calming influence.
It might be the mostly still waters of the capital city’s largest lake, the serenity of pagodas that seem to be located strategically at different corners, encouraging reflection on the travails of daily life and the Buddha’s wisdom in dealing with them, and the greenery that lines its banks that generate this sense of quiet.
As someone has said, if you are rushing near the West Lake, you are doing it calmly.
One of the best, healthiest ways to tackle this calm rush is to ride a bicycle along the lake’s 11.5-kilometer perimeter. And if you are not riding like a racer, there are many things to notice, several detours to take that gives you an idea of what the West Lake, or Ho Tay, has on offer.
Photo by Bao Ngoc
Rent a bike
There are several places to rent bicycles around the West Lake. Bike stores at 29 Nhat Chieu Street, 96 Yen Hoa, Yen Phu Street, or 81 Lac Long Quan Street are good places to rent a bike, to name a few. You could also rent bikes and start cycling from the Old Quarter. Daily rentals range from VND100,000-200,000 ($4.28-8.56).
Here’s a brief selection of what you pass on a ride around the West Lake.
Photo by Bao Ngoc
The West Lake lotus swamp is among the most beautiful scenery that you can enjoy in the area. The fragrant lotuses bud and bloom from May to July, approximately.
Park your bike, sit down in a cottage amidst the lotus fields and enjoy some tea packed in lotus petals, giving the drink a special taste and fragrance. Tickets to the lotus swamp range from VND20,000 – 50,000 ($0.85-2.14).
Photo by Ngoc Thanh
Women, young and old, come to the lotus swamps in droves when the flowers are in bloom to have pictures taken, particularly wearing Vietnam’s traditional dresses like the ao dai and the tu than.
Photos by Le Bich, Ngoc Thanh
Other than the lotuses, there is a large area in one part of the lake where gardeners grow different varieties of flowers in great numbers for the express purpose of photography. This park has some tacky plastic trees and floral arrangements, but it is still a beautiful sight, and attracts thousands of people everyday.
A diversion into international cuisine
Two streets along the West Lake that are worth exploring on their own are To Ngoc Van and Quang An. They can be said to be the hub of international cuisine in Hanoi. The culinary diversity stretches across the continents – Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, Argentinian, Lebanese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Thai… On some lengths of these streets, a bicycle is the best option. Cars would struggle to navigate the narrow parts.
Photos by Bao Ngoc
Ngu Xa – Pho roll
Cycling further to the south, you pass by the Thanh Nien Street, which divides the West Lake and the Truc Bach Lake. They were one, once. Turning into Truc Bach Street from Thanh Nien delivers some appetizing variants of pho (Vietnamese rice noodles served with beef or chicken slices) on Ngu Xa Street.
Ngu Xa is famous for the pho roll, so much so that foodies think of the dish the minute the street is mentioned. You can visit restaurants at 25 Ngu Xa and 35 Nguyen Khac Hieu streets to try out the pho rolls, fried pho and stir-fried pho.
Two famous dishes in Ngu Xa: pho roll (L) and fried pho (R). Photo by Bao Ngoc
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Tran Quoc Pagoda, a 1500-year-old place of worship that stands on an islet east of the West Lake, is considered the oldest pagoda and religious center in the city. The pagoda has graceful architectural details and a serene ambience that is not disturbed by the tumult of the devout making floral, incense and other offerings.
From Thanh Nien Street, you can enter the pagoda directly.
Another bastion of peace is the Quan Thanh Temple, built during the reign of Ly Thai To (1010-1028). The temple venerates Huyen Thien Tran Vu, one of the four gods guarding the four gates of the Thang Long Citadel. Hanoi was originally called Thang Long, or rising dragon.
Quan Thanh Temple. Photo acquired by VnExpress
Cafe after cafe after cafe
Among the many street names taken by the West Lake promenade are Nguyen Dinh Thi, Ve Ho and Nhat Chieu. The entire stretch comprising these streets is dotted with superbly designed cafes and restaurants with different themes that offer great views of the lake. During seasons these streets are filled at night with the heady fragrances of different blossoms, most importantly the “milk flower.”
Where there are lawn spaces alongside the lake’s banks, the cafes offer customers the choice of sitting right at the edge of the lake and enjoy, not just the view, but also a wide variety of snacks and beverages, including coffee, lotus tea, fresh coconut water, fruit smoothies and so on. It is a great place to bike and walk. In café-filled Hanoi, those on the West Lake stand out because of the view.
In fact, watching the sunset from one of the cafes, including one where you can do it atop a war-era bunker, is a perfect way to end a tour of the West Lake.