Once upon a time on West Lake

VietNamNet Bridge – "I was with my parents, and we were riding on a boat amongst a sea of lotus flowers. I felt like a fairy princess in my favourite childhood movie, Journey to the West," Hoang Kieu To Uyen recalls, as if it had happened just yesterday. "And the funny thing is that I was actually in the West. Well, West Lake (Ho Tay) to be exact".

Fun in the sun: Breathtaking view of West Lake and the Water Park.

Uyen, 32, is a realtor, and a born and bred Hanoian who has spent most of her life in Ha Noi. When she was an 8-year-old girl, her parents used to take her to the most beautiful places in the city to teach her about the capital.

"The lake was so serene and the water was so clear that you could see straight to the bottom in the day light," Uyen says. Like most Hanoians, she is in love with West Lake.

The lake is located in the northwestern part of the city, spreading out across an area of 560ha. Long ago, the lake was a branch of the Hong (Red) River, but, as the river changed its course, it became its own body of water. Environmentalists consider the lake to be the lungs, or the natural air conditioner, of the whole city, calming the extreme tropical weather of the industrialising capital.

West Lake has always been an area for vacationing royalty. In the past, kings from the Ly and Tran dynasties (1010-1400) built summer homes along the lake. On the northern end of the lake there are several villages famous for their flowers and fruit plantations. Most famous is Nghi Tam Village, the birthplace of Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, one of Viet Nam's premier women poets.

These days, many of the summer homes built by the kings of yesteryear are now shrines and temples. Phu Tay Ho (West Lake Shrine) is one of the more popular shrines on the shores of the West Lake. Locals believe that the saints worshipped in Phu Tay Ho would most likely answer their prayers for wealth, luck and success. "It's a Hanoian tradition to visit the shrine at least twice a year, before and after Tet (Lunar New Year Festival)," Trinh To Nga, a 68-year-old pensioner, says.

During the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month, people from all over Ha Noi flock to the shrine to pay their respects to the deities. On these days, the roads are filled with people dressed in colourful attire heading to the narrow road leading to the shrine. Phu Tay Ho is also famous for the bun oc (snail soup) and banh tom (shrimp cakes) sold in stalls and small restaurants along the street.

Breathtaking views

These days, West Lake can be a setting for any kind of occasion. For people looking for a cultural spot with breathtaking views to snap a few photos, Phu Tay Ho is the place to go. "I would prefer the original moldings and paint, but the views of the water really blew me away," Steve Jerrod, an American tourist, says.

Time stands still: Lotus harvesting on Ho Tay.

If you travel to Ha Noi on a summer day like today, you should try waking up early, at about 5 or 6am, and coming to see the lotus ponds just outside of Ho Tay Water Park. The smell of lotus flowers is very refreshing in the early morning before the ponds are burnt by the tropical sun. You may even see farmers on boats in the middle of the pond picking lotus flowers to sell at markets. They might even let you pick one yourself.

You can also check out peach blossom gardens in Quang Ba Village, but only during the Tet holiday, around the end of January.

Tourists can book individual or group tours from local agencies, which will give them an opportunity to thoroughly discover the many historical and cultural spots in the area.

Uyen is now married to Alex Petrovsky, a 35 year-old Russian engineer, and together they have built a beautiful home overlooking the lake. "The area is fantastic; I can find everything that I need here. As I drive home from work every day, I am welcomed by a different air as soon as I get into the area," Petrovsky says.

On weekends, if you and your family are up for some wet summer fun, you can take them to the Sao Mai swimming pool, with its endless lake views, or to one of the most popular entertainment parks in the city: Ho Tay Water Park. You and your family can spend the whole day playing water games and then indulge in one of the best buffet restaurants in town, Sen, which is located just outside the park gates. Sen serves the best of all Vietnamese cuisine in Ha Noi, with a view of the lake and a traditional atmosphere to boot. "It's our weekend tradition, and my kids love it," Uyen says.

On the other hand, if you are just looking for a chic set-up for a night out with friends, you can go to one of the bars with the best view in town, the Summit Lounge. The bar is actually atop the penthouse suite at Sofitel Plaza Ha Noi. From the 20th floor, the view of the capital city is overwhelming, with its luminous buildings and sparkling Thanh Nien Road.

While the Summit Lounge is more on the fashionable side, with well-dressed and well-paid customers social-ising and enjoying the soft music and view, Sheraton Hotel's Nutz bar is a more hip and fun hangout spot.

DJ hangout

World famous DJs have frequented the bar since its opening and the US$10 cocktails are quite good. "I don't care that the bar has to close by 2am; I have fun while I'm here," Jerrod says.

As a largest lake in Ha Noi and also a great entertainment centre, real estate prices in the areas around West Lake are staggering and the surrounding quarters are full of five-star hotels and high-class villas.

"The weather is perfect here. Whenever I'm in the area, it feels like I have moved to a totally different area code," Jerrod says. "Rent can be a little stiff but it's worth every cent."

"Ever since I was a child picking lotus flowers in the pond, I've always dreamed of having a house looking over the lake.

"Now I have one and it's even better than I imagined," Uyen says.

VietNamNet/Viet Nam News


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