The main entrance is preceded be a gate, on which an inscription requests that visitors dismount their horses before entering. Khue Van Pavilion, at the far side of the second courtyard, was constructed in 1802 and is a fine example of Vietnamese architecture. The 82 stelae, considered the most pervious artefacts in the temple, are arrayed to either side of the third enclosure; each one sits on a stone tortoise.
Ho Tay (West Lake)
Two legends explain the origins of Ho Tay, also known as the Lake of Mist and the Big Lake. According to one legend, ho Tay was created when the Dragon King drowned an evil nine-tailed fox in his lair, which was in a forest on this site. Another legend relates that in the 11th century, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Khong Lo, rendered a great service to the emperor of China, who rewarded him with a vast quantity of bronze from which he cast a huge bell. The sound of the bell could be heard all the way to China, where he Golden Buffalo Calf, mistaking the ringing for its mother’s call, ran southward, trampling on the site of Ho Tay and turning it into a lake.
In scientific terms, the lake was created when the Song Hong (Red River) overflowed its banks. Indeed, Song Hong has changed its course numerous times, alternately flooding some lands and creating new ones through silt build up. The flood problem has been partially controlled by building dikes. The highway along the eastern side of Ho Tay is built upon one.
The lake was once ringed by magnificent palaces and pavilions that were destroyed throughout the course of various feudal wars. The circumference of West Lake is around 13km.
On the southern side of the lake is a popular strip of outdoor seafood restaurants (see Places to Eat later in this chapter), while the northern side has been earmarked for a development of luxurious villas and hotels.
The Tortoises of Hoan Kiem Lake: Fact or Fiction
Astonishingly there are tortoises in the somewhat less than clear waters of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Surfacing on rare occasions, and bringing luck to anyone fortunate enough to see one, the Sword Lake Tortoise Rafetus leloii is not just your common garden-variety tortoise- it is a huge animal. A specimen that died in 1968 weighed in at 250kg and was 2.10m long! Its preserved remains are on show in the Ngoc Son Temple complex, together with a photo taken of a tortoise that appeared in the lake in 2000. None is sure how many there still are, or how they have survived in this urban setting.
Rumors abound. Are these really the lake-dwelling descendants of the golden tortoise of Le Loi? Or are they safeguarded in enclosures elsewhere and transported to the lake from time to time, where their occasional appearance is simply an orchestrated ploy to keep the legend of the lake alive?
Those ripples on the lake surface will never seem so innocent again.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
(Chua Tran Quoc)
One of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam, Tran Quoc Pagoda is on the eastern shore of Ho Tay, just off D.Thanh Nien, which divides Ho Tay from Truc Bach Lake. A stele here, dating from 1639, tells the history of this site, during which the pagoda was rebuilt in the 15th century, and again in 1842. There are a number of monks’ funerary monuments in the garden.
Tay Ho Pagoda
The most popular spot for worship in Hanoi is at Tay Ho Pagoda (Greater Hanoi map; Chua Tay Ho; Pho Tay Ho; open 6am-7pm daily). Throngs of people come here on the first and 15th day of each lunar month with the hope of decreacing risk and receiving good fortune. The walk in is along a lively and colorful lane of stalls selling temple offerings and food, and a line of good fresh seafood restaurants fronts the lake. It’s a great place to watch the world go by.
Truc Bach Lake
Truc Bach Lake (Ho Truc Bach) is separated from Ho Tay by D.Thanh Nien, which is lined with flame trees. During the 18th century, the Trinh lords built a palace on this site, it was transformed into a reformatory for deviant royal concubines, who were condemned to spend their days weaving a very fine white silk.
Quan Thanh Temple
(Den Quan Thanh)
Quan Thanh Temple (Central Hanoi map) is on the shore of Truc Bach Lake, near the intersection of D.Thanh Nien and Pho Quan Thanh. The temple. Shaded by huge trees, was established during the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) and was dedicated to Tran Vo (God of the North), whose symbols of power were the tortoise and the snake. A bronze statue and bell here date from 1677.
(Chua Quan Su)
This pagoda (Old Quarter map; Tell: 825 2427; 73 Pho Quan Su; open 7.30am-1.30am & 1.30pm-5.30pm daily) is the official center of Buddhism in Hanoi, attracting quite a crowd- mostly old women- on holidays. During the 17th century, there was a guesthouse for the ambassadors of Buddhist countries. Today, there are about a dozen monks and nuns based at the Ambassadors’ Pagoda. Next to the pagoda is located between Pho Ly Thuong Kiet and Pho Tran Hung Dao.
Hai Ba Trung Temple
(Den Hai Ba Trung)
This temple (Central Hanoi map; Pho Tho Lao), founded in 1142, is 2km south of Hoan Kiem Lake. A statue located here shows the two Trung sisters (1st century AD) kneeling with their arms raised in the
air, as if they are addressing a crowd. Some people say the statue shows the sisters, who had been proclaimed the queens of the Vietnamese, about to dive into a river. They are said to have drowned themselves rather than surrender, following their defeat at the hands of the Chinese.
Thu Le Park & Zoo
(Bach Thu Le)
Thu Te Park and Zoo (Greater Hanoi map; admission 2000d; open 4am-1-pm daily), with its vast expanses of shaded grass and ponds, is located about 4km west of Hoan Kiem Lake.
St Joseph Cathedral
Stepping inside the Old Quarter’s neo-Gothic St Joseph Cathedral (Pho Nha Tho; main gate open 5am-7am & 7pm-7pm daily) is like being instantly transported to medieval Europe. The cathedral, inaugurated in 1886, is noteworthy for its square towers, elaborate altar and stained-glass windows. The first Catholic mission in Hanoi was founded in 1679. The cathedral stands facing the western end of Pho Nha Tho, which has developed into a fashionable strip of restaurants, cafes and boutiques.
The main gate to St Joseph Cathedral is open when Mass is held. Guests are welcome at other times of the day, but must enter the cathedral via the compound of the Diocese of Hanoi, the entrance to which is a block away at 40 Pho Nha Chung. After walking through the main gate, go straight and then turn right. When you reach the side door to the cathedral, ring the small bell high up to the right-hand side of the door so the priest can let you in.