City of water

Few cities in the world can boast the amount of water found in all corners of Hanoi.

By Grant Riley on January 20,2016 09:24 AM

City of water

West lake

The first thing I associated with Hanoi was water. I arrived in a particularly heavy tropical storm, where the roads and laneways filled rapidly with warm, ankle deep rainwater. I waded towards my new home, with my suitcase on my shoulders. It was August and the temperature had peaked at around 40C but it was the humidity that was so apparent. I have been in the tropics before and am familiar with the associated perfuse and constant sweat. It had been a while, however, and travelling from a cool and dull England the sudden transition was dramatic.

The West lake at night

The West lake at night

I had taken up residence in a quaint old district only a short walk from Ho Tay (West Lake). Rising early the next morning - aware of the need to get out of the house and stretch my travel weary legs and avoid the hottest part of the day - I ventured along the unfamiliar laneways of my new neighbourhood. And this is where the significance of the water comes in: the heat and humidity already so overwhelming so soon after sunrise, and as I reached the end of the narrow confines of my laneway there is the lake - its greatest offering an exquisite cool breeze. It was as if the laneway itself sucked in the fresher air straight off the water.

Hanoi itself is named after water, with ‘Ha’ meaning river and ‘Noi’ meaning inner. But it wasn’t the large waterway or the smaller streams of Hanoi that impacted on me so greatly upon my arrival. It was its lakes.

It’s now the much cooler winter months as I write from a lakeside café on a steely, grey day - not so dissimilar to the gloomy London winter. The lake expands beside me in a dull, tarnished silver, choppily undulated by a steady cold breeze, yet still magnificent in its expanse. The freshwater lake, with its 17 km long shoreline, forms the largest of Hanoi’s lakes. It also sports life. I watch the daily view of local fishermen casting long bamboo rods from the shoreline or nets from small boats, occasionally plucking a sizable carp or two from its waters. It’s nothing compared to its summer self, but is still active and well utilised.

During those hotter months Ho Tay is a watery magnet for Hanoi’s city folk. Joggers jog, couples snog, and generally the city’s residents come here to breathe. I am particularly fond of the lake at night time, especially when it is so very hot. Its trees support an assemblage of chirping critters, with an abundance of bats swooping about to feast. But there is nothing like sipping on an ice cold beer and contemplating the city’s lights that stretch their reflection across the normally still waters. Ah, I miss those warmer times now!

The lake’s periphery consists of a splendid concoction of cute cafés and bustling bars, old pagodas, lily ponds, floating restaurants and, of course, hotels and the odd luxury apartment block, all set in a remarkably low-rise skyline. ‘Tay’ translates as west, and is also the word for ‘westerner’ or ‘foreigner’. And the cooler climes of the lake attract many of them.

Ho Tay is said to have been created from a curved part of the Red River and has appeared in various legends. The lake’s name has had many manifestations, from the rather pungent sounding ‘Fox Corpse’ to the more glamorous sounding ‘Golden Buffalo Lake’ and, at one time, ‘Foggy Lake’ - a name I find most apt. However, since the 16th century it has been known by the rather less spectacular name of ‘West Lake’. Name changes aside, Ho Tay represents to me Mother Nature’s great air conditioner amid a hot and at times very still and smoggy city. Breathe deep the fresh air offered at Ho Tay!

The city is characterised by its abundance of water. There are many more aquatic attractions for me to explore yet. Many streams and small canals traverse the city, some picturesque, some depleted and downright disgusting. A few are nothing but open sewers, rubbish strewn and ruled by rats. Some ponds and lakes are algae filled and appear to be nothing but breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Even so they all add to the character of this rapidly changing city.

Not so far from Ho Tay I found Huu Tiep Lake, also known as B52 Lake, with its abandoned remnants and reminders of the ghastly American invasion. Its algae green waters still expose the American bomber, Rose 1, shot down during a raid on December 19, 1972. Settled among narrow lanes and amid dense housing, this reminder of the war now sinks into the scenery.

Huu Tiep (B52) lake

Huu Tiep (B52) lake

For those who have visited or live in Hanoi, no discussion of lakes would be complete without giving Hoan Kiem a mention. A tourist attraction set amid the Old Quarter, Ho Hoan Kiem romantically sits itself peacefully among the frenetic chaos of this old part of town.

It may sound clichéd to depict Hoan Kiem as an oasis of tranquillity and calm but it truly is. The narrow lanes of the Old Quarter are an intense feast for the senses. But all is very compact, disorientating and a bombardment of distraction comes from all directions. It keeps you on your toes, literally! So when one squeezes out of its confines and embraces the lake, all becomes well in the world again.

Ho Hoan Kiem translates as ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’. Having recently lived in Glastonbury in England, next to the Avalon Marshes, where many of King Arthur’s legends are derived, the name resonates with the famous tale of Excalibur, where the King’s legendry sword was given to him by the Lady in the Lake. The legend of Ho Hoan Kiem has it that Emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake one day when a golden turtle god suddenly came to the surface and asked him to return his magic sword, which he had just used to repel invaders from the north.

‘Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’

Bruce Lee, ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973)

I used to live on a boat in England and perhaps it is the calmness I appreciate from this lifestyle that I associate with the water city of Hanoi. Scientifically at least we know water and air produce negative ions, which are said to be associated with wellbeing and feel-good factors, such as when we stroll along a beach or walk under a waterfall. Perhaps it is these negative ions that help Hanoi be such a chilled out and smiley place, because it’s certainly very hectic and downright frustrating at times. But I have never seen temperaments falter; there is so little or even no rage. As Kung-Fu expert Bruce Lee once said, ‘Be water, my friend.’

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