Touch of the exotic

The shores of Hanoi’s West Lake offer a glimpse into Vietnam’s past and the lives of those now living there.

By Reeha Paul on August 17,2018 10:02 AM

Touch of the exotic

Photo: Nguyen Cuong

Of all the paths I have chosen so far in my life to explore this beautiful world, I lost my mind and discovered my soul in and around West Lake, or Tay Ho as it’s known in Vietnamese. With my eyes wide open, I treasured the incessant luxury of West Lake, which will flash in my mind’s eye forever. Hanoi’s largest freshwater lake and its shimmering silvery ripples provide a quiet ambiance and a utopian smell from its swampy banks. The scene is so glorious in the early morning I had a lightning bolt moment.

Vietnam is, indeed, an incredible country, boasting sheer magnificence at almost every destination. In Hanoi, the final destination of our holiday, we opted for a leisurely biking tour around West Lake. In the shade of the early morning, we departed from the InterContinental Hanoi West Lake. The serene atmosphere of the lake granted the much-needed escape I was looking for. The cool breeze gushed into my face and penetrated deep into my soul, and I savoured the mesmerising view of swaying coconut trees bordering the lake and complementing the greyish blue water as the rowers made their way through the ripples.

Very close to the dainty neighbourhood of West Lake lies a world of utmost spirituality, peacefulness, and antiquity - Kim Lien Pagoda. Not even a two-minute ride from our starting point, the imposing entrance of the 12th-century monument welcomed us. Kim Lien Pagoda was initially the royal palace for Princess Tu Hoa, a descendant of the Ly Dynasty, and retains its ancient grandeur in its spectacular architecture, with layered and curved styles and astounding stone carvings of two dragons near the entrance. The entire compound is wonderfully bejewelled with blossoming greenery, revealing the richness of ancient art and culture and complementing the heritage of the neighbourhood. I was moved by the splendour of the calm and refreshing environment, amid which the rhythm of hymns broke the silence as local people were busy with their morning prayers.

Not far away, we were stopped by the pompous colours and styles of Nghi Tam village. The arresting backdrop seemed like a paradise, where I guess no one can help but get soaked in the vibrant hues of flowers and the fabulously-scaled bonsai. It was completely impossible for me to escape the bliss of such an ambiance embellishing itself in pure beauty. The classical art of designing a bonsai is like an illusion but is the real deal in gardening creativity. Since the early 13th century, when a villager bought saplings for his garden from a Chinese trader, this blissful village along the banks of West Lake has carried on the tradition for generations and boasts about its culture with great pride and happiness. I saw a small boy around eight to ten years old, busy with his mother nurturing his own small nursery carpeted with bright flowers. It was a wonderful experience to witness how a childhood passion can continue a tradition.

We had just a day left and a lot to explore in and around West Lake, so decided to move ahead with a colourful snapshot of traditional Vietnam from Nghi Tam village in mind. As we proceeded further northwest along the lake, I was wondering about the masterpiece of cascading layers in iconic Tran Quoc Pagoda, cuddled on a small islet on West Lake and reflected on the blue waters. The flickering portrait on the water was equally as striking as the main complex of the oldest pagoda in the city, beautified with spectacular bonsai. The white Buddha statues in the stupa looked fascinating and its entirety was decked out with red bricks, reflecting a touch of exotic antiquity. As it was late afternoon, many visitors crowded into the place, giving local vendors a chance to populate the entrance with their merchandise. The most attractive among them were two women selling turtles of different sizes and colours, and most of the crowd lingered around the two vendors, busy capturing the movements of the cute amphibians. Looking to the other side of Thanh Nien Road, a glimpse of Truc Bach Lake peeped through like a painted backdrop. A small island towards the north of the lake cuddles a thousand-year-old landmark, Cau Nhi Temple from the era of Emperor Ly Cong Uan, who decided on Thang Long, modern-day Hanoi, as the new capital of Vietnam. Interesting legendary tales revolve around this pagoda and evidence of the mythological stories we heard is a stone statuette of a dog. Crossing a small bridge, we entered the world of history and mythology. Once a worshipper of dogs, the temple now worships Water Fairy. It really was interesting to hear the stories, which apparently sound a bit quirky but reflect the deep heritage and beliefs of a community and its traditions.

A little away towards the other end of Truc Bach Lake stands an artistic sculpture. However, my excitement to discover the extravagance of Vietnamese art and sculpture was slightly subdued as I approached and learned about the history of the John McCain Memorial Monument. The dark phase of the US War tears me ups. Those horrendous days have not yet completely faded from my mind, and the monument made them alive again as if it was yesterday. The expert craftsmanship of the artist is alluring and praiseworthy, depicting an imprisoned man with his head lowered and hands raised. I was gazing at the monument, visualising the scene of John McCain being shot down, rescued from drowning, and then imprisoned.

With a heavy heart, I left the place and followed my friends to Quan Thanh Temple, leaving behind the harshness of war and delving into a world of peace and sanctity. I hastily submerged myself in the swirling holiness rising up from incense sticks and their sandalwood fragrance. From a distance, I am sure that anyone could mistakenly consider this temple as a white palace, as I did. Nestled on the shores of Truc Bach Lake, Quan Thanh Temple is a true specimen of religious and cultural harmony and also belongs to the Ly Dynasty, dating back to the 11th century. The folklore of the temple narrates the story of how Vietnamese people began worshipping the tortoise and the snake, considering the duo a symbol of power. The majestic gate etched with amazing carvings and impressive statues, especially the bronze statue, welcomes devotees to its very own sacred sphere.

At every turn on our biking tour I experienced a dramatic contrast of culture, history, and art in a relatively-confined part of the city. I was soon standing in front of the B52 Victory Museum next to Huu Tiep Lake, with the remnants of a downed American B-52 bomber submerged in the lake. Again, it beckoned dreadful memories of bygone days with thousands of lives lost. Amid this evidence of human demolition, I noticed a spectacular sight that brought a subtle smile to my face and happiness to my heart. A budding plant was growing right from the centre of the crashed bomber, and this scene made me realise that life flourishes and survives even after extreme man-made devastation.

I have visited many countries and experienced many cultures, and this led to an artistic taste in my soul. I love the way Vietnamese art represents and portrays the stories, traditions, and daily lives of local people. My inclination towards art and paintings made me visit the famous Nha San Art House, but to experience the charisma of contemporary art. The setting of the studio is highly inspiring, as it nurtures the craftsmanship spirit of young artists, adding a new dimension to traditional Vietnamese art. Iconic sculptures and paintings wash through the entire gallery, with a separate exhibition hall displaying creations from young imaginative minds.

Trailing through Vietnam’s heritage and war-torn past, I was completely distracted by the chaos and vibrancy of Buoi Market at the start of Lac Long Quan Street. We were almost directly opposite the InterContinental Hanoi West Lake by now. Considered the traditional trading point of Yen Thai village in Tay Ho district, the market is extensive and sells a wide variety of products, from traditional handicrafts to ornamental plants and trees and live animals like ducks, chickens, pigs, and fish. Though it was mid-afternoon, local people were flocking to the market, especially the food section, probably to buy fresh food for dinner.

Passing by the bumpy benches set in between the coconut trees along the concrete banks of West Lake overlooking the red-tiled roofs of the high-end houses on the other side, I sensed the strong fragrance of flowers, and my senses were proved right as the wonderful view of lotus ponds peeked through, with pink and white lotuses flooding the entire bed of green lotus leaves. The pond appeared as if by magic as we descended down a laneway. It bore a divine beauty that surpasses all man-made luxuries and fantasies. Two women were busy plucking the lotuses and bunching them in an arty way to perhaps beautify others’ homes and minds. Nearby the pond, we stopped at a café not just for refreshments but to enjoy a sip of traditional Vietnamese lotus-scented tea. It was amazing to see and learn how they preserve the tea leaves inside a lotus for days to make the tea leaves intoxicated with a lotus scent and, of course, the tea tasted equally refreshing.

Then appeared the brightly-coloured sight of Nhat Tan village and a forest of assorted flowers. I was overjoyed to see such enchanting scenery, like a scene from a fairy tale. These two destinations fuelled my lenses the most, encouraging my inner self to return to Hanoi and West Lake for more exploration.

We took the last turn of our day trip, towards Phu Tay Ho, which was a little off the way from the main street and probably why we were the only visitors to this age-old pagoda. Unleashing a pacific mood with a divine essence overlooking the lake, the pagoda was perfect for relaxation after our full-day tour, gazing at the mesmerising view of the skyline in the fading sun.

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