West Lake, also known as Ho Tay, is Hanoi’s largest body of water and one of the city’s most beautiful monuments to the Buddhist religion. Steeped in local legend, Ho Tay is home to two magnificent temples and a ring of up-market suburbs now lining its 15 kilometer circumference. It’s a top sightseeing destination for those who are fascinated by history, local legend and the Buddhist faith. A pathway circles the lake, and is a popular walking or cycling track for the Hanoi community.
Local myth calls Ho Tay the “Lake of Mist” or the “Big Lake”. Legend has it, in the 11th Century a Vietnamese Buddhist monk was given a huge amount of Chinese bronze, having done a great favor to China. With the bronze, he casted a giant bell which was so loud that China’s Golden Buffalo Calf could hear it all the way from across the border and, thinking it was its mother’s call, followed the sound to Hanoi where its heavy trampling formed a lake - Ho Tay. Geologically speaking, the best explanation for the formation of West Lake is that the Red River overflowed its banks. In modern day Hanoi there are many dykes to deal with this issue, since the Red River or “Song Hong” regularly floods.
Tran Quoc Pagoda, currently situated on an island on this legendary lake, is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and dates back to the 6th century. It was first named “Khai Quoc” or “Opening Country” during the Ly Nam De Dynasty in the 6th Century and was originally located on the banks of the Red River. In the 15th Century it was renamed “An Quoc” meaning “Peaceful Country”, and it was finally renamed “Tran Quoc Pagoda” during the 17th century.
In the 20th century, repeated flooding and erosion saw this fascinating Buddhist temple relocated to its present site on Kim Ngu (Golden Fish) Island, near the southeast shoreline of West Lake. A short causeway links the pagoda to the shore. Since its relocation the area has become increasingly urbanized, but the serenity and peace of West Lake and its Tran Quoc Pagoda have somehow remained.
The pagoda is renowned for the intricacy of its design. The 3,000 square meter complex of Tran Quoc Pagoda is based on the Buddhist trinity, containing 10 shrines in all. Look out for the pagoda’s red lacquered statue trimmed with gold representing the Buddha’s nirvana. Created in 1639, the sculpture is considered a masterpiece of a distinctly Vietnamese style of sacred sculpture.
There is a 15 meter high stupa on the precinct of the pagoda, erected in 1998 and comprising 11 floors with vaulted windows and gemstone statues of Amitabha. On the top of the stupa sits a giant lotus flower, also made of gemstone.
The stupa has been carefully placed to coincide symmetrically with a 50 year old Bodhi tree in the complex. The tree was given to the pagoda by a former Indian president when he visited Hanoi in 1959, though local legend says it was grown from a cutting of the very tree under which Buddha found enlightenment.