Rendezvous, Rendezvous

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Hanoi is a city that lends itself easily to lyrical waxing.

Voted one of the top ten winter destinations in the world by US-based Huffington Post, its calm, magnificent lakes around 20 of them give the city its special allure.

And there is no place more alluring than Ho Tay (West Lake) and its surroundings.

This is true even today, although the once quiet, serene place of great beauty that awakened the muse of legions of poets, music composers and painters has become a wistful memory.

For every aspect of the West Lake that has changed or disappeared over the years in the modernization rush of the last few decades, there are others that have remained unchanged.

Covering around 500ha, the West Lake continues to be home to villages growing flowers and bonsai (the Quang Ba Village, for instance); its famous old pagodas and temples are still havens of peace; and a few handicraft villages have survived.

Most of all, it has the atmosphere only places that attract people from all walks of life can have. Not too long ago, as the sun began its daily descent in the horizon, the West Lake was the place to meet for young lovers, whose locked embraces became sculptures lining the lake's shores.

Even today, the West Lake is the most popular rendezvous in Hanoi, not just for lovers, but also for friends and family.

The lake can be "sensed" from afar, with the capital city's charms unfolding as we approach it the light yellow French colonial villas on Hoang Van Thu Street in Ba Dinh District and the cool breeze from the lake that releases us from the heat of the burning summer as we pass by Uncle Ho's mausoleum.

Part of growing up

For natives, the West Lake is dearly attached to every childhood memory, every single spring, summer, autumn and winter.

In the days before every Tet (Lunar New Year), like other friends, I would go to the Quang Ba Village looking for some canh dao (cherry blossom branch) with my father. Sometimes we spent hours under the shade of the cherry blossoms talking about plans for the New Year. Traditionally, no Tet is complete without a canh dao with flowers, young leaves and buds, so that the branch continues to produce new flowers for the two weeks following Tet.

During the summer young people get together at Phu Tay Ho Temple, snack on steamed snails and pray at the temple for a fruitful new school year.

The Thanh Nien Street, which separates West Lake and the Truc Bach Lake, always teemed with dating young couples, hand in hand, deeply in love. I sometimes think the West Lake and its environs are steeped in the romantic stories of millions who have dated, hugged and kissed on its shores.

Autumn, when Hanoi acquires a magical beauty, was the time to go rowing on the lake until the sun set, and during winter, Hanoians warmed themselves up with barbequed dishes to keep the winter chill at bay.

That holiday feeling

Given its immense popularity, the West Lake area has numerous cafes, restaurants, bars and other gathering spots. Vietnam's equivalent to Starbucks, Trung Nguyen Café, is located on a white boat floating on the lake, and there are other boats that offer dinner cruises as well.

The place gives the sense of a holiday spot far away from the city, enjoying the sun and breeze, watching people fishing on the lake's shores, and observing the stylish attires sported by most guests.

Besides the cafés and bars, the West Lake area is also home to special dishes, like pho cuon, fried goose and many seafood dishes that the Nguyen Khac Hieu Street has become well known for.

Pho cuon is a new dish created recently by a Hanoian who was fed up of making the same bowl of pho every day. Instead of cutting the flour into long thin strips to make the noodles, he kept it like a sheet and stuffed it with beef stir-fried with garlic, mint and other herbs to make a roll served with sweet and sour sauce. Pho cuon is now served by families all around the Truc Bach Lake.

Eating a delicious, satisfying meal under willow trees, watching love birds return to their nests and listening to the bell ring in the nearby pagoda... such precious moments stay with you forever in memory.

In recent years, the area has also begun to host luxurious, up market events and establishments. On special occasions like weddings, many Hanoians choose to have guests picked up by boats and transported to the other side of the lake for a party.

A dinner for two at the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake Hotel's Milan Restaurant gives the feeling of being in Venice, as it juts into the lake and gives you a clear view of the small boats that travel to and fro.

Watching the twilight from the 19th floor of Sofitel Hanoi with a bird's eye view of the West Lake, the Truc Bach Lake and the Hong River is another special experience that does not come cheap. The restaurant serves oysters, barbecued meat and ice cream.

It is said that the West Lake was created when the Hong River changed its course. Later, the big lake was divided with the Thanh Nien Street running through it, creating the Truc Bach Lake.

The jewel in Hanoi's crown, the West Lake continues to charm residents and visitors alike. Love stories are still being written on its banks, sunsets continue to enchant and in season, the lotuses cast out their enticing fragrance.

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