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West Lake, HanoiThroughout Hanoi’s first 1000 years, the West Lake has always held a special part of the Hanoi heart. Kings built palaces and temples on the waterfront, poets and scholars ran on about its charm and mystery, flower villages set up along its 13km circumference, and generations of young flirters have looked over the water from benches in the shade. Some say the lake was made from drowned evil nine-tailed fox, others think it’s a hole dug by the Golden Buffalo Calf, panicked from the ringing of a royal bell. (And a few think it’s just a regular lake.) Originally called ‘Lake of the Mists,’ it’s more a Lake of the Tacky Housing Developments these days, but that’s not to say it should be skipped.

The most accessible area is also one of the nicest, along the TRUC BACH CAUSEWAY, along Thanh Nien St (about 600m north of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – you could walk it). As you approach, waterfront sidewalks to the left (west) have benches in the shade – there’s also a floating Highlands Coffee (good for coffee or snacks) and a couple restaurants.

The small lake to the right is TRUC BACH LAKE, aka ‘John McCain Lake.’ This is the lake McCain crashed into in 1967, being pulled out (and saved) by locals before being dragged off for a five-year stay in the Hoa Lo Prison. On this side of Thanh Nien St, look out for the PLAQUE celebrating the anti-aircraft gunners who shot his plane down.

A bit farther north, on the main West Lake, is the TRAN QUOC PAGODA (free), on a tiny island. It supposedly dates to the sixth century, but was relocated here in the early 1600s.

In the past decade, new villas have taken away from much of the lake’s charm. But there are a few restaurants farther north, including Ngon Hai San (on Nghi Tam St, north of the Sofitel Plaza Hotel), and a few temples. Probably the best is YEN PHU TEMPLE (150m north of Sofitel, via the Yen Phu side road), with a giant entrance and many statues. Just north – at the where Yen Phu road meets back with Nghi Tam St is the short early morning FLOWER MARKET (starting around 4am or 5am), where flower sellers around the city pick up their daily stocks.