Covering a broad area north and west of central Hanoi, West Lake is home to lots of recent housing developments. In fact, the east shore of West Lake is more or less the "Beverly Hills" of Hanoi, where the best and brightest young Hanoians and expats call home. The lake is also steeped in legend and is bordered by several significant pagodas. Vietnam's oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc, was built in the 6th century and is located on Cayang Island in the middle of the lake, a beautiful setting. An actual fragment of the Boddhi tree under which Buddha achieved Enlightenment was given as a gift from the prime minister of India in 1959 and now grows proudly in the main courtyard. Constructed by an early Zen sect and a famous center for Dharma study, and later as an imperial feasting grounds, the temple has a visitor's hall, two corridors, and a bell tower; it still houses a group of diligent monks who carry out elaborate rituals for the dead on auspicious days (if a ceremony is underway, be conscientious and keep a distance, but visitors are welcome to observe). They recommend not wearing shorts here, but it is not enforced. All around the little peninsula that the island temple and its man-made walkway has created, you'll see fishermen busy with long bamboo poles and oversize hand reels; they essentially twirl a large spool by hand, something that's fun to watch, especially if they pull in something big.

Farther along the lake, Quan Thanh Temple, by the northern gate, was built during the reign of Le Thai To King (1010-28). It's dedicated to Huyen Thien Tran Vo, the god who reigned over Vietnam's northern regions. Renovated in the 19th century, the impressive temple has a triple gate and courtyard, and features a 3.6m (12-ft.) bronze statue of the god. West Lake is also a hub of local activity, particularly on weekends, when families go paddle-boating on it.