There was a crowd of little children at the entrance of the Citadel and I hesitated for a moment before going in. The jet lag was almost cured, but my head was still throbbing a little, as finding peace in Hanoi can be quite a challenge. The children were noisy and errant. The caretakers were seen running behind a wondering child all the time, and I had to take care not to step on one. Well, it was a school day. And if schools thought it was relevant for such small children to visit this place, it’s because it may be worth it. I looked at the site’s map – quite a big compound, so what are the chances I’m going to be surrounded by children all the time? So I walked with confidence to the ticket booth.
It costs 30,000 VND (1.28 USD/1.06 GBP/ 1.18 EUR) to enter the complex of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. This was the heart of military power in Hanoi for over a thousand years, and it’s been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 2010. Archaeological diggings are ongoing, revealing new treasures and telling stories bit by bit – stories spanning from the 7th century to the 20th.
I soon realised that it was so busy because of the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations. Teams of workers were decorating the complex for the festivities. Young women were also posing to be photographed while wearing the Áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese garment. This is apparently very common around important dates, with the Lunar New Year being one of them.
The citadel was built in the 11th century by the Ly Viet dynasty, on top of the remains of a Chinese fortress that had been built in the 7th century. The capital of the country was moved from Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh (a place I had the pleasure to visit) to Hanoi, then called Dai La but also renamed Thang Long – quite a few names for my brain to memorise! Across the centuries, the citadel was expanded but also massively destroyed during the wars – particularly by the French with a lot of buildings having been thorned down by the 20th century.
Below is the explanation of choosing Dai La as the new capital of the country by King Ly Thai, which sounds more like a prophecy.
[Dai La] is situated at the heart of our country. Its location evokes the image of a coiled-up dragon and a squating tiger. It converges at an equal distance between the north, south, east and west points of the compass, and it has a favorable oritetation amongst the mountains and the rivers. The land here is vast and level, the grounds raised and well-exposed. The inhabitants here are sheltered from innundations and floods. Here, all is flourishing and prosperous. Looking across all Viet lands, this place is a land of distinction. Truly, it is a critical site that brings together men and riches from the four directions. Indeed, this is the place for a supreme capital that shall endure for tens of thousands of generationsKing Ly Thai To, founder of Ly Dynasty, Royal Edict on the Trander of the Capital
Inside the complex, you will be able to visit multiple exhibitions that inform you about the story of Thang Long and will help you understand a little bit more about the symbols of Vietnamese culture. The artefacts that are being excavated below the many layers of soil are also exposed to the eyes of visitors.
The Citadel served many purposes – it remained the seat of the Vietnamese Court until 1810 when the capital of Vietnam was once again moved to a different location – the city of Hue then called Phu Xuan (which I also had the pleasure to visit). It was also used by the Imperial Japanese Army to imprison over 4,000 French colonial soldiers in March 1945 – something that almost sounds like a completion of a circle, after those same French being responsible for so much destruction of Thang Long. And, in 1954, when the Vietnamese Army took over Hanoi, the Citadel became the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, where the Vietnamese People’s Army met within think, soundproofing walls to discuss the next steps when fighting the Americans. Visiting their meeting rooms, the break rooms, the working rooms, and the underground bunker was incredible. And I could not stop myself from giggling at the sight of the thermos used by the military during meetings. At this time, the citadel name was coded D67.
I did not find many foreign tourists like myself in this place, unlike in other attractions of Hanoi. Not sure why – personally it was one of my highlights of the city – not only for its historical significance but also because the place is so full of culture elements that are screaming to be shown off.
At some point, a school girl asked to take a photo of me – so I was the attraction! I have experienced such a situation before, but not with a child – they see a tall white woman, and I become the exotic thing to photograph. I could imagine this girl telling her family after this day out “look what I found in the Citadel, a white lady and she was soooo tall!”
If you ever are in Hanoi, and if you want to learn more about the history of Vietnam, don’t miss out on the Imperial Citadel. A big part of the complex may be seen as being “under construction” due to the ongoing archaeological excavations – so I can only assume this place will become more and more interesting as time goes by, and more discoveries are made.
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