The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is an impressive complex displaying ancient architecture and relics created by Vietnamese monarchs. It’s considered the “most important relic in Vietnam”. It was blistering hot the day I visited – my iPhone overheated and shut down. I spent almost as much time cooling off inside the airconditioned exhibition hall as walking through the lush, beautiful grounds.
The Royal Center of the Citadel complex exhibits “unique architecture and millions of precious artifacts”. They date from the Northern period under domination of China and the Chinese Sui and Tang Dynasties (7th to 9th centuries) to Vietnam’s Ly, Tran, Le, Mac, and Nguyen Dynasties (1010-1945)”.
“The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is the largest archaeological excavation in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. It reveals traces of the Citadel over a historical period spanning 13 centuries, with stacked monuments and cultural layers.” hoangthanhthanglong.com
The archaeological excavation began in December 2002. In 2010, the World Heritage Committee recognized the Citadel as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Central Citadel plays a vital role in Vietnam’s history and is an “important symbol of the history and culture of the country”.
Links in this blog post provide complex history on Chinese and Vietnamese dynasties during periods before and after King Than Long. History details periods from Chinese rule (111 B.C. – A.D. 938) to modern-day Vietnam:
During the French conquest in 1954, Hanoi was chosen as the capital of the French Indochina Federation. The Imperial Citadel became the headquarters of the French Ministry of Defense. The royal palaces and buildings were largely destroyed, and the Citadel of Thang Long was demolished.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The World Heritage Site has two sections – an archaeological excavation site and the remaining central axis of the Citadel complex. In 2002-2003, a large-scale archaeological excavation “revealed a wealth of monuments and relics” now on display in the complex exhibition hall. The central axis includes the Flag Tower, Kinh Thien Palace Foundation, Princess’s Pagoda, South Gate, and North Gate.
“Different types of architectural monuments and relics with mixed overlaying dates from the past 1300 years were found on top of each other. This illustrates the continuous historical development under dynasties in Thang Long, Hanoi.”
The excavation site has three floors divided into four zones – A through D. The lower floor is part of the eastern side of Dai La Citadel under the Cao Bien period of the Tang Dynasty. The central floor is from the Le Dynasty. The upper floor is the former palace of the Ly and Tran Dynasties.
Kính Thien Palace
Kinh Thien Palace was built in 1428 under the reign of King Le Thai To and completed under the reign of King Le Thanh Tong. The palace is the “central relic of the Citadel, where imperial ceremonies and great national affairs were celebrated”.
Main Gate (Doan Mon)
Doan Mon is one of the main Citadel entrances. Only the royal family and their relatives were allowed to pass through the Main Gate. It was built under the Le Dynasty and restored by the Nguyen Dynasty. It’s “built in the style of an ancient city wall with five gates and rolling arches”. Materials include bricks and rocks and were mostly constructed using wooden-hammers. The words “Doan Mon” are carved on the stone plaque mounted above the main gate door.
North Gate (Bac Mon)
North Gate was built by the Nguyen Dynasty in 1805 on the foundation of Northern Gate which was built under the Le Dynasty. North and South Gates are the only two remaining gates of the Imperial Citadel. North Gate’s watchtower gazebo includes four doors in four directions and was built to worship province chiefs – Nguyen Tri Phuong and Hoang Dieu. These two Vietnamese heroes led fierce battles against French invaders in 1873 and 1882. There are “visible bullet holes in the tower inflicted by French cannons, when they used gunboats to attack Hanoi from the Red River in 1882″.
Princess Pagoda (Hau Lau)
Hau Lau was built after the Later Le Dynasty, the “greatest and longest lasting dynasty of traditional Vietnam“. It was the residence of the queens and princesses. The palace has a basement, three floors, and a tiled roof made with brick and concrete. By the “end of the 19th century, Hau Lau was severely damaged. The French rebuilt it as it stands today”.
Revolutionary Historical Heritage House D67
House D67 was designed and built in 1967 as the headquarters of the Vietnamese Defense Ministry against US forces. It includes a meeting room for the Politburo and Central Military Commission and the working rooms of Generals Van Tien Dung and Vo Nguyen Giap.
From the outside, the building looks like a normal house, but “inside, there are 0.6 m thick walls, sound insulation, and two-layer doors”. There’s “one layer of sand to prevent rocket and bomb shrapnel on the roof, and the back corridor is connected to the basement with two steel plate doors from the working rooms”. It’s one of a few undamaged military buildings from the resistance war against the US.
Most of the photos from the relic exhibition and murals throughout the complex grounds are uncaptioned. Touring the Citadel was an enjoyable educational experience! The history of the dynasties is complex, and it would take an archeologist to understand the finer points of the excavation site. Recent news indicates that more “aspects of the Citadel’s history are consistently being uncovered”.
During my last few weeks in Hanoi, I’ve booked a Quintessence of Tonkin performance highlighting Vietnamese village life and staged entirely on water, and a day trip to Ninh Binh, the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries.