Hanoi

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long: Vestiges of a Bygone Hanoi

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (Vietnamese spelling: Hoàng thành Thăng Long – 昇龍皇城) is what’s left of the Thang Long Capital City which was the predecessor of Hanoi Capital City. It’s immense historical, cultural, and archeological significance can be traced back 1300 years.

The citadel was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2010. The same year marked the ‘1000 years of Thang Long – Hanoi’ and extravagant national celebrations were held.

History of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

The Hanoi Citadel in 1890
The Hanoi Citadel in 1890
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long went by many names along the course of its history. Other historical capitals include Co Loa Citadel on the outskirts of Hanoi, the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital in Ninh Binh, and Phu Xuan Capital in Hue.

During the 9th Century Before the Name Thang Long 

An Nam was the name of Vietnam from 679 – 1945. During Chinese occupation under the Tang Dynasty (nhà Đường), the area of what was to become Thang Long Capital City lay in the middle of An Nam, or northern present-day Vietnam, and was called Tống Bình.

In 866, Tang General Gao Pian (Cao Biền – 高骈) built Dai La Citadel (thành Đại La) on the grounds of Tong Binh. A story goes that during its construction, a god called Long Đỗ appeared in Gao Pian’s dream, so the general worshipped him as the patron god of the land.

During the 10th Century Before the Name Thang Long

After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, China entered the historical period called ‘Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms’ (Ngũ Đại Thập quốc). In the early 10th century, the citadel was captured by the Chinese Southern Han Kingdom until the An Nam General Dương Đình Nghệ took it back in 931.

Six years later, the general was assassinated by one of his officers, Kiều Công Tiễn, who took the citadel for himself. In 938, the general’s son-in-law, Ngo Quyen (Ngô Quyền), took back Dai La Citadel and killed Kiều Công Tiễn.

Ngo Quyen then went on to defeat the Southern Han at the Battle of Bach Dang River. He thus became the first king of the Ngo Dynasty and chose Co Loa as the capital city. Co Loa used to be the capital of Au Lac Kingdom (nhà nước Âu Lạc) by the Red River (sông Hồng) all the way back to the 3rd century BC.

Thang Long Comes into Being: Ly – Tran Period from 11th to 14th Centuries

The Kinh Thien Palace in 1890
The Kinh Thien Palace in 1890
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

Đinh Tiên Hoàng, who reunited Vietnam in 968, was the first emperor after a thousand years of Chinese rule. He then named the country Dai Co Viet (Đại Cồ Việt) and chose Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh province as capital.

In 1010, Lý Thái Tổ— the first king of the Ly Dynasty— moved the capital from Hoa Lu to the previous capital location of Dai La and named it, Thang Long. The original Thang Long Capital City had three square sections and four gates.

The outer section was walled (La thành) and the second was the imperial city (Hoàng Thành). Citizens lived in the area between these two sections. The central inner area was the forbidden city (Tử cấm thành) where the king resided.

He also built the Bach Ma Temple (đền Bạch Mã) here to worship Long Đỗ and the Quan Thanh Temple (đền Quán Thánh) for the God of the North Star Polaris (Huyền Thiên Trấn Vũ). They are two of the Four Protectors of the Thang Long Capital City that still exist in Hanoi today.

In 1029, the succeeding King Lý Thái Tông rebuilt the entire forbidden city after a mutiny. In 1203, the 7th King Lý Cao Tông added a number of structures, one of which was the Can Nguyen Palace (điện Càn Nguyên) which later became Thien An Palace (điện Thiên An) during the Tran Dynasty, and Kinh Thien Palace during the Le Dynasty.

The Le – Mac Period from the 15th to the 18th Century

After defeating the invasion of the Chinese Ming Dynasty from 1406 to 1427, Lê Thái Tổ— the first king of the Le Dynasty— kept Thang Long as the capital. However, he renamed it Đông Kinh or Capital of the East. From the late 15th century to the next, the capital went through significant changes like added structures and overall expansion.

From 1516 to 1527, the Mac Dynasty dethroned the Le. Throughout the latter half of the 16th century, Dong Kinh was center to numerous factional conflicts.

In 1599, the second Trinh Lord Trịnh Tùng took over Dong Kinh. This name is also the origin of the word ‘Tonkin’ that French Cochinchina used for North Vietnam.

From Thang Long Capital City to North Citadel under the Nguyen Dynasty

The present-day Princess Palace
The present-day Princess Palace
[ by Alex Bin*** from Flickr ]

In 1788, the last King Lê Chiêu Thống of the Le Dynasty sided with the Chinese Qing Dynasty in a successful retake of Dong Kinh from the Trinh Lords. The Later Le Dynasty ended in 1789 after Nguyễn Huệ, or the second King Quang Trung of the Tay Son Dynasty (nhà Tây Sơn) defeated the Chinese Qing.

King Quang Trung moved the capital to Hue, returned the name Thang Long, and made it the North Citadel (Bắc thành). During the 18th and 19th centuries of the Nguyen Dynasty, resources were transferred to the new Phu Xuan Capital City (Kinh thành Phú Xuân) now Hue.

Only the Kinh Thien Palace and Princess Palace (Hậu Lâu) remained as accommodation of the Nguyen royalties during their visit. They both still exist today.

From North Citadel to Hanoi City under the Nguyen Dynasty

Gia Long— the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty— reconstructed Thang Long into a smaller Hanoi Citadel (thành Hà Nội) in the French Vauban style with 5 gates in 1805. The core of Hanoi Citadel is basically the present-day Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. In 1812, the Hanoi Flag Tower was added south of the citadel.

In 1831, Gia Long‘s son and successor, Emperor Minh Mạng, relegated Hanoi to a province (tỉnh Hà Nội). It remained so until 1888 when the Nguyen King Đồng Khánh gave Hanoi entirely to the French and Hanoi became a city.

Hanoi under French Cochinchina to the Present Day

In 1902, Hanoi became the capital of the Indochinese Federation under French Cochinchina. The citadel was destroyed to make room for the offices and military camps, only the North Gate and the Hanoi Flag Tower remained.

Hanoi then went through numerous expansions to become what it is today. The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long you see today is the result of years of excavating, reconstructing, and preserving.

Things to See at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

To get to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, you’ll need to park at the entrance and walk for a bit through the Flag Tower Stadium (sân vận động Cột Cờ) to the Doan Mon Gate nearby. The main structures are on a straight line in the middle of the citadel.

An informative tour guide will be helpful for your trip here. Unfortunately, you need to book your guide at a travel agency because the citadel doesn’t provide that service.

View all destinations mentioned in this article

The Existing Gates of Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

Doan Mon Gate up close
Doan Mon Gate up close
[ by katiebordner from Flickr ]

The Doan Mon Gate (Đoan Môn) is the only remaining entrance to the core forbidden city. It was built during the Le Dynasty and repaired during the Nguyen.

The North Gate (Bắc Môn) is one of the five main gates of the Hanoi Citadel under the Nguyen Dynasty. Visitors can still see the two cannonball holes that the French fired in 1882.

Quan Chuong Auxiliary Gate (Cửa ô Quan Chưởng) was built sometime during the Later Le Dynasty in the 18th century. It somehow survived the war and is now 2km away from the North Gate.

Kinh Thien Palace

The dragon ladder
The dragon ladder
[ by Nguyễn Duy Phong from Facebook ]

Kinh Thien Palace (điện Kính Thiên) was built on an existing foundation in 1428 under the Le Dynasty as a functional place for the imperial court. In 1886, the French destroyed the place to build an artillery HQ, leaving only the foundation and the dragon ladder.  

After the liberation of North Vietnam in 1954, it became the office for the Vietnamese National Defense Ministry. The remnants are right in the middle of the present citadel and the paths leading to it are paved with stone tiles. Plans are underway for the reconstruction of the palace.

House D67

House D67
[ by Alex Bin*** from Flickr ]

House D67 (Nhà khách D67) was the headquarters for the Defense Ministry during the Vietnam War in 1967, hence the name. This is the place where the 1975 Spring Offensive, or Tet Offensive, was officially initiated. There’s also a bunker under the yard connecting the house to Kinh Thien Palace.

Hanoi Flag Tower

Hanoi Flag Tower
Hanoi Flag Tower
[ by Garry Wahl from Facebook ]

Hanoi Flag Tower (Cột cờ Hà Nội) was fortunate enough to not be damaged during the French Colonial Period. It’s a historical site with three levels and steps leading to each. The tower is on the third level but it’s not open to visitors.

18 Hoang Dieu Street Archeological Site

18 Hoang Dieu Street Archeological Site
18 Hoang Dieu Street Archeological Site
[ by Alice Ching from Facebook ]

This functioning archeological site on 18 Hoang Dieu Street (Di tích Khảo cổ học số 18 Hoàng Diệu) has overlapping layers of 1300 years worth of remnants. It’s currently divided into 4 sections A, B, C, D. 

Section A displays most of the identified artifacts. Remnants include signature architectural components, pottery, sculptures, bowls, and dishes from the time of the Dai La Citadel of the 7th century to the Hanoi Province of the 19th century.

Visiting the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

Visiting the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
Visiting the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
[ by Sophon Yosvichit from Facebook ]

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is in the center of Hanoi so it’s easy to get to. Be mindful of the structures and the whole citadel in general. Camera drones aren’t allowed here.

Visiting hours: 8 AM to 5 PM every day, except Monday.

Entrance ticket: 

  • Adults: 30 000 VND per person.
  • Children under 15 years old: free.

Check out our article on ‘25 Best Things To Do in Hanoi’ for more about how to get to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long and other destinations.

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