Visiting the Imperial Citadel
After Jerome’s fun break on the improvised go-kart we walked the short distance to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. This site was the home of the Vietnamese military for over 1000 years, and the entire site was added to the Unesco World Heritage sites in 2010. However, it was only opened to the public two years later and has since become one of the most important historical sights in Hanoi. To enter the large complex of buildings we had to first purchase tickets in a hall, which showed the history of the military and also displayed a model of the citadel. The Citadel of Thang Long was built on the site of a Chinese fortress that once stood there from 7th to the 10th century when Vietnam was under the rule of the Chinese. The flag tower we had seen earlier at the museum next door was originally part of the wider site that stretched several blocks in all directions.
Entering the Forbidden City
Walking out of the building we could see the large entrance gate topped by a little Buddhist temple in the distance past a field of grass. Setting foot through the Doan gate we reached the enclosed area of the Forbidden City. Protected under glass from nature’s forces, we could see the remains of ancient brick structures from the original palaces, sadly none of the original structures remain today.
Before heading deeper into the complex we started up the stairs to visit the small Buddhist temple on top of the huge gate. Inside we found a small altar with offerings of fruit and drinks, including coke cans and the calming smoke of incense sticks. The temple itself was not very impressive, but the views in front towards the flag tower and behind towards a stunning colonial mansion were superb. The mansion was built by the French on the site of one of the original forbidden palaces – that they destroyed – it has beautiful arched windows.
Downstairs in the gardens we met a group of students who started to chat with us, asking where we came from and what we were going in Vietnam. They were taking photos of a pretty girl, dressed in a white ao dai (traditional Vietnames dress) as part of a photography workshop. Saying goodbye to them we moved on along towards the next buildings behind the mansion.
There we found a courtyard dotted with a large number of giant bonsai trees. Jerome has admired the art of bonsais for a while now and wandered through the little trees to find his favourite one, spotting the little figures in amongst the roots. I admired the architecture of the buildings surrounding the courtyard, the yellow painted walls were covered in greening algea from the humidity and parts of the paint had peeled off exposing the concrete underneath. Many houses in Hanoi succumb to this charm giving them an extra layer of character that the new buildings seem to lack.
A Drum, Turtle and Dragon Stairs
Another stunning feature that caught our eye in the courtyard was the giant drum with a large stone turtle at its front. The drum reminded us of a taiko drums from Japan and Jerome would have loved to hear the sound from it. However the drum was closed off by rope for protection. In this area the highlight for many is the remains of the stairs of the old Imperial Palace. Two slithering dragons with their intricate details descend the wide steps and demonstrate how opulent the Kinh Thien Palace, constructed in 1428, must have been before it was destroyed during French occupation. These dragon stairs are typical of that period.
At the heart of the Citadel complex we discovered a more modern building, House D67. In the Vietnam War the building was used as the headquarters of the communists and it was in these rooms, and the bunkers below, that they planned their strategies. Entering into the first room we found a large wooden table with nameplates of each officer and the commandant – often Ho Chi Minh himself – that was present at the gatherings. In the glass cases we could see old telephones and other gadgets from those times. Some of these items were of interest to Jerome, like the old maps on the walls and ancient looking electronic equipment.
Descending the steep, narrow stairs we found ourselves in the musty underground chambers, which also served as a bunker. The narrow halls and secret rooms and exits run underneath a large area of the Imperial Citadel. Most of these rooms are not accessible to the public and while they make a cool respite from the heat and humidity outside, they also made us feel a bit depressed. It is hard to imagine that people might have spent days underground, with no daylight or fresh air in hiding planning their next secret attacks. The main room we visited served as a meeting room and was a mirror image of the room upstairs, just smaller and darker.
Strolling through the Garden
Glad to be back outside we wandered through the gardens, past orchards of pomelos, covered in a protective bag and trees hung with large, spikey jackfruits growing from the stems. The gardeners were hard at work, despite it being a Sunday. Among the trees we could see other entrances to the underground maze of the bunkers.
The Ladies Pavilion
The last accessible building on site was the Ladies Pavillion. The pagoda was most likely built as accommodation for the ladies in waiting and concubines for when the emperor was visiting Hanoi. It would be natural to expect a little palace with beautiful rooms, however glory has long diminished the decor, the rooms that are arranged over three floors were dark and rather derelict, only the small temple on top of the building gave hints of what it might have been like.
Visiting the Archaeological Site
On the way to the exit we watched some ladies scrub the floor free of the moss that had manifested itself over the years on the tiles. They were all happy to see us and greeted us with a friendly “Xin Chao”. Located across the road from the exit is the archaeological site of the palace where there are many buildings still being excavated and examined. We gave this a skip as we felt that Jerome would be bored by the site filled with ancient stones, however for someone that is truly interested in history this should be added to the must see list.
We made our way back along the road seeking somewhere to refresh ourselves with cold water and planning where to have a late lunch.
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