This year the city of Hanoi turns 1,005. I know this is not news to many, but let’s just stop to consider that for a moment – 1,000 years is a very long time. One thousand years ago, Medieval Europe was flourishing, the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe was expanding and the new Khmer Empire had yet to build Angkor Wat. In what is now modern-day Vietnam, Emperor Ly Thai To, first emperor of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225 AD), founded the dynamic city now known as Hanoi. This makes Vietnam’s capital (with the exception of a brief interlude in Hue) one of the oldest continual seats of power in the world. That’s a pretty big deal. Yet many people, myself included, forget the deep history that lies beneath our feet.
I pass the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long daily, drive by the flag tower on my way to work, circle the faded yellow walls on my dog’s evening walk. I even live on the edge of what was once the Forbidden City, now just another urban block. But then there are moments – passing the main entrance as it lights up at dusk or watching shadows catch the craters left by canon fire on the north gate – when I remember that this is not just another city block. This is the heart of ancient Hanoi.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until months after moving to Hanoi that I visited the Citadel. Despite living a five-minute walk from the Imperial complex, I was unaware of the impressive piece of history next door. As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many other expats guiltily admit to the same ignorance. In all fairness, there’s not a lot left of the citadel, so the visit takes a little imagination. With so much renovation and remodeling – not to mention war – most of what is still standing is no more than a couple of hundred years old. However, excavations which began in 2007 have since revealed artifacts not only from the founding of the city in the 11th century but also from as far back as 767 AD, when the Chinese built the citadel of Dai Lai on the same site.
Visiting the excavation site is interesting, allowing one to imagine the palaces, gardens and lakes formerly occupying the extensive grounds. According to legend, the city was named when Ly Thai To saw a dragon rising from a bend in the Red River. At the time, the capital was 100km south but, with no room for expansion, the emperor sought a new location. After seeing the apparition, Ly Thai To moved his city to the banks of the Red River and named it Thang Long, or rising dragon.
When it came time to construct the Imperial city, however, Ly Thai To found that the city walls kept collapsing. One evening he dreamt of a white horse galloping across his land. The horse left marks in the ground and the following day the Emperor instructed his workers to build the walls on the footprints of the horse. The construction was a success and Hanoi’s oldest temple, Bach Ma, was founded in the horse’s honour.
These stories and the history they represent can seem a little abstract on the bustling streets of today’s Hanoi but if you look closely, remains of the original city layout are still evident. The old quarter reflects the historic guilds that serviced the Royal Citadel and the three sections of the palace – ceremonial, military and living and consultation palaces – are still loosely followed. The main gate and grassy field that are today used for festivals and graduation celebrations is a remnant of the ceremonial grounds for which they were once used.
My favourite part of the citadel, however, is much more recent than the ancient foundations. Towards the back of the compound, below one of the many French-era buildings constructed on the site, are the war rooms used by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap. Decked out in 1960s furniture and decorated with maps used to plot war strategies, one can see where they worked, sheltered and slept.
These rooms are not in my guidebook, nor have I read about them online. In fact, if I hadn’t been with a guide I would have passed right over them. Like so many interesting parts of this city, it was thanks to a little exploration and luck that I found them.
As 2015 dawns and my remaining time in Hanoi starts to slip away, I worry that there are still places in the city that I have not properly explored. While I will never visit every corner of Hanoi, there are still many things I wish to learn and places I want to visit (and re-visit). Starting with the Imperial Citadel, it is my New Year’s resolution to make the most of the few months I have left and delve deeper into Hanoi’s fascinating past and vibrant present.
This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on January 3rd 2014, click here to see the original.