The sprawling grounds of the World Heritage-listed Thang Long Citadel are a palimpsest across which Hanoi's history has been written and re-written. You can easily spend a few hours here exploring the grounds and the archaeological dig just across the road.
The citadel site has been a continuous seat of power for some 1,300 years. It most recently operated as a military base until it was opened to the public to mark the 1,000-year anniversary of Hanoi and its UNESCO World Heritage listing. Despite being sandwiched between four busy roads, the complex feels like an escape from the city. There are two sub-sections: the citadel grounds and buildings, plus the dig at 18 Hoang Dieu Street across the road.
The site was first used as the Dai Lai Citadel when the area, then known as Giao Chau, was under Chinese rule from the seventh to ninth centuries; foundations of wooden buildings, tools, furniture, wells and drainage ditches from this period have been found at the dig.
When the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) shifted the capital of its empire from Hoa Lu to the Dai Lai Citadel, changing its name to Thang Long in 1010. They built a new citadel comprising a Forbidden City—home to the Emperor's Palace—nested within two sets of walls. The area within the outer walls was known as Kinh Thanh (Imperial City), and the space within the second set of walls was Hoang Thanh, or the Imperial Citadel. The citadel remained here through dynasties over the next centuries, with additions including palaces, pavilions, towers, pagodas, temples and shrines.
In 1805, when the capital was relocated to Hue, King Gia Long demolished the citadel and replaced it with one in French Vauban style, which he used when he travelled in the north, though he kept the Kinh Thanh Palace; it was pulled down in 1815 as its wooden columns had rotted. In 1897, the French demolished the citadel completely to make way for a modern quarter as they planned to build a new city. After 1954, the area became the head office of the ministry of defence and the commander-in-chief of the Vietnamese People's Army until 1975.
Architecture remaining above ground today includes the Hanoi Flag Tower (Hau Lau), the South and North Gates, stair remnants of the Kinh Thanh Palace and the Princess' Palace. It's all very spread out, but well signposted.
The main building that you see across the gardens as you enter is Doan Mon, the original main gate. Take your time walking there to admire the bonsai trees and soak up the tranquility. You'll see a glass-covered archaeological dig showing pathways at a depth of 1.2 metres dating to the Ly So dynasty of 1428-1527. At 1.9 metres, older bricks were discovered dating to the Ly dynasty (1009-1225). These were discovered during a 1999 excavation. More excavations are planned.
When we visited, graduate students were playing loud music and having their photographs taken in one of the sprawling courtyards. Several art exhibitions were showing in some of the buildings, including an impressive Vietnamese photographic one, and a permanent exhibition of relics unearthed from the 18 Hoang Dieu Street dig from 2002-2009. Tucked to one side you'll find the dragon-flanked step remains of Kinh Thanh Palace.
If military history is more your interest, you’re in for a treat. D67 looks like an ordinary single-storey bungalow with a flat roof, but the walls are 60 centimetres thick and a layer of sand in the roof aimed to protect the inhabitants from shrapnel. Built in 1967, it housed the General Headquarters of the People's Army of Vietnam and meetings rooms for the Politburo. General Vo Nguyen Gap, Minister of Defence, and General Van Tien Dung, Chief of the General Staff, also had offices here.
You can head into the original bunker, nine metres deep and protected against bombs and rockets by a 1.5 metre thick ceiling and a double-layered steel door and containing an air-con system, toxin filter and anti-magnetic interference avoidance system. The rooms are laid out just as they would have been during the war.
At the rear of the complex you'll find the stuccoed brick Princess Pagoda or Palace, or Hau Lau. Originally, it was built during the Nguyen Dynasty as the residence of imperial concubines. It was damaged badly in the late 1800s and reconstructed by the French.
Across the road, pop into 18 Hoang Dieu, the largest excavation in Vietnam and impressive to witness even for non-archaeological fans. It can be accessed by leaving the complex at the central gate (near the Military Operation Bunker and large drum) and crossing the main road.
The citadel is a mixed bag of historical goodies. The information available on-site is pretty good as far as other museums in Hanoi goes, so you can really take your time exploring and learning. Having said that, it's not always easy to put the pieces together yourself; apparently guides are available at the entrance when you buy your tickets. We didn't hire one ourselves, but it might be worthwhile considering one.
Entrance to the citadel complex is on Hoang Dieu, round the corner from the entrance to the Vietnam Military History Museum: as you leave the museum, turn right on Dien Bien Phu, go past Highlands Coffee and then turn right.
For a half-day excursion combine a visit to the citadel with a look around the Military History Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex.
Address: Hoang Dieu St, Ba Dinh, Hanoi
T: (04) 3734 5927;
Coordinates (for GPS): 105º50'20.21" E, 21º2'13.17" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 30,000 dong
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Hanoi