Thang Long Royal Citadel in Hanoi was opened to the public quite recently, but once you’ve been you’ll wonder why it was kept under wraps for so long. With attractive, shady gardens, imposing buildings, underground bunkers and numerous historic artifacts, it’s got something for everyone. And it’s free.
The Thang Long Imperial Citadel was built in the 11th century by the Ly Viet Dynasty, when the capital of Vietnam was relocated from Hoa Lu to Hanoi.
The complex was an operating military base until 2010, hence its lack of accessibility to the public, but was listed by UNESCO that year on account of the area’s status as a centre of military power for so many centuries and the variety of relics it contains. This coincided with the 1,000-year anniversary of Hanoi.
The Citadel is certainly not a one-trick pony and will appeal to those interested in both ancient and modern history. The main building that you see across the gardens as you enter is the Doan Mon relic, the original main gate, but take time walking there to admire the potted bonsai trees and soak up the tranquility. Despite being sandwiched between four busy roads, the complex feels like an escape from the city thanks to the space and the low number of visitors. Wander up the stairs for views across the gardens to the Vietnam Military History Museum and Flag Tower.
Other remnants of the former Citadel include 15th-century stone dragons that decorate the steps to what was once the Kinh Thien Palace — now no more — and Hau Lau (Black Tower) and Cua Bac (Northern Gate), both at the back of the complex.
An exhibition, housed in a building behind the main gate, contains numerous artifacts that have been discovered at the archeaological site over the road at 18 Hoang Dieu. The site is 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.
Another exhibition room contains a display of items and drawings related to traditional paper-making and other crafts in the region, based on work by Henri Oger, who trod the streets of Hanoi in the early 20th century conducting research into craft occupations in Vietnam. Local artisans then created sketches to reflect the life of the local people and are on display here.
If military history is more your interest you’re in for a treat. The Military Operation Bunker — General Command Headquarter was built in the early days of the Vietnam — or American — War and comprises three rooms: the meeting room, where the General Commander worked; the operation monitoring room, where the Military Operation Department team worked 24 hours a day to keep track of the war situation and report to the higher echelons, including President Ho Chi Minh; and the equipment room. The bunker is protected against bombs and rockets by a 1.5 metre thick ceiling and a double-layered steel door and contains an air-con system, toxin filter and anti-magnetic interference avoidance system. The rooms are laid out as they would have been during the war.
The D67 bunker and further meeting rooms and offices, including the Central Command meeting room where General Giap held court, are on the other side of the courtyard.
Entrance to the 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. Entrance is free and parking is available for a small fee. It’s closed Mondays and Fridays but otherwise open 08:30 to 11:30 and 14:00 to 17:00.
For a half-day excursion combine a visit to the Citadel with a look around the Military History Museum and the Flag Tower, or extend the visit further by walking over to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex. Make it a day of war sights and include the B52. Lunchtime options nearby are limited but street food and Vietnamese restaurants are on Phan Dinh Phuong and Nguyen Thai Hoc.
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