One cannot go to Hanoi without exploring its rich past.
On my last day in the Vietnamese capital, I stopped by a bookstore and picked up a copy of A Brief Chronology of Vietnamese History, and was surprised by its troubled beginnings. The country has experienced wars since 218 BC, most famous of which are the Indochina Wars that shaped modern-day Vietnam. As a reminder of its past, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long still stands and serves as a tourist attraction for those wanting to study Vietnam’s history.
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a cultural complex that houses the Hanoi Citadel, the former residence of Vietnamese monarchs. The Imperial Citadel was built during the Lý Dynasty in 1009, and was expanded during the Trần, Lê, and the Nguyễn Dynasties. For 13 centuries, it was the seat of regional political power until the Nguyen Dynasty moved the capital to Huế.
It was discovered in the 2000’s when Ba Đình Hall, a structure used by the National Assembly of Vietnam for official functions, was torn down. In 2010, the Citadel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The citadel is imposing, but my favorite part is the back, which had low-rise French colonial buildings.
I especially liked the extensive collection of bonsai trees, which were displayed in a courtyard before what’s left of the Kinh Thien Palace and a temple.
Another interesting thing is the D67 Building, which was built in the Indochina Wars. It has a a nine meter deep underground bomb shelter where the Communist Part of Vietnam met to discuss the war against the US.
Despite Vietnam’s rocky past, it does have its spaces of tranquil, like the Temple of Literature. The Temple of Literature is actually called the Văn Miếu, and is home to the Imperial Academy, or Hanoi’s first university. The temple was built in 1070, and the academy was built in 1076. It educated Vietnam’s bureaucrats, nobility, and members of the elite class, but it later accepted people from other classes to promote education.
Students lived in the Imperial Academy for three to seven years, and learned literature, poetry, Chinese, Chinese philosophy, and Chinese history. They took a series of tests, which culminated in the Đình Examination, which the monarch himself presided.
In 1484, Emperor Lê Thánh Tông put up 116 steles of blue stone turtles carved with the names and birth places of 1,307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams between 1442 and 1779. Today, 82 stelae remain.
The Temple of Literature is divided into five courtyards, and is a peaceful respite despite it being in the middle of a bustling district. There are a lot of trees, pavilions, and altars, and I had a great time imagining what life was like for the students in the past. I love places like this, but it was hard to appreciate because there were tons of tourists.
This unusual contrast between war and peace is prevalent in Hanoi. A picturesque coffee shop stands next to the Vietnam Military History Museum (with a wreckage of a B52-G bomber). Quaint restaurants sit side-by-side with shops selling propaganda posters. And the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum exhibits art that mixes war themes and the bucolic life. It’s this disparity that makes Hanoi an exciting and vibrant city to visit.