My ongoing mission to see every World Heritage Site on the planet is continuing and the latest one I’m bringing to you is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. But I’m going to apologise in advance. This is going to be rather underwhelming.
To be honest, I’m not really sure why this site has been added to the World Heritage List. I read one suggestion that it was a ‘gift’ from UNESCO for Hanoi’s 1000th birthday. I think that’s unlikely but it does make you wonder how some of these decisions are made.
Anyway, let’s talk about the site. So what is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long?
Well, the short version is that this is the location where there has been a centre of political power in the region for 13 centuries without interruption. It certainly sounds impressive but what does that mean in terms of things to visit and see for yourself.
The first construction here was a Chinese fortress in the 7th century. This was during the Dai La period when the Chinese controlled much of what is northern Vietnam today. There are no original buildings from this time on the site, though, although there is some evidence of the fortress found during an archaeological dig. (I’ll talk more about this dig shortly.)
The Chinese control ended in the 10th century and that’s when the citadel called Thang Long was built in the same place – basically over the top of the old fortress. But, other than the name, the complex of today really has nothing in common with this original citadel. So many of the buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, and the layout modified so drastically – that, again, it’s only in the archaeological dig that you can find remnants of this time.
The buildings that are within the Thang Long complex today that are historically significant come from a later period. The main northern gate, for instance, was built in 1805. One of the most significant buildings to ever be built on the site is Kinh Thien Palace, which was constructed in 1428. However, only the steps and the palace’s foundations are still visible today.
And this is why I find myself so underwhelmed at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Despite the long and fascinating history of the site, there is so little to actually see today. Hanoi is an incredible city with so much to see – I wonder whether it is worth spending much time visiting this place.
Perhaps one of the redeeming elements of the complex is a more modern one that actually has nothing to do with the World Heritage Site listing. It’s a small building at the back of the site called House D67. It’s here that the communists had a base during the Vietnam War and planned much of their activity. The house above ground has the original meeting rooms and you can also go down a long flight of stairs to an underground bunker 9 metres beneath the surface.
Why is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long a World Heritage Site?
When Vietnam nominated the Thang Long Citadel to be on the World Heritage List, this was one of the reasons they included in the official representation:
“The outstanding universal value of the Thang Long-Hanoi Citadel is to be found in the way the site manifests, in exemplary detail and over a long span of time, the interchange of human values in the development of Asian architecture, construction technology, town planning, monumental and plastic arts and landscape design, the connection between the political processes of nation-state formation and differentiation from other polities, and the consequent flowering of local cultural achievements, both of which are expressed in the architecture, town planning, artistic expressions, and other forms of material culture found at the site.”
Unfortunately most of this has been lost to the casual observer today. It’s at the archaeological dig site, that I’ve already mentioned, that most of the clues to this importance can be found. The dig site is across the road and would be easy for a visitor to miss if they didn’t know where it was or how to get to it. It’s a large space, protected from the elements by a temporary roof, with a few workers sifting through the dirt and cleaning the items they find. You can see the foundations of buildings here and there are, presumably, important artefacts buried.