Hanoi’s underwhelming citadel

This Vietnamese addition to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site has hundreds of years of history – but does that mean it’s worth visiting the Thang Long Citadel?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

Updated:

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.)

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.”

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

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.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi, Vietnam

Perhaps this dig will turn up something significant. Perhaps the authorities will be able to do something with the ruins to better demonstrate the civilisations that have occupied this land for more than a millennia. I hope so. In the meantime… well, I have ticked another one off the list.

[needtoknow label=”Where is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long?” type=”fa-globe” copy=”The citadel takes up an entire enormous city block. Officially the address is 9 Hoang Dieu, Dien Bien.” id=1 status=checked] [needtoknow label=”When is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long open?” type=”fa-clock-o” copy=”The citadel is open Tuesday – Sunday from 0800 – 1700. It is closed on Mondays.” id=2] [needtoknow label=”How much does the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long cost?” type=”fa-usd” copy=”A ticket to the citadel costs 30,000 VND (US$1.30). Admission is free for children under 15 years old.” id=3]

How do you get to Hanoi?

Hanoi is well connected to South East Asia by plane and there are lots of cheap flights on good airlines. From other parts of Vietnam, the easiest way will be by train.

If that’s not possible, there are also lots of bus options into Hanoi. My tip is to use this travel booking site, which will give you all the options and prices and you can make a reservation to guarantee a seat.

Are there good tours in Hanoi?

Yes! Even though I’ve listed a lot of suggestions for things to see in Hanoi, you may prefer to have someone show you around. Or you might like to see the city in a different way. Here are some of my tips:

To see the main sights and get off the beaten track a little, I would recommend this day tour.

There is heaps of amazing food in Hanoi so you could also do this food tour. I guarantee you’ll try some things you wouldn’t have otherwise!

Or for something a bit different, there’s a great photography tour along the local rail tracks.

Or you could be a bit more adventurous with this bike tour of nearby countryside and villages.

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN HANOI

You’ll find most of the hotels around the Old Quarter or French Quarter, which puts you right in the centre of the action!

BACKPACKER

For a budget hostel in Hanoi, I would recommend Luxury Backpackers, which has great beds.

BUDGET

There are also lots of quite similar cheap hotels. A comfortable option is Golden Moon Suite Hotel.

BOUTIQUE

For a really trendy hotel, you should try The Chi Boutique Hotel.

LUXURY

And if you want to really splurge, I think the nicest luxury hotel in the city is the Sofitel Legend Metropole.

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

9 thoughts on “Hanoi’s underwhelming citadel”

  1. I am elated to know about your coverage on World Heritage Sites. The Imperial Citadel in Hanoi is really awesome. I am soon planning to go to the Vietnamese capital soon.

    Reply

Leave a comment