Friday, August 19, 2016

Before the Dragon Rose: Vietnam’s Ancient Capitals

                                                      by Jim Goodman

life in ancient Văn Lang, the first Vietnamese state
       Founded in 1010, Hanoi is the oldest capital city in East Asia.  But it was not the country’s first.  It was the third capital since Vietnam recovered its independence in 938, after more than a thousand years of Chinese rule.  Before that there were two capitals, the one the Chinese conquered and the earliest one, the capital of the first Vietnamese state 2500 years ago.  It lay in the foothills bordering the Red River Delta plain, northwest of Hanoi, but no one knows exactly where it was.  No trace of it has survived; not even its name.
An Dương with his crossbow
       We do know the name of the state it served, however.  It was called Văn Lang, ruled by a succession of semi-legendary monarchs known as the Hùng kings, the first of whom is supposed to have taken power in the late 7th century BCE., at the dawn of the Bronze Age.  Vietnamese historians have identified 18 kings in the Hùng Dynasty, which lasted about four and a half centuries.  They were the first to establish authority beyond their immediate vicinity, amalgamating disparate peoples living in small, autonomous units into a state with a common identity.
       Văn Lang was the hub of the Bronze Age Đông Sơn Culture, the originator of the bronze drum cult, influencing places beyond its borders, especially southern China, northern Thailand and eastern Burma.  Văn Lang artisans used bronze to make drums, weapons, farm tools, utensils, votive objects and funeral offerings. In tombs of the ruling class of those times excavation has revealed that many fine bronze artifacts were interred with the corpse.
       Đông Sơn relics have survived to confirm the state’s existence and high level of achievement.  But little else has.  The Hùng Kings’ tombs have never been found.  No ruined buildings from that era exist.  Văn Lang had no writing system, so records were not kept.  Yet researchers have identified a tract of hilly land in Phú Tho province as the probable site of Văn Lang’s capital.  Today’s Vietnamese revere the Hùng Kings’ era as the birth of their nationality.  Every year the government sponsors a festival here, held for several days in the third lunar month, attracting tens of thousands.   
Cổ Loa today
       Unlike its origin, Văn Lang’s demise is better known. The state fell to an invader from a mountain kingdom to the north in the 3rd century BCE.  He took the royal name An Dương and established a capital and citadel at C Loa, a little north of present-day Hanoi and at that time on the Red River.  C Loa means ‘snail’ and refers to the series of concentric walls, like a snail shell, built to protect the city.  An Dương called the new realm Âu Lc, combining the name of his own mountain state Âu Vit with the ancient name for the Red River Delta lands—Lc Vit
Cổ Loa crossbow reconstruction in a Hanoi museum
       Local culture did not experience any disruption in its development.  In fact, An Dương even paid a visit to the former capital and, at a spot known today as the Swearing Stone, promised to venerate the souls of the departed Hùng kings and preserve the kingdom.  The only real novelty about the establishment of his rule was that it was the first time the local people had been beaten by a foe from the north.  Previous invasions they had always repulsed.  An Dương’s success foreshadowed what was to become a permanent potential danger in centuries to come.
village elders at the Cổ Loa festival
       Myth embellishes history in the story of C Loa’s rise and fall.  When An Dương began building the city, every night whatever was built during the day was mysteriously dismantled.  The culprits turned out to be the spirits of the land, acting on behalf of the sons of the dispossessed former king.  Their leader was a thousand-year-old white chicken, residing on Tam Đào Mountain, northwest of C Loa.  The new king An Dương was at a loss how to deal with these spirits.
       Suddenly a golden turtle appeared on the scene, fought and defeated the white chicken, and remained at C Loa until the citadel was completed.  Upon departure he gave the king one of his claws to be used as a crossbow trigger.  The power of this would insure An Dương defeated any potential foe, for with this magic trigger the crossbow could fire one shot that would multiply into a thousand bolts.  
in the procession at Cổ Loa's festival
       All went fine for Âu Lc for about a generation.  But then political changes to the north threatened the state.  The Qin Dynasty, whose expansion to the south had prompted An Dương to move south and seize Văn Lang, fell and the Han Dynasty took over.  But it did not assert control over the southern parts, which reverted to their pre-Qin Dynasty independence.  One of these states was Nan Yue in southeast China, and its ruler Zhao Tou, shortly after being confirmed as king by the Han Court in 196 BCE, decided to invade Âu Lạc.
        An Dương’s supernatural crossbow kept Zhao Tou’s forces from taking Cổ Loa and the attack stalled.  Another strategy was necessary. Zhao Tou called a truce and sent his son Trng Thy to An Dương’s court.  The young man made a favorable impression, won the heart of Princess MChâu and married her.  After time passed he persuaded her to let him gain access to the armory.  There he secretly stole the turtle claw crossbow trigger and then made up an excuse to visit his father’s camp.  Feeling qualms about his departure, MChâu showed him her mantle, padded with goose-down, and told him that if, in his absence, she should have to leave C Loa, she would strew feathers from the mantle on the trail so that he could find her. 
Mỵ Châu's tomb at Tết
       Knowing the magic crossbow was now useless,  Zhao Tou renewed hostilities and soon took the citadel.  An Dương fled on horseback to the sea, the princess riding pillion.  When An Dương reached his destination the local genie informed him that the cause of his misfortune was right behind him.  Realizing it was his own daughter who betrayed him, he beheaded her and then flung himself into the sea.    Today, at the đình in C Loa Historical Complex, an altar to the princess stands in the rear of the building.  Here supposedly is interred the headless corpse of MChâu and oddly enough, during C Loa’s annual festival, shortly after Tết, Vietnamese lay offerings here.
       Back at C Loa, after Zhao Tou captured the citadel, Trng Thy went searching for his wife MChâu.  He soon discovered the trail she had marked out with goose-down feathers during her escape.  When he came to the end of it he discovered her headless corpse.  He returned with it to C Loa, had it buried properly and then killed himself.  Vietnamese have mixed feelings about MChâu, for if on the one hand she betrayed her father, on the other hand she was loyal to her husband.
Ngô Quyền
       Zhao Tou maintained Nan Yue’s independence until his death in 136 BCE, but the kingdom eventually fell to the Chinese 25 years later.  That was the end of any kind of Vietnamese independence, a period that would last over a thousand years and have a permanent impact on Vietnamese society and culture.  But the long occupation never extinguished the Vietnamese desire to run their own affairs.        Chinese control of northern Vietnam depended on the strength of its ruling dynasty.  When the state was strong, so was the administration.  When it weakened, fell victim to power struggles and such, Vietnamese revolted and at times briefly achieved autonomy again.   The Chinese established administrative centers, first in Long Biên, across the Red River from Hanoi, and later at Long Đỗ, on the site that is today Hanoi, where they built the Đai La citadel in the 9th century.
       Taking advantage of the continuing chaos in China following the fall of the Tang Dynasty, in 938 CE Ngô Quyền led native forces to expel the Chinese from the garrison at Đai La.  Counter-attacking, the Chinese sent a large naval force into Hạ Long Bay, intending to sail up the Red River to Đai La and suppress the revolt.  To stop them Ngô Quyền ordered his men to plant sharpened stakes in the bed of the Bạch Đằng River, the main tributary here to the Red River. The stakes were invisible at high tide. 
battle on the Bạch Đằng RIver, 938
       The invading fleet sailed in at high tide.  At a bend in the river, the Vietnamese came out in small boats to engage the enemy and delay them until the tide lowered.  With that, the Chinese fleet found itself impaled on the stakes and immobilized.  The Vietnamese in their small boats then advanced, burnt the ships and destroyed the fleet.  With that victory the Vietnamese finally won back their independence.
       To re-establish the new nation’s link with its past, Ngô Quyền made Cổ Loa the capital.  The Red River had changed course by then and the city was no longer next to it.  Whether he rebuilt the same kind of citadel is unknown.  Unfortunately, after five years Ngô Quyền died.  Since he did not establish a successor, for twenty-four years twelve clans fought it out.  The winner, Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, moved the capital to his hometown Hoa Lư, in today’s Ninh Bình province. 
Đinh Bộ Lĩnh
       Cổ Loa gradually became a ghost city and its buildings disappeared.  A thousand years later it was resurrected, not as a city, but as a reconstruction.  It did not include rebuilding the ‘snail’ walls of ancient times, but did include a temple to An Dương, a statue of him with the famous crossbow and a temple to the hapless Mỵ Châu.  An annual festival began, starting the 6th day of the first lunar month with a spectacular procession of men and women in ceremonial costumes, flags, ancient weapons and a miniature royal court.  The twelve villages belonging to Cổ Loa district organize the events, which also feature a great range of traditional games, contests, dramatic shows and fireworks.  The huge attendance at this event, particularly the first day, testifies to the continuing relevance of Cổ Loa in the national psyche.
       But that’s also true for Hoa Lư.  The festival there, honoring its two famous kings, held the same time as the one for the Hùng Kings, also draws thousands.  Temples venerating Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and Lê Hoàn lie on the far side of Hoa Lư and, except for Đinh Bộ Lĩnh’s tomb on a hill above the temples, are virtually all that is left of its ancient vestiges     The town today lies in the middle of surrounding hills, obviously easier back then to defend than Cổ Loa.  It was a hundred kilometers away from the old capital’s intrigues and a place where Đinh Bộ Lĩnh could count on local loyalty.  He ruled for eleven years until he and his son were assassinated in 979. 
contemporary Hoa Lư
      A child was next in line and the Chinese saw this as an opportunity to recapture Vietnam.  To meet this emergency the Hoa Lư Court deposed the boy and selected Lê Hoàn, the military commander, as the new king.  He stopped the Chinese invasion by employing the same trick used by Ngô Quyền:  planting sharpened stakes in the Bặch Đằng River to impale the Chinese ships.
       Lê Hoàn died in 1005 but left no heir.  A succession struggle broke out and after four years the winner was Lý Công Uẳn, commander of the palace guard, an orphan raised in a Buddhist temple. Buddhist influence at the Hoa Lư court had grown in the last years of Lê Hoàn’s reign and among the changes they advised the new king was to move the capital closer to the original Buddhist heartland, back to the old Chinese administrative center at Đai La.  Since its loss of status in 938 it had reverted to a village at more or less subsistence level.  But it still had an ideal location, with good water access to all parts of the delta as well as the sea. 
gateway to historic Hoa Lư
Lý Thái Tổ, founder of Hanoi
       The founder of the new Lý Dynasty, from then on known as Lý Thái T, agreed.  The country seemed safe from any Chinese invasion and remote, mountainous Hoa Lư was far from the major areas of population and trade.  In 1010 he decided to take a trip to old Đi La and see for himself whether it would make a suitable site for a new national capital.  When the king’s boat arrived at the site of the ruined citadel, a dragon allegedly rose into the sky.  Taking that as a good omen, Lý Thái T decided to stay and build a new capital city here.  He called it Thăng Long, Rising Dragon, the ancient city that eventually became Hanoi. Over a thousand years later, it’s still the capital of Vietnam.

at the annual Cổ Loa festival
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      Hoa Lư is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam's journey through the country.



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