Thursday, March 28, 2013


by Jim Goodman

Thăng Long Citadel in the Lý Dynasty (by Hiệp Hạ Dung)
       When Lý Thái Tô moved the national capital from Hoa Lư to Thăng Long ̣(now Hanoi) in 1010, one of his first acts was to order the building of a citadel. It wasn’t a new concept. He had the ruins of the Đại La citadel, abandoned when the Chinese administration was thrown out in 938, there to guide him. It had been built in 866 after Chinese troops had forced out the Nanzhao army that had occupied the Chinese administrative center. Nanzhao’s forces had destroyed the previous citadel, called La Thánh and erected in 751 as an extension of an earlier one from 641. So the site already had a long tradition of citadels. For that matter, so did the Vietnamese. The last time they had an independent state before the long centuries of Chinese occupation, its kings ruled the country from the citadel at Cổ Loa. 
Hanoi citadel today
       The royal citadel was the protected residence of the king and his court. Shaped like a rectangle, bound by high, thick walls, flanking the Tô Lịch River to the north and a moat around the other three sides, Thăng Long’s citadel was about twice as big as the current Hanoi citadel, which is only two centuries old. Within its walls stood several palaces, meeting halls, pavilions, gardens and ponds, plus a separate, enclosed compound called the Forbidden City. Here lived the king and his family, concubines and sons. His royal guards and most dependable military units resided just outside the citadel walls. Their duty was to protect the citadel, for it not only housed the nation’s sovereign, but was also its political power center.
       Thăng Long’s citadel remained as such through the Lý Dynasty and most of its successor the Trần Dynasty until 1397. The strongman at the court, Hồ Quý Ly, that year decided to move the capital to his home village in Thanh Hoá province. He had a citadel built there, with roughly five meter-high walls running 3.6 km around a square ground of 770,000 square meters. Workers used the high-quality stone from the nearby hills, cut into blocks of 15 to 20 tons, to make the walls. The construction is supposed to have taken just three months.
Hồ Dynasty Citadel, south gate
       For all the labor involved, the Hồ citadel did not see much use. Hồ Quý Ly deposed the last Trần king in 1400 and started his own dynasty. But invading Chinese armies, using artillery, counter-weighted catapults and mobile scaling ladders, captured Hồ and his citadel, putting an end to the dynasty and the use of this citadel. All its palaces and buildings were destroyed and the site abandoned, for the Chinese returned to the old Trần citadel to administer their conquest. Today its grounds are rice fields, but its walls and gates are more or less intact and it is the oldest and strongest surviving structure built by ethnic Vietnamese.
scaling ladder, 15th century
       The Chinese also used the former Trần kings’ citadel to garrison their troops. Citadels could stock food, arms and ammunition and could withstand sieges. The Chinese built other citadels along the route to the north, such as Xương Giang, in present-day Bắc Giang. When Lê Lới’s insurrectionary forces captured this citadel, it put them in a perfect position to slaughter the Chinese reinforcements sent down to relieve the siege of the citadel in the capital. As a result, the garrison in Thăng Long had to surrender.
       Long after the Chinese were forced out in 1428 succeeding Vietnamese rulers built citadels in the provinces as well. The long civil war between rival families in the north left vestiges of Mạc Dynasty citadels from the 16th century in Quảng Ninh, Lạng Sơn and Cao Bằng provinces.
Tây Sơn relic in Hoàng Đế
       Citadel-building also extended to the south. The Chăm had the Chà Bàn citadel at their capital Vijaya, near Quy Nhơn, another at the nearby Thi Nai port, and one in Quảng Ngãi. After the Vietnamese conquest of Vijaya in the late 15th century and the beginning of the long civil war between the Trịnh Lords of the north and the Nguyễn Lords of the south in the early 17th century, the latter built a citadel at Đồng Hới, behind the double wall that ran from the coast to the hills and held back the Trịnh armies.
       In the late 18th century the Tây Sơn revolutionaries overthrew the Nguyễn Lords, killing all but one of the ruling family. As their capital they chose the old Chăm center Vijaya and on the Chà Bàn site erected a new citadel in 1776, called Hoang Đế. Ten years later they marched north, overthrew the Trịnh Lords, then terminated the Lê Dynasty, destroyed the Lê citadel and built a new one.
Đồng Hới Nguyễn Dynasty citadel

       Meanwhile, the one family member who escaped the Tây Sơn forces, Nguyễn Ảnh, was already advancing against them from the south. With the help of French advisors he had built a strong citadel in Saigon and in his advance against his Tây Sơn foes constructed a forward base citadel at Diên Khánh, near Nha Trang.  It took him a while, and he suffered several reverses along the way, but eventually, in 1802, he finally defeated the last Tây Sơn forces around Hanoi. Inaugurating a new dynasty, he made Huế his capital, took the royal name Gia Long, and had a new citadel built.
       Enclosing the 520 hectares of the Imperial City was a wall of brick and earth, seven meters high and twenty meters thick, running ten kilometers and flanked by a moat. The citadel had ten gates and within its outer wall, near the southern entrance, itself surrounded by a more modest wall, was the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor and his family lived. Of its four gates the most important was the southern one--Ngô Mon. Gia Long’s successor Minh Mạng replaced the original gate with a fancier, more impressive gate that has survived, like the walls and moat, until today.
citadel gate at Diên Khánh
       Always worried about potential revolts (and there would be several in the coming decades), Gia Long ordered citadel-garrisons constructed at various points along the length of the country. He’d been doing that even before he established himself at Huế, with citadels in Sài Gòn, which no longer exists, and Diên Khánh, just west of Nha Trang, whose gates still stand. Others went up at Quảng Trị (1809), Đồng Hới (1812), Sơn Tây (1822), Bắc Ninh (1824) and Vinh (1831). And in Hanoi he had the Tây Sơn citadel demolished and a new one, smaller than the ones used by previous dynasties, erected in its place.
Vinh citadel gate
       Nguyễn Dynasty citadels differed from their predecessors. Among those aiding Nguyễn Ảnh’s long campaign were free-lance French soldiers, engineers and architects. The architects were in charge of erecting citadels and drew their inspiration from the Vauban style, named after Louis XIV’s fortress-builder. Instead of following straight lines and right-angle corners, Vauban-style walls were in wavy lines, as at Huế, or with pointed niches at the corners and over the gates, as at Vinh and Hanoi. Their extra thickness protected them against cannon fire.
       Potential rebels in the countryside were not likely to have any cannons at their disposal should an outbreak occur. These extra citadels were also designed to impress subjects with the might of the regime in Huế. Troops from within these citadels could be dispatched to quell any uprising before it got organized enough to lay siege to the local fortress. Rural rebellions punctuated the reigns of the first four Nguyễn emperors, but none of them lasted long, thanks to the investment made in these provincial citadels.
       Against the French and their superior firepower, though, the Nguyễn citadels proved to be more vulnerable. In 1859 the French seized the citadel in Sài Gòn and in 1873 captured the one in Hanoi. The Hanoi putsch was not actually authorized officially and the French had to withdraw. But nine years later the government sanctioned another incursion and French troops seized Hanoi’s citadel again. This time they decided to stay and to damage the Nguyễn prestige demolished its walls and filled in its moats.
French capture of Sơn Tây Citadel
reconstructed Sơn Tây Citadel tower
       Meanwhile, Black Flag mercenaries hired by the government to help defend against the French retreated to the citadel at Sơn Tây. In 1883 the French successfully attacked and captured the Sơn Tây citadel, which dealt a fatal blow to the Black Flag units. The last Vietnamese troops holed up in the Bắc Ninh citadel. When the French captured that one the following year they were able to at last establish control over northern Vietnam.
Huế CItadel flag tower 
       Except for the Huế citadel, where the Nguyễn rulers were allowed to stay, the French turned the other citadels into garrisons and police posts. With the French flag flying over them, they became symbols of the colonial regime’s authority. So when the war against French colonialism developed, citadels once again became battlegrounds. In the course of that war the Vinh and Đồng Hới citadels were destroyed, except for a couple of gates. During the American War the NLF insurgents briefly occupied the citadels at Huế in 1968 and Quảng Trị in 1972. Both of these structures suffered extensive bombing damage before their recapture.
       Nowadays the Huế citadel has been almost completely restored and is a premier tourist attraction in the city. So are the gates and remnants of Hanoi’s citadel and, in the vicinity, the restored citadels at Sơn Tây and Cổ Loa. Gates and other citadel vestiges around the country have been preserved and restored. They are important to the country’s physical and historical landscape, for citadels are not only relics of past wars, but also of the societies that waged them.
Hanoi Citadel, south gate
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