Story: Assoc. Prof. Dr.Trinh Sinh
Photos: Assoc. Prof. Dr.Trinh Sinh, Vuong Anh

The Vietnam National Assembly House contains a museum that sheds light on Hanoi’s history

Following four years of construction, the new Vietnam National Assembly House opened in October 2014 in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. Before the building’s construction, scientists    unearthed archeological relics dating back some 1,300 years at this site. Located in the heart of modern Hanoi on Doc Lap Street, this archeological site offered new insight into the Dai La era.

Decorative bricks from the Ly and Le dynasties

The Vietnam National Assembly House looks sophisticated and modern. But inside this sleek new building lies a museum devoted to ancient artifacts discovered at this location.    These items are tangible evidence of Hanoi’s illustrious history as the nation’s capital, reminding me of a quote made by Emperor Ly Thai To when he chose to establish the capital here:

Looking all over our Grand Viet, it is a sacred land in which essences from throughout the country converge. What an enduring capital of the nation forever!

The essence of the Thang Long Imperial Citadel is on display in the museum: imposing stone bases decorated with sharp grey lotus patterns to support pillars; and fine ceramic and porcelain items from different eras… The artifacts’ beauty is accentuated by advanced technological features and display techniques. Large glass panels cover archeological dig sites, allowing visitors to feel the thrill of discovery. There are even cross-cut strata full of historical layers: Pre-Le, Ly, Tran, Preliminary Le and Nguyen. These displays help visitors to understand the past and see how scientists work.

Sacred animal-head statues that adorned imperial roofs. Dai La Era, 8 – 10th century

During the Ly Dynasty a palatial compound stood at this site. Visitors can see rocks, pebbles and decorative ceramic pieces from the roofs including tiles, dragon heads and phoenix heads. Scientists have traced the outlines of the palace, which featured 42 pillars. To help visitors imagine the site’s former magnificence, the original locations of these pillars have been lit up. It is easy to imagine the rows of pillars thanks to the sparkling lights.

High-tech sound and 3D light displays enabled the virtual restoration of a tile roofed imperial wall of over 2m high, trees in the garden and even a bird perched up high. The bird twitters joyously as in a rural orchard. Visitors can study artifacts in three dimensions by “rotating” the artifacts on a screen to admire their colors from various angles.

 Another corner of the museum features lively models of archeologists unearthing artifacts, artists recording their progress, diggers and photographers. There is even a place where primary school kids can practice digging for relics and apply digital techniques to “seek” antiques. These interactive displays will help pupils to develop a love of history.

Scientists visiting the museum

Two bas-reliefs called “The soaring dragon” and “Dawn of Thang Long” are found on two walls, serving as a backdrop to the displays. Made of ceramic mosaics exhumed at this site, these works feature Ly Dynasty designs such as lotus petals, Bodhi leaves, birds and phoenixes.

The artifacts on display were chosen from tens of thousands of pieces unearthed in 2008 and 2009. Display cases hold ceramics dating back to Dai La Era and some unique sacred animal head statues that once adorned imperial roofs. One has a lion’s nose, big eyes, short horns and an extended snout with two pairs of sharp fangs. Other heads feature longer horns, globular eyes and wide mouths. These represent a legendary beast said to support the roof gable with its own horns. Many yin-yang tiles and gables were decorated with flowers. Some blue-enameled Islamic ceramics from Western Asia and ceramics from Southern China are also on display.

A collection of artifacts dating back to the Dinh and Pre-Le dynasties includes decorative roof tiles, statuettes of mandarin ducks, pots, jars, ceramic pots, iron appliances, mint coins and floor tiles, etc. Through these artifacts, archeologists have learned more about what the Citadel’s residents ate at this time. Buffalo, beef, pork, chicken, venison, boar, sea turtles, clams, snails, conches, oysters, scallops, geoducks and basket clams were all on the menu.

Part of an ancient wall. Ly Dynasty

The museum’s focus is on artifacts from the Ly, Tran and Preliminary Le dynasties that were unearthed at the site, which once stood southwest of the Forbidden Palaces. Many sizable and intact Bodhi leaves decorated with dragons and phoenixes were used on the palace’s roof. Archeologists have found traces of ceramic production in Thang Long such as stacks of unfinished bowls. This points to the existence of famed ceramic workshops in Thang Long, which not only supplied wares to the Imperial Palaces but also exported merchandise to the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Western Asia. Artifacts include decorative Mandarin duck roof statuettes, chrysanthemums, Bodhi leaves and tiles with dragon heads, Buddhist stupas, human ceramic figures of modest sizes, lime pots for betel, pottery pipes and enamel pots dating back to Le Dynasty.

The National Assembly House, long the symbol of the nation’s elites, now shelters our millennial heritage. The past is here to give rise to the present, just as the capital’s former name dictates: Thang Long  the Soaring Dragon.