Professor Trinh Sinh

Vietnam’s former capitals and treasures tell the story of the nation’s history

The gold “Menh Duc Chi Bao” seal belonged to Emperor Gia Long in Hue

“The Abridged Chronicles of Dai Viet” describe the establishment of the first nation of Vietnam as follows: “By the time of Chuang of the Chou Dynasty (696 – 682 B.C), in Gia Ninh there was an “extraordinary man” who used magic to unite all the tribes. He took the title of Hung King and named his realm Van Lang, based in Van Lang. The kings of all 18 generations were called Hung Kings”. As such, since the seventh century B.C, our country and its capital were officially named “Van Lang”. Legend has it that Hung King was the first king of the nation, while Viet Tri, Lam Thao was his birthplace and Van Lang his capital. 

Van Lang was the earliest nation state in Southeast Asia, influenced by the renowned Dong Son culture. At this time, tribes gathered to form the Lac Viet group. They left many treasures, including hundreds of unique bronze drums that archaeologists call Dong Son drums. These were not brought from other places but created by Dong Son people. Notable drums include the Ngoc Lu drum, Hoang Ha drum, Co Loa drum, Mieu Mon drum, etc. The Dong Son drums were distributed across Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and in Southern China. To this day, among various types of bronze drums, Dong Son drums were made with the most sophisticated casting techniques and delicate decorative patterns. They are the earliest treasures of the Viet people, since the establishment of the nation.   

Although the state of Au Lac only existed for about 30 years (208 – 179 BC), it also left behind a treasure: the famous Co Loa Citadel, once the capital of the Viet people. Heroic battles between Viet people and Zhao Tou took place here. By maliciously arranging for Trong Thuy to marry An Duong Vuong’s daughter, Zhao Tou learned about the magic crossbow and defeated King An Duong Vuong. Archaeologists shed light on the secret of the magic crossbow. The actual bow was made of bronze with thousands of bronze arrows. Excavations conducted at the Co Loa Citadel revealed a stone mold for casting bronze arrows, which demonstrated that the legend of the magic crossbow might to some extent be true. This is another treasure of the Viet people.  

Made of white-glazed porcelain, this small lotuspedestal bears dragon motifs, white-glazed porcelain 11-13 Centuries - Thang Long Capital, Hanoi
As the Chinese colonized Vietnam for over 1,000 years, Vietnam seemed to lose its name, like many in the ancient Bach Viet group. But the Viet people chose the mountainous area of Ninh Binh in which to rebuild their kingdom. In 968, King Dinh Tien Hoang named the country Dai Co Viet (the big and powerful Viet nation), revealing the Viets’ national pride and determination not to be intimidated and assimilated. Archaeologists have found the legacy of the Dinh and Le Dynasties in and around this former capital, including relics of the citadels’ walls, dragon statues, earthenware spirit animals, and bricks bearing the words “Dai Viet Quoc Quan Thanh Chuyen” (bricks used to construct Dai Viet’s citadels). Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, which belongs to the Trang An Landscape Complex, is now recognised as a World Heritage. 

In the Ly Dynasty, in 1010, Hanoi was chosen as the capital of the Viet nation. King Ly Thai To named it Thang Long (ascending dragon), which implied that the nation would soar high like a dragon. This was one of the most prosperous periods of the independent era. Later, in 1054, King Ly Thanh Tong changed the name of the country to Dai Viet, which existed for 723 years, the longest period to date, from the Ly to Tran, Later Le, Mac, Tay Son and the first three years of the Nguyen Dynasty.  

Thang Long Capital hid a huge amount of treasures underground. Beautiful works of art like dragon reliefs, phoenix reliefs, roof tiles, bricks, and king’s utensils were found in layers of buried overlapping palaces. 

The “Canh Thinh” bronze drum was cast during the rule of Emperor Quang Trung 19th century - Ninh Hiep village, Hanoi

For short periods, due to dynastic changes, the name and capital of the country varied. Under the Ho Dynasty, the nation was named Dai Ngu (happiness and peace). Its capital was established in Tay Do, now called the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty, a massive stone structure recognised as a World Heritage and a treasure of the Viet people. Speaking of the Thang Long Capital, one must also mention Phu Xuan Capital of King Quang Trung.

During the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue was chosen as the capital. In 1804, the nation went by the name of Gia Long. In 1838, emperor Minh Mang changed the name to Dai Nam. The Hue Capital is invaluable since many of its historic constructions and national treasures remain. The Hue Capital is also recognised as a World Heritage.

From September 2nd, 1945, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which later became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, chose Hanoi, which used to be Thang Long Capital, as the nation’s official capital. This held true to King Ly Cong Uan’s statement in the Royal Proclamation on Relocating the Capital: “This is exactly where to set up the Capital for good”.