Story: Tran Hau Yen The

Photos: Ba Ngoc

Vietnam’s ancient capital Hoa Lu shares many links with the current capital Hanoi

During the tenth year of the reign of King Thanh Thai (1898), a master stone carver known as Ba Kenh depicted the beauty of his beloved homeland Hoa Lu in stone carvings. His real name was Duong Duc Vinh, and he hailed from Truong Yen village, Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh. His works of art were placed on both sides of Thieu Huong Hall, inside the Temple of King Dinh Tien Hoang. From these stone carvings, people can understand that Hoa Lu had landmarks with the same names as those in Thang Long, including Dong Bridge, Den Bridge, and Ngang Communal Temple.

Over a thousand years ago, King Ly Cong Uan relocated the imperial capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long – Hanoi. Residents of the old capital followed their king to the Land of the Soaring Dragon, bringing names from their homeland with them. Ba Kenh lovingly carved the names of Hoa Lu’s landmarks into stone carvings depicting Dong Bridge and Den Bridge to remind later generations of their existence.

After the capital’s relocation, during the Ly dynasty Hoa Lu was renamed Trang An. Denizens of the old capital who lived in Thang Long expressed their pride with a folk song:

“Among fragrant flowers, the jasmine

Among elegant people, those of Trang An”

The Temple of King Dinh Tien Hoang

Upon visiting Hoa Lu – Trang An you will find a land of natural wonders. Visitors can marvel at the area’s beautiful landscape and relics of the ancient capital, as well as many sacred temples and pagodas from the glorious Dinh, Early Le, and Ly dynasties.

The first stops are the temples devoted to King Dinh Tien Hoang and King Le Dai Hanh. These are where the great kings of the Dinh and Early Le dynasties are honored for their contributions in establishing the nation of Dai Co Viet and ushering in an era of independence. Treasured artifacts in these two temples tell the stories of a 42-year period in history, during which six kings from three different dynasties ruled over this land. Famous artifacts include the kings’ stone beds carved with enigmatic figures of clawed dragons, large battle axes adorned with sophisticated dragon carvings, and stone steles with exotic carvings. Before entering the Temple of King Dinh Tien Hoang, visitors should look for the sacred stone guardians, which have the head of a dragon and the body of a dog. These guardians have stood in silent vigil for centuries.

A 10th century stone relief

Surrounding the two temples in the central area of Hoa Lu are a series of temples and pagodas. In this area full of ancient cultural significance, every step on the road, every segment of the wall, and every row of trees contains history lessons. Among the many famous pagodas in Hoa Lu, Nhat Tru Pagoda (or One Pillar Pagoda) has the greatest and most ancient sutra-inscribed pillar in Vietnam. The legacy of Hoa Lu lived on in Thang Long in later days. The names of many well-known landmarks in Thang Long originated from Hoa Lu, including the One Pillar (Dien Huu) Pagoda, Ba Ngo (Ngoc Ho) Pagoda, and Cau Dong (Dong Mon) Pagoda.

While Ly Quoc Su Pagoda stands in the city of Thang Long – Hanoi, very few Hanoians know that the great monk for whom it was named lived in Am Tien Cave Pagoda. He was the most famous monk during the Ly Dynasty, the great Nguyen Minh Khong. Legend has it that Am Tien Cave Pagoda was once a horrible place where tigers and leopards were raised and used to punish criminals. It was not until the Ly dynasty that the great monk Nguyen Minh Khong finally had a Buddhist altar built in the cave, converting it into the most sacred monastery of the old capital.

The Temple of King Le Dai Hanh

Aside from temples and pagodas, the communal temples of Hoa Lu are worth mentioning. In the old capital Hoa Lu, people built communal temples dedicated to the two great kings of the Dinh and Early Le dynasties. Those communal temples are relics of the villages in which they stand. In Yen Thanh Communal Temple, lying next to Nhat Tru Pagoda, both kings are honored as deities. Meanwhile, Yen Trach Communal Temple, located on the outskirts about 2km from the center, only worships King Dinh Tien Hoang. Yen Ha Communal Temple only worships King Le Dai Hanh.

The Hoa Lu – Trang An region boasts many natural wonders and beauty spots, as well as a vast amount of historic sites. The stories and legends behind these ancient relics and buildings never cease to amaze us. An enigmatic side of Hoa Lu whispers stories told for thousands of years about people from distant eras.