Blending in with the times

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Hanoi’s 1,000-year history is encapsulated in numerous relics of its glorious past that can be spotted now and then between its modern, often ungainly structures

O Quan Chuong is the only gate of its kind to survive defensive wars against the French invasions and bombing campaigns by the US army

“The king’s edict stops at the village gate.”

The old Vietnamese saying reflects the independence and self-containment that villages enjoyed in managing their own affairs.

The village gates that are still standing in the capital city of Hanoi as it prepares to celebrate its 1,000th anniversary this year may not be a bulwark anymore against all the impacts of a rapidly modernizing and globalizing world, but they still foster the feeling of community and now, tell the story of what made or makes those villages unique and special.

Village gates can be found in many places across Hanoi, dignified witnesses to the rampant urbanization of the last few decades that has thrown up several skyscrapers and imposing buildings.

But in contrast to the anonymity of these buildings, the gate at Tu Liem District’s Dong Ngac Commune is flanked by two pen brushes and a book, as it was once a village famous for outstanding academic performance, having 25 residents that passed the royal examinations.

The gate at Tu Liem District’s Dong Ngac Commune is decorated with two pen brushes and a book, as it was once a village famous for outstanding academic performance

Meanwhile, the gate in Huu Hoa Commune, Thanh Tri District, sports the time-stands-still look with a clock high up that stopped working a long time ago but has not been repaired.

At least 92 village gates were erected in the capital’s 12 districts, according to the book Cong lang Ha Noi xua va nay (Hanoi’s village gates: then and now) published by Vu Kiem Ninh in 2008.

These gates were part of many built during the 19th century when guild villages sprung up from Hanoi’s 36 original wards and two districts, Ninh wrote in his book.

Artist Quach Dong Phuong, who held a photo exhibition of village gates in the north, including Hanoi, several years ago, has said that most of the capital’s gates have been destroyed by negligence from local people.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, the gates were beautiful as they achieved the “golden ratio”, or good proportion, in architecture, although they were not very monumental, Phuong said.

In contrast to most village gates facing the indifference and ignorance of local residents as well as officials, O Quan Chuong, a gate built in 1749 as an entrance to the ancient Hanoi (then Thang Long) combined with observation stations and toll booths, is being preserved with funding from the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

Now situated on the street of the same name, O Quan Chuong is the only gate of its kind to survive defensive wars against the French invasions and bombing campaigns by the US army.

Hanoi historian Hoang Dao Thuy said the city had 16 gates in total under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802- 1945) before the French domination.

Down to earth

According to historical documents, Thang Long was chosen as the capital of the Dai Viet Kingdom (now Vietnam) by King Ly Thai To, founder of the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225) in 1010.

The vestiges from Thang Long Citadel, at Ba Dinh District’s No. 18 Hoang Dieu St., were part of a citadel system built in the 11th century

It has remained the capital through the Ly, Tran, and Le dynasties, but became the central city of northern Vietnam (Tran Bac Thanh) under the Nguyen Dynasty.

The full glory of Thang Long had not been revealed until 1998 when archaeologists found traces of Le Dynasty (1428-1788) architecture during excavation work on Cua Bac Street.

In 2000, they unearthed bases of palace columns from the Ly Dynasty, and several vestiges from the Le Dynasty around Hau Lau, an accommodation for Nguyen kings’ wives in Tran Bac Thanh, now in Ba Dinh District.

Two years later, excavation work to build a new national assembly building in Ba Dinh District’s Hoang Dieu Street led to the discovery of numerous vestiges from the Thang Long Citadel, part of a citadel system built in the 11th century.

The system was built with three ramparts: the Dai La Citadel, which acted as a defensive rampart with a complete dyke system, the Thang Long Imperial Citadel, and the Forbidden City, where the king and his royal family lived.

Tong Trung Tin, head of the Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, said studies of the site on Hoang Dieu Street found that architectural works under the Ly Dynasty in the Forbidden City had been zoned very properly and scientifically before being built.

Tin said they also unearthed works with hexagonal and octagonal foundations which were unique compared to other Asian imperial cities.

The Ly Dynasty’s roof tiles were found adorned with lotuses, phoenix birds, and dragons, whether they were curved or flat. He said this was different from other countries’ ancient imperial cities where only curved tiles were found elaborated with sacred animals and flowers.

Not very far from the Hoang Dieu site, archaeologists have discovered vestiges and a structure’s foundation at Ngoc Khanh Ward that has been identified as part of the Thap Tam Trai (13 farms) area, which functioned under the Ly Dynasty.

They have also found a column made of ironwood, 0.5 meters in diameter and 4.8 meters in length, at the bottom of the Ngoc Khanh Lake.

Archaeologist Do Van Ninh, former head of the Vietnam Institute of History, said the column was obviously from a big structure, believed to be from a school of martial arts under the Ly Dynasty, as they found thousands of weapons from the lake as well.

Present and beyond

While scientists are working around the clock to learn more about the ancient Thang Long, old structures are being ignored, and modern buildings and works are sprouting up like mushrooms around Hanoi.

Modern buildings and works have been sprouting up like mushrooms around Hanoi but now they are being built without proper management, destroying landscapes

In fact, Hanoians who once lived on narrow and long streets are now getting familiar with skyscrapers and giant structures like the US$1.5 billion-Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower, scheduled for completion on the occasion of the capital’s 1,000th anniversary this October.

The tower is expected to be the country’s highest building and the world’s 17th highest and 5th largest single structure once completed.

However, local architects are concerned that the capital is losing its identity to the rapid urbanization process.

Nguyen Truc Luyen, former chairman of the Vietnam Architecture Association, said Hanoi’s structure was basically a good mix of many factors like nature, architecture, and people’s lives, but now buildings and houses were springing up without proper management, destroying landscapes.

“Previously Hanoi prided itself on being a city with lots of greenery. But, now many trees are being logged, making Hanoi less [environmentally] friendly.”

The city now tends to crowd at the central district of My Dinh, where structures are being built on any empty land without any zoning plans, Luyen said.

On the other hand, “we have yet to establish architectural works of any real significance” over the past 50 years, except for structures like the headquarters of the Ministry of Planning and Investment, and Ba Dinh Square, according to Luyen.

Last November, the government basically agreed on a zoning plan for the capital by 2050 which aims to put its Old Quarter and streets under strict preservation and stop construction of buildings at the heart of the capital city. The plan is set to be made public on the 1,000th anniversary celebration to invite public feedback.

Reported by Thanh Nien staff

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