Lesson 4A

Thăng Long (Ascending Dragon)

Culture-shaping centre

Thăng Long Hà Nội dô thành

(Thăng Long Hà Nội, the capital city)

Nước non ai vẽ nên tranh họa đồ

(Who has drawn the mountains and the rivers for this map painting)

During the monarchy period based on the agricultural economy, the capital city of Thăng Long has played the role of the political and cultural centre. When this role began to be played by Huế, Thăng Long fell back to play the role of a big village but still kept its cultural role, which is being studied in this part of our field trip.

Thăng Long – Hà Nội has continuously been the capital city of the Vietnamese nation since the Chinese domination era. Depending on the ups and downs of our history, the place-name Thăng Long – Hà Nội[1] has changed many times[2] and recorded the many tragic and heroic historical pages of the Vietnamese people.

Mấy tòa sen héo, hơi hương ngự,

(A few fading lotus seats with lingering incense,)

Năm thức mây phong nếp áo chầu.

(A five-coloured cloud evoking prostrating mandarins’ robes.)

Đá vẫn trơ gan cùng tuế nguyệt,

(The stones are still there after months and years,)

Nước còn cau mặt với tang thương.

(The water surface is still frowning through time changes.)

Lối xưa xe ngựa hồn thu thảo,

(The old alley passed by the horse-carriage now covered with autumn grass,)

Nền cũ lâu đài bóng tịch dương.

(The set sun coming down printing its shadow on the old foundation of the castle.)

Ô Quan Chưởng Gate Imperial city of Thăng Long Lý Dynasty dragons

Đoan Môn Gate in the Imperial city of Thăng Long

Hòa Phong Tower North Gate Lake of Returned Sword

Cultural role of the capital city

In the former agricultural economy, the capital city of Thăng Long was the largest village of the country, grouping all cultural activities:

– Literature: mandarins, intellectuals, poets and writers,

– Arts: singers, dancers, talented architectural workers and sculptors, especially ca trù recognized by UNESCO on October 1, 2009 as a non-material cultural heritage of humaniy[3],

– Commerce: Thăng Long was also called Kẻ Chợ because it was the aggregation centre of several trades especially for delicious, exotic and rare food products to be offered to the kings, mandarins, and intellectuals.

The essential cultural role of the capital city can be summarized in the following basic functions: crystallization, association, and distribution.

Thăng Long was the place where the “crystallization” of all these above-mentioned cultural characteristics occurred. Here is an example of the crystallization of the culinary culture: the people living in Hà Nội received fresh and delicious food products, famous dishes from Tứ Trấn, and then selected, enjoyed, re-processed and made them their own delicious dishes of Hà Nội.

With its role as the main cultural centre among thousands of small cultural centres (pagodas, community halls) of villages, Thăng Long created the Vienamese culture and at the same time made the “association” with other Far Eastern cultures such as the I Ching (or The Book of Changes; Kinh Dịch), The Three Religions (Tam Giáo), Chinese philosophy, literature, and arts… in order to lay the foundation for the civilized Việt Nam.

With its position as the capital city, Thăng Long grouped all the cultural achievements of the country, created the cultural lifestyle for the Vietnamese people and then organized the “distribution” of that lifestyle to every corner of the country. It was then for Thăng Long to be capable to build a civilized Việt Nam and turned itself into a place called “Ngàn năm văn vật = Cultured for thousand years” for the development of the Vietnamese culture.

Four Protectors

In the old days, in order to enter the royal capital city of Thăng Long, people had to get through one of the five main gates (called cửa ô) of Đông Mác, Cầu Dền, Cầu Giấy, Chợ Dừa và Quan Chưởng. To protect Thăng Long there were two fronts: The Four Sacred Protectors and the Four Military Garrisons.

The Four Sacred Protectors (Thăng Long Tứ Trấn[4])

This front was built under the Lý Dynasty (1010), consisting of 4 temples for the worship of the 4 generals protecting 4 gates to the capital city:

– Eastern Protector was the Bạch Mã temple for Long Đỗ

– Western Protector was the Voi Phục temple for Linh Lang Đại Vương

– Southern Protector was the Kim Liên temple for Cao Sơn

– Northern Protector was the Quan Thánh temple (built under the reign of King Lý Thái Tổ, 1010-1028) for Huyền Sơn Trấn Vũ. The four temples presented a landscape of the religious culture of Thăng Long.

The Four Military Garrisons front (internal protection)

This front consisted of 4 military garrisons protecting the 4 sides of the capital city: Kinh Bắc (north), Sơn Nam (south), Hải Dương (east), and Sơn Tây (west)[5].

Cultured country

Throughout our history, from the Lý Dynasty to the Lê Dynasty, Thăng Long has created “a cultured country” by:

– building temples and monuments, capital city, Temple of Literature, promulgating legislations …

– receiving Chinese culture to the point that Lê Quí Đôn has said: “bất dị Trung Quốc” (no difference from China) and “vô tốn Trung Quốc” (no second to China)

– concentrating all cultural elements of the country to create a lifestyle displaying the Vietnamese people’s identity, not only in “núi sông bờ cõi đã chia = territory, frontier already divided” but also in “Phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác = Custom is also different in North (China) and South (Vietnam).” Great Việt was, therefore, able to declare itself a “văn hiến chi bang = civilized country,” just like what Nguyễn Trãi has written in Bình Ngô Đại Cáo (Great Proclamation of Victory Against Ngô Invaders):

Duy ngã Đại Việt chi quốc (Like our country Great Việt)

Thực vi văn hiến chi bang (A really civilized country)

Cultured for Thousand Years

Thăng Long is a land “cultured for thousand years,”[6] where the rising energy of the country is condensed, grouping talented people, architectural and cultural achievements, creating a pure and fine lifestyle in terms of literature, fine arts, language, social manners, clothing, culinary art…Who were these văn vật? They were the mandarins, talented artisans, traders/merchants, intellectuals, artists, such as Venerable Vạn Hạnh (monk), Trần Thái Tông (king), Trần Nhân Tông (monk), Lê Thánh Tông (king), Ngô Sĩ Liên (scholar), Lê Văn Hưu (historian), Ngô Thì Nhậm (intellectual), Nguyễn Du (scholar/poet), Lãn Ông (medical doctor), Tú Xương (poet), Nhất Linh (writer), Khái Hưng (writer)…

Thăng Long has been “cultured for thousand years” since:

– the ancient capital city Cổ Loa of Âu Lạc era, administrative centre Tống Bình of the city of Đại La of the pre-Thăng Long era,

– the fixed capital city Thăng Long under the reign of King Lý Thái Tổ, and then Thăng Long – Đông Đô – Đông Kinh – Kẻ Chợ from the Lý Dynasty to the Restoration Era of the Lê Dynasty,

– Hà Nội during the Nguyễn Dynasty.


Immediately after having established the capital city in Thăng Long[7] the Lý Dynasty has built the Royal City with the Đại Hưng (Great Restoration) gate, the South gate of Thăng Long, to be used as entrance way for the king and the madarins; in front it they also built a pavilion called Quảng Văn (Beautiful Moon) as a place for the Lý kings to celebrate the coming of Spring[8].

The tower Hòa Phong (Peaceful Wind), located at the south-east corner of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword), is the only surviving part of the Báo Ân (Thanksgiving) pagoda. The tower has 3 floors; the 1st floor has 4 arch doors and thus is called Tứ Môn Pháp; the 2nd floor also has 4 arch doors, with inscription on each of them: Báo Ân Môn (Entrace to Thansgiving Temple), Báo Nghĩa Môn (Entrace to Good Cause Temple), Báo Đức Môn (Entrance to Virtue Temple), Báo Phúc Môn (Entrace to Happiness Temple).

The most original architecture design is with Chùa Một Cột (One-Pillar Pagoda), built under the reign of King Lý Thái Tông in 1049. Other important architectural masterpieces are Khuê Văn Các[9] and Cầu Thê Húc[10] on Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

Examinations, literature, laws…

In 1070, King Lý Thánh Tông built the Temple of Literature, opened the Imperial Academy (national university), and organized the first national examination. He then ordered that the examination was to be organized once every three years, with the three top laureates being called Trạng Nguyên, Bảng Nhãn and Thái Hoa Lang (Thám Hoa).

The literature by Nôm characters started with Hàn Thuyên but Chinese characters were still used for government documents.

The Trần Dynasty issued regulations regarding the three levels of examinations (thi Hương, thi Hội, thi Đình), and the Chinese Classics (Tứ Thư Ngũ Kinh) shoulde be used as textbooks.

Under the Ming occupation: literary steles were destroyed, books were burned, and people were forced to wear Chinese clothes.

The Lê Dynasty had great admiration for Confucianism, and thus had a well-organized system to educate Nho intellectuals. In 1483, King Lê Thánh Tôn promulgated the Hồng Đức laws, which was enforced until the end of the XVIII century. He also established a literary association called Tao Đàn. Under the Lê Dynasty, Vietnamese literature in Nôm characters has greatly developed with Nguyễn Trãi’s Quốc âm thi tập (Compilation of poems written in Nôm characters).

In the capital city, many handicraft centres appeared, divided into 36 guilds, located on 36 streets. Each street was a market with a gate and a guard post on top of the gate. The 36 streets had a common charactertistics, derived from the village culture, and that was each street had a separate community hall for the worship of the Founder of the Guild.

Phố ngoài bọc kín thành trong,

(The outside streets sealing the villages inside,)

Cửa Nam, giam Bắc, Tây, Đông rõ ràng

(The gates indicating clearly South, North, West and East.)

In terms of culinary culture, Thăng Long was known for its delicious foods in the saying “Ăn Bắc, mặc Kinh”[11] and in literary works by Nguyễn Tuân, Vũ Bằng, who described famous dishes such as Chả cá Lã Vọng (Lã Vọng Fish Balls), Bánh cuốn Thanh Trì (Thanh Trì Rice Rolls)[12], Cốm Làng Vòng (Hà Nội) (Grilled Rice of Vòng Village)[13], and Phở Hà Nội (Hà Nội Beef Soup)[14].

The cultural space, the language (Hà Nội’s dialect), the gracious lifestyle, the selective social behaviour were the hallmarks of the cultural identiy of Hà Nội representing the Vietnnamese national culture. Kẻ Chợ was the concentrating point of the traditional culinary arts from all over the country. That was why the people of Hà Nội, following the “taste” from a wide choice of the social classes of noble people and intellectuals, were always nourished by the people’s “taste,” influenced by the many royal dynasties. Many guilds were specializing in food products such as Hàng Gạo (Guild of Rice), Hàng Bột (Guild of Powder), Hàng Cá (Guild of Fish), Hàng Giò (Guild of Ham), Hàng Bún (Guild of Rice Noodles) … or in snacks, cakes such as Hàng Than grilled rice cakes, Đờ Măng rice cakes (Phùng Hưng).

A number of other products were brought from the countryside like: Thanh Trì rice rolls (Hà Đông province), grilled rice cakes, bean cakes (Hải Dương, Hưng Yên provinces), Thiểu litchi (Thanh Hà, Hải Hưng province) used to be offered to the king, Bố Hạ oranges (Phú Thọ province) …

The 1000-year lengthy history of the cultural centre of Thăng Long was summarized in 1877 by De la Liraye, a French author, as follows: “Bien que Kẻ Chợ[15] ne soit plus la résidence royale, c’est encore la première ville du royaume, pour les arts, l’industrie, le commerce, la richesse, la population, le savoir vivre et les études … C’est là que viennent les hommes de lettres … Although Kẻ Chợ is no loner the royal residence, it is still the first city of the kingdom for fine arts, industry, commerce, wealth, population, the know-how-to-live, and studies … It is where the intellectuals live …”

  1. Hà Nội means Inside the river, located between the Red River and the Đáy River.

  2. Long Biên during the Han Dynasty, was the administrative centre of Giao Châu; Long Đỗ under the Tang Dynasty, Tống Bình (VI century), Đại La Thành (in 767 AD), used to be the administrative centre of An An Đô Hộ Phủ from 679 AD; Thăng Long, after King Lý Thái Tổ relocated the capital city to the fortress of Đại La in the Tống Bình area; Đông Kinh under the Lê Dynasty with Tây Đô in Thanh Hóa; Đông Quan under the Ming occupation; Bắc Thành under Emperor Gia Long (of the Nguyễn Dynasty), and Hà Nội in 1831 under Emperor Minh Mạng.

  3. After the August Revolution, ca trù was forbidden, being considered as a “corrupt, debauched game.” In 1980, the female performer Quách Thị Hồ used ca trù in a song called “Những mùa Xuân = The Springs” with lyrics praising the Communist Party. From 1990 onward, ca trù and medium chanting sessions were allowed to perform freely.

  4. Thăng Long also had Four Shrines (Tứ Quán) for the worship of Taoist deities: Trấn Vũ quán (also called Trấn Vũ temple), Huyền Thiên quán, Đồng Thiên quán, and Đế Thích quán.

  5. In the old days, people used to call: Đoài domain (xứ) (Phú Thọ, Vĩnh Phúc, Hà Tây), East domain (Hưng Yên, Hải Dương, Hải Phòng), South domain (Hà Nam, Nam Định, Ninh Bình), and North domain (Bắc Ninh, Bắc Giang). In 1490, the map of the whole country consisted of 13 provinces (called xứ thừa tuyên, and then later changed to trấn).

  6. Văn = Beautiful; Vật = Personality who creates the culture. Văn vật = a place with many talented and educated people, also a place with many historical, literary and architectural sites. According to the Sino-Vietnamese dictionary by Đào Duy Anh, văn vật means cultural products like music, rituals, institutions.

  7. According to feng shui, Thăng Long was the head of the dragon, the region of Sơn Nam and Hải Đông was the tail of the dragon. Thanh Hóa was the dragon’s lair. Because some mandatory feng shui elements were missing, a number of small mounds made of earth were added, such as Tam Sơn, Khán Sơn, Thái Hòa, to create the harmony with the Nhị Hà (or Red) River.

  8. Today the surviving traces are some street names: Đình Ngang (place where identification papers or cards must be presented before entering the Royal City), Cấm Chỉ (stop in forbidden area).

  9. Khuê Văn Các = The Pavilion as Beautiful as the Khuê star.

  10. Meaning the resting place of the early morning sunlight, built by Thần Siêu Nguyễn Văn Siêu in 1865.

  11. Hà Nội has a tradition of eating delicious foods, that’s why people usually say “ăn Bắc”; in “mặc Kinh” Kinh mean Kinh đô Huế = capital city of Huế; from people working in the royal court to the woman street marchant of bún (rice noodles), everybody wears áo dài (Vietnamese traditional robe)

  12. The rolls are made with thin layer, pure white, soft and naturally fragrant of rice flavour.

  13. Vòng village is part of village Dịch Vọng, Từ Liêm district; the grilled rice is made from a special kind of sticky rice called “nếp cái hoa vàng.”

  14. Hà Nội is surrounded by 4 domains East, South, West (Đoài), North, which form the green belt providing Thăng Long with:East: Rồng Vàng (Golden Dragon) green been cakes of Hải Dương, Ninh Giang conic rice cakes, Thanh Hà polychaete.South: rice rolls, Đại Hoàng salad of cá chuối ngự. Đoài: Phùng pork hash, Vòng grilled rice, Ước Lễ spring rolls.North: Báng pork hash, Bần soy sauce. Hà Nội has crystallized and richly transformed these rural dishes; Kẻ Chợ was a place of culinary culture exchange.

  15. Until the arrival of the French, there was only one “kẻ chợ”and that was Thăng Long – Đông Đô while all the rest were “chợ quê = rural market” with village social structure, and with all social characteristics of a community and village culture.

    Nguyễn Huy and Lâm Vĩnh Thế