Thang Long evolved from a small riverside village, but by the beginning of the 11th century, the city which is known as Hanoi today, was officially recorded in history as a typical medieval city. This transformation was marked when King Ly Thai To moved his capital there from Hoa Lu, a mountainous area south of Hanoi. The new capital, called the Dai La citadel, was auspicious, “a prosperous place where the four directions meet,” and it suited the king’s wish for a “long term settlement bringing prestige and prosperity to the royal family and wealth to the common people and which could accommodate an increasing population density.” (8-I:190-91)
The selection of the new location proved an accurate assessment and analysis of the capital’s favorable natural-geo- graphical, human and social position. It enjoyed an ideal ter¬rain of both rivers and mountains (the Red River and the Tan Vien Mountain), and a dense system of rivers, canals, ponds and lakes. It had already been a walled city for some time. That city wall evolved from a sixth century wood and bamboo wall (built by King Ly Bi on the banks of the To Lich River estuary) into the ninth century Dai La citadel built by the Chinese administrator, Cao Bien, as a defense against forces invading from the north. Socio-economic factors influenced Hanoi as the choice for the capital. It was a convenient junction of main waterways and roads, and a trade center of the Red River Delta and of the entire country.
Thang Long-Hanoi’s layout and location adapted to and took full advantage of those favorable natural conditions. In the Middle Ages, the plans of some of the world’s large cities reflected the important values and goals of their builders. In some European and Arabian cities, streets and houses were laid out around a central plaza, which could be a square, a market, a Catholic church or an Islamic mosque. In China under the T’ang dynasty, the capital city of Chang An, encom¬passed about 120 craft guilds spread over a large area. Its streets, markets and houses were symmetrically constructed surrounding the central Forbidden City, like the position of the bishop on the chess board. The Japanese capital of Heian at the time was constructed similarly.
Thang Long-Hanoi was different. Its dimensions were rather narrow, confined by its natural borders, mainly the Red and the To Lich Rivers, Kim Nguu River and West Lake. According to the geographical chronicle, A Book on Unified Dai Nam, it was “a city which lies on river banks, surrounded by fields. It could control other territories and in previous dynasties it had been a well-known metropolis.” (6-III:163)
Thang Long-Hanoi was a city of rivers and lakes. The Red River was the main waterway of the city. The section flowing through the inner city was 1,215 truong [one truong is equivalent to 4 meters] or about 5 km in length. [At one point in its history when Hanoi was composed of two districts] Vinh Thuan district had a dike system measuring 945 truong and Tho Xuong district dikes measured 270 truong in length. (6-III:194) Because of its many convenient wharves, mainly on the right bank of the Red River adjoining the commercial area of guild streets, the Red River was the main trade route linking Thang Long-Hanoi with other market towns. For many centuries the To Lich and Red rivers and West Lake provided a natural defensive moat and also an effective internal traffic system. It is believed that the Dai La citadel and perhaps even the Royal citadel were built close to the To Lich River in the north and west, and close to the Kim Nguu River in the west and southwest. In the 19th century, on the north side of Hanoi, a section of the To Lich River functioned as a defensive moat. (7-XXIX: 183) The To Lich River flowed into the Red River. There were times of year when the currents in the To Lich River flowed in opposite [that is, in both] directions causing dangerously choppy waters. Travel on it was safest in the summer and autumn. (6-III:177) Seven bridges spanned the To Lich River. (6-III:191) The most famous was the Cau Dong stone bridge at the Eastern Gate of the citadel (the position of Hang Duong and Nguyen Sieu Streets nowadays) where many substantial markets lined both banks. River junctions became densely populated, and formed small towns, such as junction of the To Lich and Red Rivers where “ships and boats from the four directions gathered.” (31:35) The junction of the To Lich and Kim Nguu rivers (Cau Giay today) was a busy wharf. According to 1854 statistics, West Lake, with its circumference of 21 dam (a dam is about 590 yards) (6-III:81) together with other lakes and ponds totaled an area of 202 mau (a mau is 3,600 square meters). These waters were a plentiful source of fish and vegetables, and an important contribution to the spacious ambiance and splendid landscape of Hanoi. (6-III:81) From early times, Thang Long-Hanoi’s natural surroundings provided a background, which was in harmony with its social situation. And in turn these natural surroundings impacted its cultural development.
During the decades following the establishment of the capital there, Thang Long expanded in physical size but its basic layout remained the same. During the Ly-Tran dynasties (11th – 14th centuries) and the even in the first reign of the Le Kings this city consisted of two main areas:
- A political-royal family area, in the center of which were the Royal citadel and its palaces. In the south was an educational complex consisting of the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) and the National University (Quoc Tu Giam).
- An economic-residential area near the bank of the Red River, the To Lich River estuary and West Lake consisting of many markets, wharves, craft guilds and hamlets. Agricultural villages with gardens, ponds and rice fields and newly reclaimed farms, such as the area known now as the “Thirteen farms” in the west of the city were in this area.
- The imperial citadel and royal family’s quarters played the defining role in the city’s development, while the commercial and ordinary people’s residential area was symbiotically dependent on it for its survival. The commercial area’s main function was to supply the aristocratic class inside the imperial citadel with the everyday necessities of life and to produce luxury items relating to imperial ceremonies celebrated in the royal family area.
In the late 16th and early. 17th centuries, in the context of urbanization in both the north and the south of Vietnam associated with the rise of river and seaport towns, namely, Pho Hien, Vi Hoang, Phu Xuan, Thanh Ha, Hoi An, Bien Hoa, and Ben Nghe, both the royal family and the residential areas of Thang Long flourished. Thang Long began to be called by the popular name Ke Cho, [Ke Cho = Market people] and was the political-economic center of the country and one of the largest cities of Southeast Asia and of the East. It attracted Western merchants and missionaries. In following centuries - important historical events shaped Thang Long - Hanoi.
Let us consider the background of its prosperity, and the vicissitudes of its appearance from the end of the 16th to the end of the 19th century.
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