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Behind the walls

To honour the capital's liberation from the French in 1954, Hanoi's citadel is inviting the public to visit its historically rich grounds. A free guided tour throughout the month of October allows visitors to touch and feel the building's stormy history as it has unfolded through the last millennium.

Known as Thang Long Citadel under the Ly, Tran and Le dynasties, and Hanoi Citadel by the Nguyen Dynasty, the complex consists of five main areas and a system of underground archaeological relics, encircled by Dien Bien Phu, Hoang Dieu, Phan Dinh Phung and Nguyen Tri Phuong streets.

The five areas - Ky Dai (the Flag Tower), Doan Mon (the Central Gate), Dien Kinh Thien (the Celestial Shrine), Hau Lau (the Palace of the Princesses) and Cua Bac (the North Gate) - lie in a straight north-south line that historians call the Than Dao axis or the central axis. Scattered throughout these areas are revolutionary remnants left behind by the Vietnamese army, which moved into the citadel after expelling the French in 1954.

A good place to start your tour is at Doan Mon, the main gate near Nguyen Tri Phuong, an entrance formerly used exclusively by the king. From there, head to the Dien Kinh Thien Palace, built atop Nung Hill in 1428 during the reign of King Le Thai To. (Nung Hill was also home to the Can Nguyen and Thien An Palaces in earlier eras.) Considered as the centre of Thang Long Citadel, Dien Kinh Thien was destroyed in the 19th century. Only a nine-step staircase decorated with two huge stone dragons remains intact.

In the yard opposite the dragons is Building T78, a former commanding office of the General Staff, where visitors can enjoy a film about the ancient citadel and the process of its archaeological excavation. Just 30 metres from the back of this building is a large, two-storey, yellow structure with French architectural features. It served as the headquarters of the General Staff's operations bureau.

After conquering the citadel in 1882, the French constructed the Dragon Building on the Dien Kinh Thien Palace's former foundation, a structure that they used as a command centre. When the Vietnamese army took over in 1954, this two-storey building was turned into offices for ministers and vice ministers of defence. Rectangular red name plates still hang on the wall bearing the names and positions of the last senior defence officers to have worked there.

The rooms on the Dragon Building's first floor now display around 300 relics from the Ly, Tran, Le and Nguyen dynasties that were unearthed at the site. Many of the artefacts are decorative items made of pottery and stone.

Behind the Dragon Building is Building D67. It was constructed in 1967 with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Its walls are around 65 centimetres thick and its nine doors are thick steel panels. Two of the doors open onto long corridors that lead to the citadel's underground bomb shelter.

Until April of this year, D67 hosted Politburo and Central Military Commission meetings where top decisions concerning the Total Resistance in 1968, the strategic B-52 bombing in December 1972 and the 1975 Ho Chi Minh unification campaign were made.

On display are vivid exhibits such as large-scale military maps, telephones, the main meeting table and name plates of the generals and leaders who joined the conference on the Ho Chi Minh campaign. Surprisingly, some of the building's Shanghai-made electric fans still work after 30 years of use.

Another citadel building features the room where General Vo Nguyen Giap worked from 1968-1980 when he was Minister of Defence. On a small table still sits an old tin mug bearing the motto "Determined to totally defeat the American invaders".

Behind Building D67 is the restored Hau Lau, home to the imperial maidservants who accompanied the Nguyen kings during their travels in northern Vietnam.

The old Hau Lau collapsed in 1876. In this area, visitors can check out the site of an archaeological excavation where thousands of architectural relics created during the Ly and Tran dynasties were found.

Hau Lau is near Bac Mon, or the North Gate. Facing Phan Dinh Phung street, it is the only remaining gate of the Hanoi Citadel's outer ring.Two craters in its stone and brick wall bear testament to the French artillery assaults of 1882.

The building on the top of Bac Lau is now dedicated to the memory of Nguyen Tri Phuong and Hoang Dieu, two governors of the Hanoi citadel who committed suicide when they were defeated by the French.

Unlike the rest of the citadel, the Flag Tower has been open to the public for years. IC was built between 1805 and 1812. With a height of over 40 metres, it is the citadel's highest structure, consisting of an octagonal pedestal, a roof for the flagpole and a grand staircase. It is the citadel's best preserved relic.

To arrange a tour, contact the Citadel Management Board on Nguyen Tri Phuong St. (734 2862)

VNS - (12/10/2004)

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