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A 2,000-year-old citadel, a magic crossbow and a well of pearls

The gate of An Duong Vuong Temple near Hanoi

Perhaps the oldest citadel in Vietnam, Co Loa Citadel in Hanoi’s suburban district of Dong Anh, evokes the history of the kingdom of Au Lac and its king An Duong Vuong and the legend of My Chau and Trong Thuy and their ill-fated love.

Over 2,000 years ago, Thuc Phan, who succeeded the Hung kings, decided to move the capital from Phong Chau in the centre of the north to Co Loa.

Becoming King An Duong Vuong, he united the Au Viet people of the highlands and the delta-dwelling Au Lac people. In 214 B.C. he started fortifying Co Loa to make it a capital, worthy and strong enough to rule Au Lac, as the new state was called.

According to legend, a golden turtle assisted the king to rise to power and build the citadel. After work on the citadel was complete, the golden turtle bid farewell to the king, giving him one of its claws.

The king used the present to later form it into a trigger for his crossbow. With the new trigger the king could slay a thousand enemy troops with a single bolt so he named it Tortoise Crossbow.

Trieu Da, reigning in present-day Guangdong Province, heard about the miraculous weapon and plotted to get his hands on the crossbow by arranging a marriage between his son, Trong Thuy, and Princess My Chau, the daughter of King An Duong Vuong.

The conniving prince did as his father asked him and managed to steal the magic trigger. When the Chinese emperor’s troops invaded Au Lac and surrounded Co Loa, King An Duong Vuong found that his crossbow had lost its power. Unable to defend the citadel, he barely had time to pull his daughter behind him onto the horse and ride away at full gallop to the south.

As he approached the coast, the golden turtle appeared. “Oh golden turtle, why have I lost my kingdom?” he cried. The turtle replied, “Your enemy is right behind you.”

Suddenly the king understood, and the truth dawned on him. Before the daughter could jump off the horse, the king drew his sword and cut off his daughter’s head.

Then he followed the golden turtle into the sea. The blood, which poured from My Chau’s body into the sea, was swallowed by oysters and shells, which started to produce pearls.

Suffering because of the loss of his wife, Trong Thuy came to Co Loa and stopped by a well in front of the empty palace. As he looked into the water, he saw his wife’s face appear on its surface.

Overwhelmed by her image, he plunged into the well toward her and drowned. People say that if pearls are washed in the water of the well where Trong Thuy died, they become more lustrous.

History books say eight walls and an outermost moat surrounded Co Loa Citadel, but these days there are only three walls. Still, these are imposing, extending for 16 kilometres in all and measuring 10 to 12 meters in height in many places.

A village now occupies the place where the royal court once gathered. Left-over in the village are many architectural works built to commemorate King An Duong Vuong. They include a temple dedicated to Cao Lo, a talented general of King An Duong Vuong, and Co Loa Temple, built in the 18th century on the foundation of Ngu Trieu Di Quy where King An Duong Vuong gave audience.

Next is a hermitage worshipping Princess My Chau and housing a stone in the shape of a headless person. Legend has it that after My Chau was beheaded, the waves washed the body to Co Loa, where the villagers dragged it ashore and watched in amazement as it turned into stone. So the villagers built a small temple to worship the rock.

On the left of the hermitage, a giant banyan tree that Ngo Quyen planted in 938 used to throw its shadow on the ground, but the tree died some years ago. Behind the hermitage is a large pagoda with many beautiful Buddha statues.

Then there is the Upper Temple, also called An Duong Vuong Temple. No one knows exactly when it was built. Inside the temple, which was repaired in 1687 and 1893, stands a King An Duong Vuong bronze statue cast in 1897.

From Hanoi drive along former national Highway 1A, turn right onto National Highway 2 and then continue for some 20 kilometres before reaching Co Loa Citadel.

Saigon Times - (18/11/2005)

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