In the fall of 1010, King Ly Thai To (Ly Cong Uan) moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Dai La. On the way, the king saw a vision of a golden dragon ascending from the Red river ( song Hong). The King decided to change Dai La to Thang Long (Ascending Dragon). Thang Long remained the capital city until the end of the Tran dynasty when in 1397, the capital city was moved to Thanh Hoa -Tay Do (Western Capital) and Thang Long became Dong Do (Eastern Capital).
Vietnam was invaded by China in 1407, and the city was renamed Dong Quan. In 1428, after ten years of fighting, Le Loi liberated Vietnam and renamed the city Dong Kinh. In 1527, the city was renamed Thang Long. In 1802 when King Gia Long (Nguyen Dynasty) moved the capital city to Hue, the name Thang Long remained but, Long no longer means dragon, Long in this case means prosperity. Ha Noi, was the name given to the city by King Minh Mang in 1831. Ha means river and Noi means within – Ha Noi means within the river.
Most Vietnamese and Westerners are familiar with the phrase Ha Noi ba muoi sau Pho Phuong or Ha Noi 36 districts. This phrase often causes much confusion for most people since, on the one hand Pho means a street or a place for merchants to gather to do business, on the other hand Phuong means a district or a guild of artisans specializing in a particular trade (phuong cheo, phuong tho, etc.). In any case, there is some truth to the use of both descriptions.
Similar to the Guilded age of Europe, Ha Noi’s 36 districts is Vietnam’s version of the guild concept. Long ago, as artisans moved to the capital city to do business, they gathered together in an area as a way to share resources. As a result, many of the streets are named after the crafts that were sold on that street. Pho Hang Bun (Vermicelli), Pho Hang Ma (paper product), Pho Hang Bac (Jewelry) are a few of the streets carrying the name of the products sold on the street.
Today, the 36 pho or old district remains in Vietnamese literature as a quaint and familiar description of this part of Ha Noi. Although many of the streets no longer have the products for which they were named, some still do. Today, on many of the streets, there are still shrines dedicated to the individual diety of the trades for which the streets are named.
Ho Hoan Kiem (Ho Guom) – Lake of the Returned Sword
Ho Hoan Kiem or Lake of the Returned Sword was once a part of the Red river (song Hong). Through thousands of years of changes in the geography, the lake moved eastward to its present position many kilometers from the river. The lake was once called Luc Thuy or Green Water because the water was green year round. In the fifteen century, the lake was named Ho Hoan Kiem, based of a legend that is quite similar to King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake’s legend.
While fighting against the Chinese, King Le Thai To has in his possession a very valuable sword. After 10 years of continuous struggle, the King finally defeated the Chinese and reclaimed Vietnam’s independence. One day, while sailing on lake Luc Thuy, a large turtle appeared. The king drew his sword and pointed at the creature. The turtle immediately grab hold of the sword with its mouth and submerged. The king mourned the lost of such valuable sword, demanded that the lake be emptied and dredged. Both the turtle and the sword were not found. The king realizing that the gods must have lent him the sword to drive back the enemy, but now that Vietnam is free, the sword must be returned. King Le Thai To named the lake Ho Hoan Kiem or Lake of the Returned Sword.
Since the reign of king Le Trung Hung (XVI century), every king in the Le dynasty, and Lord Trinh have all contributed to the beautification of the lake. Lord Trinh Giang built Khanh Thuy shrine on Ngoc island on the north end of the lake. He also had the two man made hills built across from Ngoc son Shrine.
At the end of the Le Dynasty, Khanh Thuy was destroyed by Chieu Thong. A philanthropist named Tin Trai built Ngoc Son pagoda. Ngoc Son pagoda was renamed Ngoc Son shrine during the reign of Thieu Tri III (1843) because it was no longer a Buddhist shrine. Instead, Ngoc Son is a shrine to Van Xuong, a deity, in charge of literature and the various tests required to become a mandarin. It is also a shrine to general Tran Hung Dao, a national hero responsible for many victories against the Mongols.
Since then Ngoc Son has gone through many renovations, one of which was the addition of Thap But (Pen Tower) on the hill which was once called Dao Tai. Three words inscribed on the tower “Ta Thien Thanh” or “write on blue sky”. Inside the gate a pool resembling the shape of an ink well was added. Beyond the ink well is The Huc bridge or “where the sun light is absorbed”. The bridge leads to Dac Nguyet Lau or “Moon Light tower” – Ngoc Son shrine. Beyond the gates to the shrine, there are two walls called bang Rong and bang Ho (dragon and tiger slate) where the names of those who passed the national test are inscribed.
On the southwest end of the lake is Thap Rua. It was rumored that king Le Thanh Tong used to fish here. Lord Trinh also built the structure to house his entourage while visiting the lake.
Ho Tay – West Lake
Ho Tay is the largest of all the lakes in Ha Noi. The lake is on the northwest part of the city. Long ago, the lake was a branch of the Red river but later, as the river changed course, the lake remained a body of water just west of the river. There are many legends associated with West Lake. The most popular is the legend of the golden buffalo.
As the story goes, there once was a medicine man who was a giant. He is well known in Vietnam for his medicine practice and the king often used him to treat the royal family. His fame reached China and he was invited to China to treat the king. He was successful where others have failed so the king was going to reward him with great wealth. He refused offerings of gold and only requested that the king give him all the black copper in the king’s vault. The king agreed and the giant left for Vietnam with vast amounts of black copper. In Vietnam the giant molded a giant bell of black copper. The giant rang the bell and the sound resonated all the way to China. In the king’s vault there was a golden buffalo. Upon hearing the sound of the bell, the buffalo came to life (because he thought that his mother was calling him) and charged southward. Upon reaching Ha Noi, the buffalo trampled the land in the area near Red river. Over the years, this area filled with water and became Ho Tay or West Lake.
Ho Tay has always been an area for vacationing royalties. When Ha Noi was still the capital city, the kings from the Ly and Tran dynasty built summer homes along the lake. In the north end of the lake there are several villages famous for their flowers and fruits plantations. Most famous is Nghi Tam village, the birth place of Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, one of Vietnam’s premier Poetess.
Today, many of the summer homes built by kings of yesteryears are now shrines and temples. Phu Tay Ho is one of the more popular shrine on the shore of Ho Tay. During the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month, people from all over Ha Noi pour to the shrine to pay respect to the deities. On these days, the roads are filled with people dressed in colorful attire heading to the narrow road leading to the shrine. Phu Tay Ho is also famous for the Bun Oc (escargot vermicelli soup) and Banh Tom (shrimp cakes) sold in stalls along the way.
Van Mieu – Temple of Literature
Originally built in 1070 in the Ly dynasty, the temple is a shrine to Confucius and his disciples responsible for spreading his teachings. Six years later, Quoc Tu Giam or School for the sons of the Nation was established for the princes. The school later admitted sons of mandarins and finally commoners were allowed to attend but, only after they passed a rigorous examination at the regional level. In 1484, Van Mieu became a place to memorialize the most brilliant scholars of the nation.
In 1484, King Le Thanh Tong decreed the names of all those who have attained the doctoral ranks in the national examination be inscribed on stone stelae carried on the backs of giant tortoises. In all, 2,313 individuals were awarded the title of tien si. However, detailed records were kept only between 1442 and 1779 . According to records, there should be 112 stelae in all but only 82 stelae are still standing. Each represents a single examination year. The name and native village of the students who were awarded the title Tien Si or doctor laureate were inscribed on the stone. Tien si was not a diploma of graduation from the royal college. This title was awarded to those who have successful passed the 4 royal examinations. Scholars from all over Vietnam could participate only if they had passed the regional exam.
Courtyard of the Sages is located beyond the Garden of Stelae. Entrance to the courtyard is through Dai Thanh Mon or Gate of Great Success. The Great House of Ceremonies is located here. It was here that all new doctor laureates would come to pay respect to Confucius. The king would also come to pay homage to the great teacher at Dai Thanh Mon. Inscribed on a wooden panel above the altar are the words “Teacher of Ten Thousand Generations”.
Behind the Great House of Ceremonies is the Sanctuary, with statue of Confucius flanked by his four closest disciples, Nhan Tu, Tu Tu, Tang Tu, and Manh-Tu (Mencius).
Quoc Tu Giam or School for the Sons of the nation is located in the last courtyard. During the time when Van Mieu was used as a school, this area housed classrooms, housing facilities and a print shop. When the university was moved to Hue, Quoc Tu Giam was turned into a shrine to Confucius’ parents called Khai Thanh.
Museum of Fine Arts
Located at 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, the museum began receiving visitors on June 24, 1966. One of Vietnam’s comprehensive display of architectures, sculptures, drawings, and fine arts is housed at the museum. The museum also contains displays of the ethnic minority people in Vietnam. Stone ax blades, stone sculptures, statues and ornaments, Muong skirts, belts, and Tay Nguyen bronze rings are some of the few items on display.
Visitors are able to see works of art dating to the stone and bronze ages. Stone rings, earings and necklaces are evidence of a civilization dating back 2,000 to 3,000 years. The bronze statues, drums, and ornaments on display bring the visitors closer to that part of history that is rich with tradition and culture.
Mua Roi Nuoc – Vietnamese Water Puppet
Mua Roi Nuoc or Water Puppet is a unique art which has it origin in the delta of the Red river in the tenth century. The farmers in this region devised a form of entertainment using what natural medium they can find in their environment. In ancient times, the ponds and the rice paddies after harvest were the stage for these impromptu shows. This art form is unique to North Vietnam and only finds its way to the world stage in recent years as a result of the normalized relation with the West. Today the Thang Long puppet troupe is the most well known in Ha Noi.
The theme of the skits is rural and has a strong reference to Vietnamese folklore. It tells of day-to-day living in rural Vietnam and Vietnamese folk tales that are told by grandparents to their grandchildren. Stories of the harvest, of fishing and of festivals are highlighted. Legends and national history are also told through short skits. Many of the skits, especially those involving the tales of day-to-day living, often have a humorous twist.