The Son Tay Citadel

03 November 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge) – Built in 1822, the Son Tay Citadel stood guard over the western gate to what is now known as Hanoi. This travel piece takes a walk through the citadel, which seems to have been unfortunately badly restored.

Vietnam Net Bridge, 03 Nov 2007

All quiet on the western front

In my mind I had pictured Son Tay town as a sleeping beauty in amongst the hundreds of craft villages of Ha Tay province. I became determined to discover the region’s “hidden charm” and cajoled my uncle into tagging along.

After we arrive, at first, we just amble along the town’s older streets. Everywhere the houses seem small and tidy, the people seem good-natured and the town as a whole seems quaint and tranquil.

When I arrive at the moat that surrounds the ancient citadel we’re given the option of rowing across in a small bamboo boat, though we choose to stroll across the bridge.

Son Tay ancient citadel was built by King Minh Mang in 1822 to defend the western gateway to the city of Thang Long, which is now, of course, Hanoi.


It has the style of a Vauban fortification and in time French architects praised it as a masterpiece of Vietnamese architecture.

There were four main gates also made of bee-stone (laterite), the special material from Xu Doai. The citadel was where the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty lived and worked when in the area.

But time humbles the grandest of structures. Much of the citadel was destroyed by the French in 1883, leaving only the north and south gates standing. While the north gate has been restored – ‘unsympathetically’ with concrete according to critics– the south gate remains almost entirely intact.

Son Tay citadel should be one of the great symbols of Vietnam’s cultural heritage together along with Co Loa ancient citadel, Hanoi citadel and Hue Imperial palace but when I arrive by the base of the building I’m shocked to see that a section of the citadel has been altered to make way for a road.

The ancient flag tower is painted bright red and new stones are now where moss-covered ones used to be. It seems that the ancient citadel was modernized rather than preserved. This ancient citadel doesn’t seem so ancient.

According to the groundskeeper the citadel was repaired in 2005. Only the two ancient entrances remain from the original structure.

My uncle Hoan says, with some irony, “Don’t worry, in a few hundred years, our descendants will come to discover an ancient Son Tay citadel dating back to the year 2005!”

Thankfully the two ancient gates under hundred-year-old trees are worth the trip. Leaf-covered and crumbling in places, but still regal and magnificent in my eyes. There is a touch of Tap Prohm temple at Angkor, as dozens of tree roots snake around the stone walls.

Duong Lam commune is four kilometers from the citadel and once was home to Phung Hung the first Lord Protector of Annam and Ngo Quyen (889-994) who was crowned king in 939AD after soundly defeating the Chinese at the famous Battle of Bach Dang north of modern Hai Phong, which ended 1,000 years of Chinese domination going all the back to 111BC under the Han Dynasty.

Now there are nearly 200 ancient houses, historical, cultural and religious relics in the area amongst the landscape coloured by golden rice-stacks and dark red laterite brick-houses. It’s a bewitching setting and the disappointment I felt after Son Tay citadel starts to fade.

I stop at a tea shop by Mong Phu communal house, which was built in 1638AD, but was repaired several years ago. I sip hot tea and nibble on peanut candy as locals come and go, smiling and nodding, but not lingering. Most I presume are busy with their harvest and must make hay while the sun shines.

But as tourists we’re free to linger, enjoying the sweeping panorama and nibbling on Banh te, which is a kind of rice dumpling filled with chopped pork fat and green onion that is steamed and served cold.

Five small cakes cost only VND4,000, the perfect filler before pressing on to discover Mia pagoda (Sugar-cane pagoda), where we are promised we will discover over 287 Buddha statues as well as the tomb of Ngo Quyen, underneath a row of trees, where once it is said he tethered his elephants before leading his army into battle.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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