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Hua Lu – Ninh Binh

Hoa Lư (華閭) was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries. It lies in Truong Yen Thuong village, Truong Yen Commune, Hoa Lu District, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam. The area is one of ricefields broken by picturesque limestone mountains, and is approximately 90 km south of Hanoi. Together with Phat Diem Church, Tam Coc – Bich Dong, Bai Dinh Pagoda, Trang An, and Cuc Phuong, Hoa Lu is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ninh Binh Province.

hoa lu

In the late 10th century, Hoa Lu was the capital as well as the economic, political and cultural center of Đại Cồ Việt, an independent Vietnamese polity founded in 968 A.D. by the local warlord Đinh Bộ Lĩnh (posthumously known as Đinh Tiên Hoàng, or “First Dinh Emperor”), following years of civil war and a violent secessionist movement against China’s Southern Han Dynasty. Hoa Lu was the native land of the first two imperial dynasties of Vietnam: the Dinh founded by Đinh Tiên Hoàng, and the Early Le founded by Lê Đại Hành. Following the demise of the Le Dynasty, in 1010 Lý Công Uẩn, the founder of the Ly Dynasty, transferred the capital to Thắng Long (now Hanoi), and Hoa Lu became known as the “ancient capital.”

The capital at Hoa Lu covered an area of 300 ha (3.0 km2), including both the Inner and Outer Citadels. It included defensive earthen walls, palaces, temples and shrines, and was surrounded and protected by mountains of limestone. Today, the ancient citadel no longer exists, and few vestiges of the 10th century remain. Visitors can see temples built in honor of the emperors Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh, their sons, and Queen Duong Van Nga, who was married first to Dinh Tien Hoang and then to Le Dai Hanh. The tomb of Dinh Tien Hoang is located on nearby Mã Yên mountain, while the tomb of Le Dai Hanh lies at the foot of the mountain.

Layout and Topography

The ancient capital of Hoa Lu was located in a flat valley between small but steep limestone mountains that created virtually impenetrable barriers to human traffic. Even today, many of the mountains are accessible only to the mountain goats that roam the area.

The 10th century rulers of Dai Co Viet took advantage of this topography in order to design enclosures that would be especially difficult to attack. In order to block the gaps between the limestone mountains, they ordered the construction of earthen walls reinforced and anchored in the soft earth by wooden stakes. In all, the capital was protected by ten sections of wall, the longest being 500m in length and the shortest 65m in length. They were approximately 10m high and 15m thick. Several sections of wall still exist and have been excavated by archeologists.

During the time it served as the capital, Hoa Lu’s defenses were never actually tested by an enemy army. In 972, the king of Champa sent a fleet against Hoa Lu, but it was devastated by a storm as it tried to enter the river system from the sea and was forced to return home with great loss. In 981, two Chinese armies of the Song Dynasty invaded the Dai Co Viet with the aim of eventually working their way south and taking the capital, but they were stopped and defeated in the northern part of the country.

The ancient capital at Hoa Lu consists of two separate enclosures, the Inner Citadel which lies to the West and the Outer Citadel which lies to the East, and which includes most of the sites visited by tourists. The two citadels are separated by a limestone mountain. Both have access to the Hoàng Long (“Golden Dragon”) River that runs just northwest of the capital and that, via a system of rivers, connects Hoa Lu to the sea. In the 10th century, the dwellings of the common people, as well as the markets and the storehouses connected with the river trade, were concentrated near the river.

Monuments in the area

The area of the ancient imperial capital of Hoa Lu features several dozen monuments, including the following:

  • Dinh Tien Hoang Temple
  • Le Dai Hanh Temple
  • Dinh Tien Hoang Tomb
  • Le Dai Hanh Tomb
  • Nhat Tru Pagoda
  • Noi Lam Temple
  • Bai Dinh Temple
  • Thien Ton Cave
  • Trang An Grottoes
  • Ban Long Pagoda

Temple of Dinh Tien Hoang

The temple dedicated to Dinh Tien Hoang was constructed by local residents near the center of the old capital in order to honor Dinh Bo Linh, the first emperor of Vietnam. Bo Linh grew up in this area in the mid-10th century during the reign of Ngô Quyền, a warlord who evicted Chinese occupiers from the country and declared himself king in 938. Born into the family of a high-level official, Bo Linh soon revealed his talent for government and military affairs; his childhood exploits as the leader of local children waging mock wars against the children of other villages are legendary. As he reached maturity, he also became a powerful warlord. Following the crumbling of the short-lived Ngo Dynastyfounded by Ngo Quyen, he defeated twelve rival warlords, reunified the country, and in 968 founded the first imperial dynasty of Vietnam. Unfortunately, due to Dinh Tien Hoang’s failure to provide for an orderly succession, the country was again plunged into turmoil after his death, until order was reestablished by Lê Hoàn, Bo Linh’s top general, who defeated his rivals and established the Le Dynasty, Vietnam’s second imperial dynasty.

The temple to Dinh Tien Hoang is located on the grounds of the former main palace of the royal citadel. The location is in the “tien thuy hau son” style incorporating the principles of “phong thủy” (Chinese: “feng shui”), with a river to the front and a mountain at the back. The temple was designed in the “noi cong ngoai quoc” style.

Temple of Le Dai Hanh

The temple of Le Dai Hanh is 200m south of the temple of Dinh Tien Hoang, and has Den Mountain as a backdrop. Le Hoan occupied the highest military post in the administration of Dinh Bo Linh. When Bo Linh was assassinated in 979, his six-year-old son Đinh Toàn took the throne, and Le Hoan served as his regent. Suspecting that Le Hoan was secretely planning to take over the country himself, other leading men went into rebellion. The ensuing disorder raised eyebrows at the court of the Chinese Song Dynasty, which had been seeking an opportunity to reassert dominion over Vietnam following the eviction of Chinese forces by Ngo Quyen in 938. Le Hoan defeated his rivals, and with a Chinese invasion impending, obtained support for his takeover, declaring himself emperor and founding the Le Dynasty. He also married Dinh Tien Hoang’s widow Duong Van Nga, the mother of the deposed child king Dinh Toan. In 982, his forces defeated and repelled two Chinese armies, thus ensuring the country’s ongoing independence. Following his death in 1005, Le Hoan came to be known by the posthumous name “Le Dai Hanh.” His sons fought over the succession, and order was not restored unil Ly Cong Uan took over the country in 1010 and declared the Ly Dynasty.

The architecture, art, and devotional statues of the temple to Le Dai Hanh are similar to those of the temple of Dinh Tien Hoang. The temple still retains its original architectural beauty. The constructions does not have stone-doorsteps and stones for propping the pillar as Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang’s Temple. Hence, we can contemplate the temple with adequate example of the architecture and sculpture of Post-Le Dynasty period.

The “Chinh Cung” part of Emperor Le Dai Hanh Temple comprises five structural chambers. The middle chamber has statue of Emperor Le Dai Hanh sitting on his throne and wearing a Binh Thien Hat; his face is hearty. The statue is placed on a pedestal. To its left is a statue of Empress Duong Van Nga, who was a wife, first of Dinh Tien Hoang, and later of Le Dai Hanh. The statue of Empress Duong Van Nga has a plump and charming face, ruddy skin, and many features of contemporary Viet women in those time. Her outer robe is sculpted with supple creases, loosened so as to reveal the inside of the blouse with its special patterns. Her statue displays feminine virtues and youthful qualities that reflects an image of a enthusiastic, talented, keen and beautiful woman.

Nhat Tru Temple

The construction of Chùa Nhật Trụ (“First Column Pagoda”) was ordered by Emperor Le Dai Hanh. Later, Emperor Ly Thai Tong ordered the construction of a similar temple in Hanoi. The temple is still in existence and holds many artifacts from the 10th and 11th centuries. One of the most prominent original features of the architecture is the stone pillar in the temple courtyard.

Temple of Dinh Tien Hoang’s Daughter

A small temple near Nhat Tru Pagoda is dedicated to the daughter of Dinh Tien Hoang. When Dinh Tien Hoang recruited the talented court official Ngo Khanh, he gave the princess to Khanh in marriage. However, the official and the princess ran off to the neighboring kingdom ofChampa to the south. A year later, the princess managed to return home to the imperial court; however, she was cast into prison as a punishment, and was eventually sent off to Nhat Tru Pagoda to be a nun. When her father the emperor was assassinated in 979, the princess committed suicide by jumping into a well near the pagoda. The pagoda dedicated the well to her honor.

Thien Ton Cave

Legend has it that Dinh Bo Linh ventured into this cave and received an oracle while he was struggling for control of the country with twelve rival warlords. He made offerings to the local deity, who foretold that in the end Bo Linh would conquer all of his enemies. The oracle turned out to be true: in 968, Dinh Bo Linh defeated the last of the twelve warlords and unified the country under his personal rule as the first emperor of Vietnam.

The entire cave area presents a serene scene with many fruit trees. Thien Ton Cave has two chambers: the outer chamber is large while the inner one is narrower. The outer chamber of the cave is dedicated to the worship of Buddha; the inner cave is where immortals are venerated. Thus, Thien Ton is a bi-religious complex combining the Buddhist element of the outer chamber and the Daoist element of the inner complex. Many valuable objects are displayed inside the cave, such as a bell cast during the reign of Emperor Le Hien Tong of the Later Le Dynasty, a statue of Thien Ton, and groups of lacquered and gilded Buddhist statues. The unique feature of Thien Ton Cave is that all the worshipping objects and architectural details including the pillars, and the altars are made of decorated into the rocks with stylized images of dragons, the motifs of the Ly dynasty.

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