The most unlikely UNESCO site is the empty citadel of Vietnam —————— HO CITADEL, which was the capital of the short-lived HO DYNASTY. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. You might expect a communist government to distance itself from its Imperial past, but the Vietnamese Regime has seen the value in celebrating the country’s bygone Emperors, and promoting its ancient Citadels as tourist destinations.
Since 1993, eight Vietnamese locations —— including three Citadels —— have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, with another seven awaiting formal classifications.
Many of these sites are of great natural or historical significance, such as HA LONG BAY and the complex of monuments in HUE. But, the Citadel to most recently acquire UNESCO’s seal of approval (in 2011) is the almost unknown HO CITADEL, situated in a remote backwater of THANH HOA Province, around 150km south of Hanoi.
The choice of the HO CITADEL, for such a prestigious honour, is strange for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the HO DYNASTY lasted just seven years (1400 – 1407), a mere drop in the ocean of Vietnam’s turbulent history. Secondly, the CITADEL IS EMPTY. That’s right ——- no palaces, no temples, no monuments ———- just four walls surrounding nothing but farmland. ——– However, according to UNESCO, the Citadel represents “an outstanding example of a new style of Southeast Asian Imperial City”.
Intrigued by the notion of discovering a medieval city in the Vietnamese countryside, this is what was left of the Citadel, which was built in three months and slotted together without any mortar ——- this is an impressive feat of 15th century engineering.
The north gate of HO CITADEL was chosen according to the principle of FENG SHUI and the DON SON & TUONG SON mountain ranges protect the valley and the MA & BUOI Rivers flow on either side of the Citadel. There are massive blocks of stone in a wall, slotted together without any mortar, and some of the stones measure several cubic metres. The 600-year-old walls, which stretch almost a kilometre on each side, are remarkably intact, and the four vaulted gateways stand sturdy as ever. Parts of the wall have subsided and become overgrown with grass and shrubs, but that somehow adds to the site’s “mystique”. Encompassed within the walls is a timeless scene of corn and rice fields, ponds and dirt tracks ——— a picture of abundance and self-sufficiency.
How come the HO DYNASTY was so short-lived ? In the late 14th century, the TRAN DYNASTY was in disarray and HO QUY LY, a regent in the court of Emperor TRAN THUAN TONG in THANG LONG (Hanoi) laid plans to usurp the throne. In 1397, he had this new Citadel built, a task that apparently took only three months. ——— an amazing feat of engineering in an age before power tools. When HO invited the Emperor to inspect the new Citadel, initially known as TAY DO (Western Capital), he imprisoned and then executed TRAN THUAN TONG, established himself in 1400 as First Emperor of the HO DYNASTY.
After ruling for just a year, HO QUY LY relinquished the throne to his second son ——- HO HAN THUONG, who reigned for a mere six years, after which the HO were overrun by the MING from China. ———— Despite his brief tenure in Vietnam’s top job, HO QUY LY was responsible for the introduction of paper money and limits on land ownership as well as opening ports to foreign trade and expanding the education curriculum to include mathematics and agriculture.
The south gate, the Citadel’s main entrance, is pierced by three arches, compared to just one in the north, east and west walls. Outside the south gate is a bamboo hut, where the walls are lined with illustrations of elephants and horses dragging huge slabs of stone from the quarry, bamboo rafts carrying the slabs downriver and men and beasts hauling the finely-cut stones into place on the wall.
From the bamboo hut one reaches an almost empty museum where a few artefacts such as stone balls for use with slingshots and a terracotta phoenix head have been recovered from the site.
Developing tourism may mean banning farming activities at the site and thus affecting local livelihoods. As part of the deal with UNESCO, Vietnam is committed to protecting the Citadel’s Heritage, which means preventing any new buildings from spoiling the view and terminating agricultural production, such as rice farming, inside the Citadel.
Deputy Director of the Centre for Conservation of HO DYNASTY Citadel World Heritage —- NGUYEN XUAN TOAN says, “As the households possess land-use rights, they continue to build houses and other structures and that causes difficulties in protecting the Citadel. Ploughing, raking and digging irrigation ditches within the Citadel has exposed archaeological relics and has a negative impact on the underground architecture at the site. Looks like local farmers will have to sacrifice their land rights if their country’s leaders are determined to develop the Citadel as a tourist destination.
Wonder what HO CHI MINH, Vietnam’s National Hero would make of this conundrum !!
————— Ron Emmons for CNN.