Five years on, Hanoi dig still yielding secrets of old capital

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am

300 workers unearthing clues to ancient Viet culture

The earth beneath a strategic plot of land in central Hanoi has yielded a remarkable story, revealing secrets about Vietnam's long and complex history.

Just beneath the surface, archaeologists found shards of broken French champagne bottles - a legacy of colonial excess. As they dug deeper they unearthed ancient ceramic bowls bearing Chinese and Japanese motifs, Arabian wine jars from the Silk Road and, finally, the stylised, distinctly Vietnamese phoenixes and five-toed dragons in red clay.

More than five years since work on a new National Assembly building unearthed the first clues to a long-forgotten, 1,000-year-old capital, the Thang Long excavation site is still producing treasures.

Digging continues apace, with 300 specialised workers gently scraping and digging with tiny bamboo implements so that the citadel can be restored for Hanoi's millennial celebrations in October 2010.

With Japanese funding, the archaeologists hope to open the 20,000-square-metre site, with more than a million artefacts, to the public before the celebration. They are also lobbying for Unesco world heritage status to mark the anniversary.

Excavations manager Bui Minh Tri can barely contain his excitement as he talks about progress. Vietnam's foremost expert on Asian ceramics, he talks with pride of how the site has yielded new information about Vietnam's culture after centuries of Chinese rule.

'Many of us have come to learn about Chinese and Japanese ceramics but Thang Long is also telling us a lot about Vietnamese ceramics for the first time,' he says. 'This goes further the closer we get to completing our excavation of the imperial citadel ... it's important to what it means to be Vietnamese.'

The nationalistic overlay has its origins in the Ly dynasty whose king, Ly Thai To, picked the site in 1010, naming it Thang Long or 'ascending dragon', shortly after the defeat of the Tang dynasty ended 1,000 years of Chinese domination.

Ly's Great Viet people ruled the northern half of modern Vietnam, before spreading south and defeating the Indian-influenced Champa empire, whose ruins remain in central Vietnam.

Later dynasties built a royal court in Hue, at the heart of the country, and the Thang Long court fell into disuse. Another citadel was built on top of it, only to be bulldozed by French colonialists in the 19th century when they modernised their new Indochine capital. The site retained its significance, since it adjoined key French government buildings and forts.

Revolutionary founder Ho Chi Minh declared independence in nearby Ba Dinh square in 1946 and lies in state in a Soviet-built mausoleum on the edge of the site.

Parts of the site are occupied by modern military and Communist Party facilities, and it extends into the crowded Old Quarter, so only the key areas are likely to be fully excavated.

To get this far, top-level government approval has been needed and some foreign researchers have been encouraged by Hanoi's willingness to place archaeology over development, particularly given the sensitive nature of the area.

Beyond ceramics, important discoveries have been made. Diggers, relying on 14th century maps, have traced old roads, a palace loosely modelled on Chinese and Japanese imperial courts, and a large canal.

The phoenixes and dragons, seen as the most vital discoveries, are believed to have adorned the eaves of the main palace.

Huge pillar stones are engraved with chrysanthemums.

Other finds are more mundane, ranging from ancient marbles and chopsticks to shellfish and chicken bones - remnants of royal feasts.

Drinking water came from a complex series of wells and canals. The wells remain almost intact, revealing both Vietnamese and Chinese brickwork.

Once cleaned out, water naturally bubbled from the ground and continues to flow today.

'Discovering Thang Long is like a gift from history ... for those of us working on it, it is the golden opportunity of our lives,' Mr Bui said.