In 257BC, King An Duong (Thuc Phan) built Co Loa or Loa Thanh (Snail-Form Citadel), located 15KM from Hanoi, in the province of Phuc Yen (presently Vinh Phu). Co Loa formed by 3 inter-twined mud-enclosures in labyrinthine fashion that looked like a snail-shell. The first enclosure measured 2X3KM, the second enclosure measured 6.5KM was positioned on higher ground, and the rectangular citadel formed the third enclosure. In the center was the royal palace, surrounded by quarters reserved for the guards. The first betrayal of Viet Nam recorded in history was committed by My Chau, a royal princess who enticed by the charms of Trong Thuy, a northern prince. She told him the defense secret of the Snail-Form Citadel. Subsequently, the fortress fell into the hands of Ch'ao To (Trieu Da), Trong Thuy's father.

In 3BC, the Ch'in rulers of China deported massive numbers of ethnic Chinese into the south hoping to assimilate the Viet people. The Han who succeeded to the Ch'in actually imposed government control over Giao Chi. From this contact the Vietnamese learned military construction techniques from the Chinese and eventually put them to use in the defense of their territory. In 43AD, when Chinese general Ma "the Conqueror of Waves" Yuan came south to repress the rebellion of the Trung sisters, he met with resistance coming from 65 fortresses or fortified residences. These constructions were built with primitive techniques, consisted of a huge square yard enclosed by mud-walls with cornered watchtowers. Entrance structures with holes covered by thatch through which small archers may be shot were on 4 sides of the citadel. Three little forts formed the outer defense line as alarm posts.

In 968, after defeating the Twelve Feudal Lords, Dinh Tien Hoang realized that the ancient capital was exposed and difficult to defense. He decided to retrench back to Hoa Lu, his native land and at the base of the cordillera. Dinh Tien Hoang practiced the art of movement warfare. He believed it was illusory to build a solid or permanent citadel. Rather, Hoa Lu was conceived by him to be a temporary structure, permitting a holding action while his army could prepare to fight guerrilla-style in the bushes when confronted with huge and powerful Chinese army. The walls of Hoa Lu fortress were made of huge brick blocks and wooden watchtowers in the distance. The royal palace located in the center of this defense system has been ruined, leaving no traces.

In 1397, Ho Qui Ly built Tay Do ("Western Capital"), located in Tay Giai village, Quang Hoa subprefecture, Thanh Hoa province. In 1407, it was abandoned when Ho Qui Ly and his son, the ruling prince Ho Han Thuong, were taken prisoners by the Ming troops. The citadel was built out of solid materials and according to a well studied plan. The enclosure was a square with 4 vaulted stone entrances on 500M length sides. In the center was Nhan Tho Cung, a royal palace. The citadel located behind a series of hills that served as defense enclosures and a river to the west served as a defense ditch. Thick ramparts were made out of cob and reinforced by a freestone wall that would shelter various constructions inside. The 7M long X 1.5M wide freestone blocks, weighing about 16 tons each, still standing which bear witness to an advanced construction.

In 1790, Gia Long built Gia Dinh Thanh, the first French-style citadel, with the assistance of Olivier de Puymanel who was an architect of fortifications and military arts. In 1802, Gia Long became Emperor. Two years later, he selected the ground for the Hue Citadel based on geomantic, natural and strategic considerations. In 1805, the construction started and continued under Minh Mang until its completion in 1831. These quadrilateral or polygonal structures (5, 6 or 8 sides) were built in important provincial capitals of Viet Nam: Nam Dinh, Thai Nguyen, Thanh Hoa (shown), Dong Hoi, Quang Tri, Hung Yen, Ha Tinh and Saigon.

Chi D. Nguyen
L'architecture Vietnamienne, Nguyen Quang Nhac

Buddhism was introduced into Viet Nam by Indian monks that followed the trade routes around the beginning of the Common Era. Buddhism has since grown and flourished over time to become one of the main religions of Viet Nam. Through Vietnamese history, there were many big and famous temples built by national leaders to commemorate their reign, but the great majority was the shrines and worship halls built by the local people that are present in every villages and cities.

The first Buddhist temple recorded in the historical annals is the Khai Quoc (Founding the Nation) erected by King Ly Bi in the 6th century. From the 7th to the 9th century, as Chinese Buddhism gained more influence, many temples were constructed and then cloistered by Chinese monks. When Viet Nam finally gained independence from the Chinese in 938, Buddhism already had a prominent role in both the spiritual and political life of Viet Nam. The Ngo, Dinh, Le, Ly and Tran dynasties that followed the independence was all ardent supporters of Buddhism. During the Ly and the Tran periods, hundreds of temples were constructed throughout the nation, some of them were of monumental scale such as the Phat Tich (1050) and the Dam (1086) temples which were built on high leveled planes on mountain side. Other temples displayed very high level of architectural originality such as the Dien Huu temple (also known as Mot Cot or One Pillar) built in 1049 in the shape of a blossomed lotus. The large temples of the Ly and Tran periods usually have tall, multiple story towers (12 or 13 stories) erected on two sides of the main building (the Bao Thien, the Phat Tich and the Pho Minh). The interior of the temples and towers was decorated with very fine statues and bas-relief made of stone. These works were decorated with distinctive Vietnamese design motifs such as dragons, elephants, lions, chrysanthemum, lotus and water waves. Few of the sculptures also showed influence of Cham art from the southerly kingdom of Champa such as the sacred Garuda birds or the Aspara dancers.

When the Later Le dynasty was founded in 1428, Buddhist influence had somewhat declined as compared to Confucianism, but it still played a pivotal role in the spiritual and religious life of Viet Nam. The Buddhist temple was no longer just for the worship of Buddha but also the many Saints of the nation. From the 16th century on, Vietnamese society gradually lost its stability due to repeated civil wars between the ruling lords, first between the Trinh and the Mac and then the Trinh and the Nguyen. Buddhism once again flourished as the people was looking for spiritual guidance and support from religion. Numerous new temples were built and existing ones reconstructed. The Mac-period temples are particularly well known for their collection of wooden statues displayed on the altars. A great number of statues of Buddha, national saints and royal personalities (such as the queen-mothers, princesses, kings, etc. were sculpted from jackfruit wood and painted with lacquer. Also displayed was ceremonial pottery such as incense-burners and lamp stands from Chu Dau and Bat Trang, two most famous pottery villages of the time.

When the Nguyen lords established their territory in the South between the 17th and 18th century, they constructed many temples in the newfound colony such as the Thien Mu (1601) and Sung Hoa (1602) in Hue. The Nguyen's march to the South continued with the construction of the Tu An (1752) and Thien Truong (1755) in Gia Dinh province and many more smaller temples in the Mekong delta during the later half of 18th century. After 1802, not many new temples were erected, but a great number of existing ones were continually restored and expanded, especially those located in large cities such as in Ha Noi, Hue and Saigon.

Contact with Western civilization in the early 20th century brought in a new architectural formation of the Buddhism temple, one that is constructed with iron, steel and concrete to take place of the traditional materials. Many of these newly built temples showed sign of design influence from foreign countries such as Japan, China, India as well as Western Europe.

The temple is usually comprised of not a single building but an architectural complex of many buildings standing in line or side by side. The simplest form of architectural layout is patterned after the Chinese letter Dinh ( T ), consisting of the main sanctuary laid in perpendicular to the bai duong (praying hall) in the front. A more common layout is the Cong ( H ) letter where the main sanctuary and the bai duong laid in parallel and linked by a transversal hall called nha thieu huong (incense burning hall) where Buddhist rites are conducted. Another common layout is the Tam letter which includes three buildings, the lower, the middle and the upper building, lay in parallel of each other. The most common layout pattern is called noi cong ngoai quoc which has two corridors linking the front with the rear building forming a rectangular frame around the incense-burning hall located in the middle. Around the main buildings are secondary buildings such as the house of patriarchs, the residence for the monks, the bell tower and the cong tam quan (three-door entrance) served as the entry gate of the temple.

Minh Bui
Reference: Chua Viet Nam, Ha van Tan, Ha Noi, 1993

One-pillar PAGODA, Hanoi
The pagoda owes its existence to a dream of King Ly Thai Tong. One night in his dream, Kwan Yin led him to a lotus shine... Waking up, he consulted his officials about the dream. Among them was Thien Tue, a cultivated and respectable monk. Thien Tue advised the king to built a pagoda with a stone pillar amidst a pond and setting the shrine on top of the pillar.

PAGODE à un pied. Hanoi. Bâtie au XI siècle, reconstruite après 1955. Le pilotis situé dans un bassin d'eau est sensiblement moins haut que celui existant à l'origine.

Reference: Danh Lam Nuoc Viet

About 11 meter high. Gallery to upstairs in spiral form. SALLE de la "TOUR AUX NEUF ÉTAGES" XVI siècle. But thap Environ 11 mètres de haut. XVI siècle. Temple de But-thap. Derrière les portes ouvertes du faîtage du premier étage, se trouve une galerie conduisant aux étages supérieurs de la tour pivotante.

Chua tap PAGODA
16-17th century. The pagoda was situated in the vicinity of Thanh Hoa and Nam Dinh provinces. Exterior walls as well as walls inside the front court were erected to separate the evil spirit. A small statue of sitting Buddha and traditional lion were seen in two exterior lateral columns. At interior columns, bas relief of brush and ink-plate indicated that the pagoda has been dedicated to the memory of a famous philosopher and writer.

PAGODE de Chua-tap XVI-XVII siècle. PAGODE de Chua-tap. A proximité de Thanh Hoa et de Nam-dinh. Devant elle, le mur, qúon ne voit pas sur le tableau, de protection habituel que l'on élève soit à l'exterieur soit dans la cour intérieure, en face de l'entrée; ce mur est destiné à écarter les esprits maléfiques. Ses deux colonnes latérales portent un petit Bouddha assis, ainsi que le lion traditionnel. Sur les colonnes du mur intérieur, on remarque un pinceau et un encrier qui indiquent que la pagode fut érigée à la mémoire d'un écrivain ou d'un philosophe répute.

Chua thap Bac Ninh
17-18th century. About 10 meter high. The temple was constructed of flat stones, with 5 stories, windows and relief of Buddha were alternated in each story. The pagodas of this style were rare in Viet Nam. PAGODE à stûpas de But-thap (Bac Ninh). XVII-XVIII siècle. Environ 10 mètres de haut. XVI siècle. A côte des salles du temple, se trouvent plusieurs Stûpas, en particulier celle du premier bonze qui célébra les offices dans ce temple. La pagode, construite en pierres plates, possède cinq étages; à chaque étage, alternant avec les fenêtres, des reliefs représentant Bouddha. Les pagodes de ce genre sont assez rares au Viêt-nam.

In 1070, King Ly Thanh Tong erected Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and the carvings of Confucius, Chu Cong the four disciples, and 72 other scholars who were considered to be model Confucians.

Quoc Tu Giam (National University)
In 1076, King Ly Thanh Tong erected Viet Nam’s first university, Quoc Tu Giam (National University), near Van Mieu for the purpose of instructing the children of Mandarins, the aristocrats, and the brightest commoners. During its more than 700 years of instruction (1076-1779), Quoc Tu Giam educated thousands of talented men for Viet Nam. Among the most notable are the mathematician Luong The Vinh, the historian Ngo Sy Lien, the encyclopedist Ly Don, and the politician-diplomat Ngo Thi Nham.

Valued relics representing the millenary civilization are well preserved, such as stelae with inscriptions of the names of distinguished scholars, the Thien Quang Tinh (Well of Heavenly Clarity), the pavilion in dedication of the Khue Van Cac ( Constellation of Literature), the statue of Confucius, the Great House of Ceremonies, the ancient wall, kowtow portico and the sanctuary, the stone dragons, and the ink stone stands.

82 stone stelae which rest upon large stone tortoises were created between 1484 and 1780 and are engraved with the names of 1,306 doctor laureates, their birth places and achievements. These stelae were erected to encourage learning and bestow honor on the talented men who assisted the Kings in defending the country.


In his efforts to assure the unity of the country under the imperial house, Emperor Gia Long ordered the construction of the imperial courts in the capital Ph Xun (Hu) in 1805. Although the planning of the capital city was conducted earlier with help from his French advisors and engineers such as bishop Chaigneau and Olivier de Puymanuel, the Hue imperial courts were closely and systematically modeled after the Peking courts but at a smaller scale. To fully appreciate the architecture of the Hue imperial courts mandates an understanding of the concepts and principles of behind ancient Chinese architecture.

Geomantic considerations for siting ancient cultures of China and Viet Nam placed great importance of phong thuy (geomancy or feng-shui) in the siting of a house, a tomb or a palace. Earthly and heavenly currents had to combine in a harmonious knot in the heart of the building in order that whoever resided there should reap the good spirits and is capable of keeping away the evil ones. The capital city of Ph Xun (Hu) best exemplified the geomantic requirements of a good site: the city is facing the Hng (Perfume) river with the hills of Ni Ng on the horizon to protect the imperial gates from evil spirits.

Organization of Space
In the ancient Chinese cosmology, which considered Heaven round and Earth square, space is imagined as a series of overlapped squares. The center of this "ranked" space is the capital-a square core marked by four gates at the four cardinal points towards which the cosmic influences coverage. Architectural space is like a series of closed worlds, of complete independent, progressively smaller units which repeat on a reduced scale the forms of the larger units. The imperial city is a series of enclosures cunningly encasing the throne room, which is the very heart of the Empire.

Orientation and Axiality
The concept of order and harmony in the universe is reflected in the many rules that governed the siting of an edifice. One of the principle rules is the main North-South axis. According to ancient belief, North represented the rigors of winter and the threat of barbarian invasion-namely evil influences. Hence all important buildings of the imperial court opened towards the south. This axiallity implied a median avenue and the procession of the architectural complex as one moves northward along it. The major buildings such as Ng Mn (Noon Gate), Thai Hoa palace, Can Chanh palace follow each other along the median axis, proceed by vast courtyards and entoured on the East and West by buildings of secondary importance.

The Theories of Am Duong (Yin and Yang) and the NgU HAnh (Five Elements)
The theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements exerted strong influences on accent Chinese architecture. According to Chinese classics, "Yin and Yang" is the "cardinal principle of all things, of the way of heaven and earth", meaning that everything can be divided into the mutually opposing and independent elements. Yin stands for shady slopes of mountains, for cold rainy weather, for the right hand, for all that is feminine and passive. Yang stands for the sunny side, for heat and drought, for the left hand, for all that is masculine and active. Universal harmony is the sum of these opposite and complementary energies. Man is conditioned by this rhythm of a nature that is in a constant state of flux. The human space therefore was made to harmonize as far as possible with the rhythm of nature. The design of the imperial city closely reflected this concept of harmony: in each court delightful gardens are replicas in microcosm, with rocks and miniature trees and tiny lakes, of the great world with its mountains, forests and limitless oceans.

In additional to the principles of Yin and Yang, ancient Chinese architecture also followed the theories of Five Elements such as "water, fire, wood, metal and earth" or "north, south, east, west and center" or "green, yellow, red, white and black" or "coldness, heat, wind, dryness and dampness". The five elements represent the five different kinds of matter that people constantly come in contact with. For example green is the color of sprouting leaves symbolized the spring and youth, and corresponds to the east. Following this pattern, Thai Mieu palace where the shrines of the founding lords of Nguyen dynasty are housed, is located in the western side of the court while Thê Miêu palace housed the stele of the later Nguyen emperors are located in eastern side.

Minh Bui
References: The Ancient Architecture of China

Trung sisters' VR Temple ©97



Temple of Literature ©96



One Pillar Pagoda ©96





Ming Lau at Ming Mang's Mausoleum ©97



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