Ho Citadel (Thành Nhà Hồ)

Last updated  October 2015 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


Sheltering under the citadel gatesDesignated a World Heritage site in 2011, Ho Citadel [MAP] still doesn’t receive many foreign visitors. Built at the end of the 14th century, the inner walls and four main gates of the citadel are still standing. Called Thành Nhà Hồ in Vietnamese, the complex is surrounded by a fertile rural landscape. The walls are overgrown with creepers and grass, but still make an impressive sight rising from the rice fields. Vietnamese farmers go about their work, both outside and inside the citadel grounds; sitting down to rest in the shade of its arched gates during the hottest part of the day. The grand royal ruins and the agricultural work going on around it, remind me of sketches by Piranesi of Rome in the 18th century, when Italy was rediscovering its past, just as Vietnam is doing today.

Main (south) gateThe main (south) gate at Ho Citadel

Ho Citadel dates from 1397, when Vietnam was in a state of transition from the Trần Dynasty to the Hồ Dynasty. Hồ Qúy Ly, founder of the Hồ Dynasty, moved the capital from Thăng Long (present day Hanoi) and renamed Vietnam (then known as Đại Việt) to Đại Ngu, which means Land of Eternal Peace. However, the peace didn’t last long, as a Ming invasion from China in 1407 led to the occupation of Đại Ngu and the defeat of Ho Citadel, along with the dynasty that constructed it. One of Vietnam’s most celebrated heroes, Lê Lợi, fought a guerilla war against the Chinese, finally kicking them out and regaining independence in 1427. From then on, Ho Citadel became a centre of culture and was used by several royal dynasties as a fort, before losing its status in the 18th century.

The north gateThe north gate at Ho Citadel

A buffalo bathes within the citadel wallsI’ve visited Ho Citadel several times. I enjoy its abandoned feel and the work that goes on in the fields around it; farmers apparently oblivious that their crops grow in the midst of a former royal capital. The setting is very pleasant, and local people are exceptionally polite and warm. Perhaps this has something to do with the principles of feng shui (‘geomancy’ or ‘phong thủy’ in Vietnamese) which dictated where the citadel should be situated. Built within the ‘V’ shape formed by the convergence of two rivers, the Mã and Bưởi, Ho Citadel is surrounded on all sides by several small hills, while the land immediately around the structure is a flat, fertile plain. Whatever the subtleties and mysteries of feng shui it certainly has some practical benefits too: the large rivers both had ports which could serve the citadel and they allowed access both to the ocean in the east and the forests and mountains in the west. The hills provided protection and their limestone was quarried to build the citadel and other structures. The outer walls, which still exist a couple kilometres from the citadel, linked with the rivers and hills to form a protective boundary of water and earth. The flat plain within the outer walls could be used to grow crops and feed the population.

Hallowed ground: chosen for its positive feng shuiHallowed ground: the site of Ho Citadel was chosen for its positive feng shui

No crowds at the east gateLocated near the town of Vĩnh Lộc in Thanh Hóa Province, Ho Citadel can be reached by several rural back-roads [MAP]. Although the enclosure is very large (close to 1km2) it’s not immediately visible, especially if you arrive at either the north, east or west gates (the south gate being the main entrance). From some positions the wall is so overgrown it’s almost indistinguishable from the farmland it abuts. The main entrance (10,000vnđ) is through the south gate, where there are guides available and a small museum. The latter tries very hard – with English language labels and information boards – but doesn’t amount to much more that bits and pieces of pottery, cannonballs, bricks and tiles. The other gates also have small ticket offices, but most of the ticket inspectors seem to be either asleep or drunk and drowsy. If you avoid weekends and public holidays chances are you’ll have the whole citadel to yourself, making you feel as though you’re the first foreigner to have stumbled upon these imperial ruins.

Bringing hay through the north gateBringing hay through the north gate at Ho Citadel

Fortified: bricks of the inner citadel wallEnter the enclosure through the impressive and sturdy-looking arches at any of the four gates. You can walk, drive or cycle through the arches into the citadel and all around the perimeter of the walls. Inside the complex there are acres of rice fields and lotus ponds, still bisected by pathways according to the layout of the old citadel streets; buffalo, oxen and farmers go about the harvest on what was once the royal road. The walls and gates are easily climbed – there’s nothing to suggest this is not allowed – and you can walk around the entire citadel like this if you choose. The walls are made of mighty stone blocks almost a metre in length, and it’s difficult to see how they could ever have been breached. There are other sites from this period in the area, including Nam Giao Altar, used for heaven worship. It can get very humid inside the citadel complex, even as thunder rumbles all around.

Ho Citadel is a quiet, pretty, intriguing and bizarre site, and one that ties in nicely if you are on the Limestone Loop (read more HERE) or the Ho Chi Minh Road (read more HERE). Although the ruins are not spectacular, the absence of fanfare and the informality of a visit to Ho Citadel is a breath of fresh air when compared to historical sites in Europe.

Working on the harvest under the citadel walls

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Ho Citadel, Thanh Hoa Province: 

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6 Responses to Ho Citadel (Thành Nhà Hồ)

  1. Thank you so much for your blog and information. We’re doing the HCM highway route from Hanoi to Saigon on trikes (www.cycle.cat) and we took your advice on visiting the Ho Citadel. It was amazing! I will keep reading it to find more recommendations along our route.

  2. […] Ho Citadel: 15th century ruins in a pastoral landscape […]

  3. […] written a piece about the citadel which I will publish tomorrow on Vietnam Coracle (read more HERE). Needless to say that’s what I spent the afternoon doing, back in Cam […]

  4. Great work, Tom. Both the text and pictures are wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the comparison with Piranesi!

    • Thanks, Sam.
      It’s an enchanting place. As for Piranesi, I’ve always wanted to be one of those figures roaming around, leading cattle over fallen Corinthian columns – it’s almost like that at Ho Citadel today 🙂

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