Local guide to Co Loa Citadel Hanoi

Just north of the Red River, Co Loa is worth a quick stop, mainly for historical reasons, as little remains of its former grandeur.

Local guide to Co Loa Citadel Hanoi
The Co Loa citadel was the capital of Au Lac state under An Duong Vuong in the 3rd century BC. Photo by @hang_cindypics

The first Vietnamese states arose on the Red River flood plain, atop low hills or crouched behind sturdy embankments. Van Lang was the first to emerge from the mists of legend; the Hung kings presided over a knoll of high ground north of Viet Tri (Vinh Phu province), known as the Hung Kings Temple. When King An Duong Vuong defeated the last of the Hung kings and took control of Au Lac, the action moved closer to Hanoi from an enormous citadel at Co Loa (258-207 BC) (Old Snail City).

It was the first fortified Vietnamese capital at the time. Still, today the massive earthworks are barely discernible, leaving only a few quiet temples with intriguing histories tucked away in the streets of contemporary Co Loa Citadel Hanoi.

Co Loa Temple Complex

Co Loa Citadel Hanoi, located 16 kilometers north of Hanoi's Old Quarter and dating from the 3rd century BCE, was the first fortified citadel in Vietnamese history and served as the country's capital during the reign of Ngo Quyen (939–44 CE). Only remnants of the ancient ramparts, which surrounded an area of about 5 square kilometers, remain.

Co Loa Citadel Hanoi - The oldest citadel in Vietnam. Photo by pixabay

The Co Loa Temple Complex is part of the Co Loa Citadel. Den An Duong Vuong, the main temple, faces a refurbished lake, with a graceful stele-house to one side. A sixteenth-century black-bronze statue of the king, resplendent in his double crown, resides on the main altar of the rebuilt temple. In contrast, a subsidiary altar is dedicated to Kim Quy, the Golden Turtle.

The second group of buildings is more interesting, 100m north of the archer. A large, walled courtyard houses a lovely simple open-sided hall with massive ironwood pillars and housing some archaeological finds. Den My Chau, the princess's small temple, is next door. Unfortunately, it's all new concrete, but she's still honored inside with a dumpy, armchair-shaped stone draped in embroidered finery and encrusted with jewels but devoid of a head.

History of the Co Loa Citadel

The first Vietnamese states arose in the Red River flood plain, atop low hills or crouched behind sturdy embankments. Van Lang was ruled by the Hung kings from a knoll of high ground north of Viet Tri, which is now marked by a few dynastic temples, and was the first to emerge from the mists of legend (Vinh Phu Province). The action shifted closer to Hanoi when King An Duong ruled Au Lac from an enormous citadel at Co Loa (258-207 BC) (Old Snail City). The once-massive earthworks are now barely visible, and it's only worth stopping by in passing to see a couple of quiet temples with an exciting history.

King An Duong built his citadel within three concentric ramparts spiraling like a snail shell, separated by navigable moats; the outer wall was 8km long, 6-8m wide, and at least 4m high, topped with bamboo fencing. Co Loa was abandoned after the Chinese invaded Ngo Quyen and established the next period of independent rule from the same heavily symbolic site from the late second century BC until 939 AD.

"Co Loa" means "old spiral" in the Sino-Vietnamese as the structure is built in a spiral shape. Photo by Vietnamnet

Archaeologists discovered a wealth of treasures at Co Loa, including thousands of iron arrowheads displayed here and in Hanoi's History Museum and lending credence to at least one of the Au Lac legends. According to legend, the sacred Golden Turtle bestowed upon King An Duong a magical crossbow made of a claw that fired thousands of arrows at once.

Princess My Chau, An Duong's daughter, was married to a deceitful Chinese prince who persuaded her to show him the crossbow and stole the claw before mounting an invasion. When King An Duong and his daughter were forced to flee, My Chau realized her treachery and told her father to kill her. When the king decapitated his daughter and threw her body into a well, she was transformed into lustrous, pink pearls.

The moats were part of a series of streams. Photo by vir

My Chau’s husband, a Chinese general's son, stole it and handed it over to his father. The Chinese defeated An Duong Vuong with this not-so-secret weapon, ushering in 1000 years of Chinese occupation.

What to see in Co Loa Citadel

An Duong Vuong Temple (Thuong Temple)

It is the most attractive place for visiting Co Loa Citadel Hanoi. The temple was built in 1687 during the reign of King Le Hi Tong and restored in 1893 on an old hill that once housed the king's palace.

An Duong Vuong Temple. Photo by @chriswood8713

The temple has become a typical icon of sculpture art, the stone of two dedicatedly carved dragons in front of the Le Dynasty. Ngoc well is located inside a large lake directly in front of the temple and is where Trong Thuy, according to legend, ended his life.

A bronze statue of An Duong Vuong, a statue of white and pink horses, and bronze and porcelain items are also kept inside the temple.

Co Loa Communal House

This temple was relocated from elsewhere and built at the end of the 18th century on the site of King Thuc Phan's social gatherings and community observances.

Photo by @chriswood8713

The temple's door was carved with the four sacred creatures of Vietnam (dragon, unicorn, turtle, and phoenix) and four types of common flowers (peach - chrysanthemum - bamboo - apricot). This sculpture was expertly carved and gilded, which excites and surprises visitors.

The temple's solid architecture will undoubtedly make visitors appreciate artifacts of great historical value dating back thousands of years.

Temple of My Chau Princess

This temple is also known as Princess My Chau's tomb. There is a natural stone called My Chau stone in the temple with the shape of a person without a head. According to legend, My Chau turned into a giant stone drifting to Duong Cam east of Co Loa Citadel Hanoiafter her death. The people brought the stone back by a hammock, but the stone fell on the stump of the banyan tree where the temple was later built.

In addition, on the wall of the temple, there is a horizontal lacquered board carving a Chinese characters poem by poet Chu Manh Trinh. With the legend of My Chau stone, this place has become a curiosity destination for many visitors.

Cao Lo Temple

Cao Lo, an excellent general during King Thuc Phan's reign, invented the Lien Chau crossbow and oversaw the construction of the Co Loa Citadel. As a result, this temple was built to honor his outstanding service to the country. In addition, in front of the temple, a statue of Cao Lo with crossbows was erected in the middle of the lake.

Cao Lo Temple is one of the specific destinations for many visitors to show their admiration for a brilliant and talented general when visiting Co Loa Citadel.

Co Loa Citadel Festival

The Co Loa Citadel Festival is held annually on January 6th to commemorate King An Duong Vuong's transition from highland to lowland. The community of 12 hamlets in Co Loa Citadel Hanoi and seven other regional communes organize the Co Loa Citadel Festival over ten days, from the 6th to the 16th of the first lunar month. Eight communes hold an incense offering ceremony at the sacred communal house on the festival's fifth day.

The Co Loa Citadel Festival is held annually from the 6th to the 16th of January. Photo by vina

At the same time, the most respected elder among the eight communes performs the same ritual, revising An Duong Vuong's accomplishments and merits at An Duong Vuong temple (also known as Thuong Temple).

The following day is the official festive day of the 10-day festival. On this day, a solemn procession with an incense burner and stone tablet is taken from the elder's house to the Thuong Temple, which is beautifully decorated with colorful flags. They've been painstakingly decorated in the hopes of a solemn ceremony.

In addition to the rites mentioned above, there are many exciting folk games, such as bamboo swings, wrestling, crossbow shooting, and rice cooking.

How to get Co Loa Citadel Hanoi

Following Highway 1A, crossing the Duong River bridge, turning left from Yen Vien Town to enter Highway No.3, and riding 5 kilometers further to Co Loa Citadel, you can reach the citadel by motorbike or car about 15 kilometers from Hanoi Old Quarter.

There are many ways to travel to Co Loa citadel. Photo by @chriswood8713

You can also take the bus to Co Loa Citadel to save money on transportation. Visitors can take Bus No. 46 from My Dinh area or Bus Nos. 15 and 17 from Long Bien transit station. Bus 46 from Hanoi's My Dinh Bus Station arrives every 15 minutes.

A taxi here costs around 120,000d, while xe om costs 50,000d. Cross the bridge from the Co Loa Bus Station, turn left, and walk for about 500 meters.