The earliest independent Vietnamese states grew up in the Red River flood plain, atop low hills or crouched behind sturdy embankments. First to emerge from the mists of legend was Van Lang, presided over by the Hung kings from a knob of high ground marked today by a few dynastic temples north of Viet Tri (Vinh Phu Province). Then the action moved closer to Hanoi when King An Duong ruled Au Lac (258–207 BC) from an immense citadel at Co Loa (Old Snail City). These days the once massive earthworks are barely visible and it’s really only worth stopping off here in passing, to take a look at a couple of quiet temples with an interesting history.

King An Duong built his citadel inside three concentric ramparts, spiralling like a snail shell, separated by moats large enough for ships to navigate; the outer wall was 8km long, 6–8m wide and at least 4m high, topped off with bamboo fencing. After the Chinese invaded in the late second century BC, Co Loa was abandoned until 939 AD, when Ngo Quyen established the next period of independent rule from the same heavily symbolic site. Archeologists have found rich pickings at Co Loa, including thousands of iron arrowheads, displayed here and in Hanoi’s History Museum, which lend credence to at least one of the Au Lac legends. The story goes that the sacred Golden Turtle gave King An Duong a magic crossbow made from a claw that fired thousands of arrows at a time. A deceitful Chinese prince married An Duong’s daughter, Princess My Chau, persuaded her to show him the crossbow and then stole the claw before mounting an invasion. King An Duong and his daughter were forced to flee, whereupon My Chau understood her act of betrayal and nobly told her father to kill her. When the king beheaded his daughter and threw her body in a well, she turned into lustrous, pink pearls.

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