The Origin Of The Name Ha Noi

Dear Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Ngan,
In the music video Hue – Sai Gon – Hanoi, you said that king Minh Mang changed the name of the capital from Thang Long to Ha Noi. But you gave a different explanation about the meaning of Ha Noi. As far as I know, Ha Noi means “inside river” because Ha Noi lies in the middle of the four directions: East, South, West, North; and is surrounded by Ha Dong, Ha Nam, Ha Tay, Ha Bac.
You should amend the information so that following generations won’t have a confused understanding about history…

An excerpt from Mr. Nguyen Tran’s letter, Toronto, Canada


Thank you for your reminder. You are not the first person to raise this issue. Many audience members have expressed a disagreement with me when I said on Paris By Night music video that king Minh Mang had borrowed a name of an existing landmark in China to replace the name Thang Long. That landmark is Ha Noi.

This video was released five years ago but recently in November of 2013, when shooting Paris By Night 110 with the theme Spring in Southern California, Ms. Ky Duyen gave me a letter. Its message is similar to yours, asking me to clarify the issue, though I don’t think this is an important topic in Vietnamese history because we are only discussing a name here.

Now, I would like to respond to all my readers and audiences who took the effort to send me comments. I should have mentioned this on Paris By Night video, but it is complicated and there is not enough time to talk about it in a musical program. I don’t use internet so I depend on the media and Ms. Ky Duyen to spread this reply.

First of all, we should review a few historical highlights so readers who have not previously followed this topic can get a general understanding:

King Ly Thai To (Ly Cong Uan) passed by Dai La capital on his way to his home town in Bac Ninh from Hoa Lu capital (Ninh Binh).

“When the boat momentary halted at the capital, a golden dragon appeared on the boat, then rose up to the sky, so he decided to call the capital Thang Long (Rising Dragon).” Then the king decided to move the capital from Hoa Lu to Thang Long in 1010.

Eight hundred years later, in 1802, after unifying the nation, king Gia Long established the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty in Hue city. However, he still kept the name Thang Long, only changed the character of the word “long” which means “dragon” to a different character which means “prosperity,” the two words are homophones (in 1805).

It’s worthy to note that the Ly Dynasty chose Thang Long to be their capital was similar to how the Nguyen chose Hue as the capital. They both partly depended on the fengshui elements. In the declaration to move the capital, king Ly Thai To wrote:

“Thang Long is right in the centre of the country, in a position of crouching tiger, hidden dragon… it is easy to implement great plans and form long term strategies for the next generations.”

Similarly, king Minh Mang said in a modest manner:

“I do not dare to hope that the Nguyen Phuoc Family of mine can reign the country for more than 700 years like the Zhou Dynasty in China. I can only hope it will last for 500 years!”

Beside the belief of fengshui on the Huong River about “using the hillocks of Hen and Da Vien as Green Dragon and White Tiger to serve the capital” king Minh Mang was cautious to erase the name Thang Long, changing it entirely to Ha Noi. He did not use the name Thang Long because “long” (dragon) is the symbol of the king, and if the king was no longer there, there was no need for that land to keep the name! Moreover, king Minh Mang wanted to erase that name so his subjects would not remember previous dynasties, especially when the king had taken the throne for only two years and there was unrest in the North.

Since then, Thang Long has been changed to Ha Noi. However, the king was very wise. He waited until the period of national administrative reform in 1830 to reset provincial rules before changing the name from Thang Long to avoid being branded as being disrespectful to earlier dynasties. To be safe, based on fengshui elements, the king ordered to have Ha Noi city, which was the old capital Thang Long, lowered in status for it was not allowed to be higher than Hue capital city.

Those are some general insights regarding the name change from Thang Long to Ha Noi.

There are currently two available explanations about Ha Noi landmark:

  1. One school of thought believes that king Minh Mang used the name Ha Noi because this land lies inside the Hong River.
  2. Another opinion is that Ha Noi is an existing name of a place taken from China. I support the second opinion as you already know.

Why do I support the second opinion?

In the book called A Thousand Years Of Ha Noi, the co-authors Tran Quoc Vuong and Vu Tuan San wrote:

“Thang Long is a special and creative name because it was not taken from existing names in books and existing landmarks in the North (meaning China) as this had been done before and later, such as in the case of the name Ha Noi.”

Professor Tran Quoc Vuong was well known for his vast knowledge by readers who are keen on Vietnamese history. He has published many textbooks and much research on the subjects of Vietnamese history and geography. So did the writer Vu Tuan San. He was a senior official at the Ha Noi Museum. Both of them thought that Ha Noi is a name taken from China by king Minh Mang.

Even before reading A Thousand Years Of Ha Noi written by Tran Quoc Vuong and Vu Tuan San, I have always thought that Ha Noi was an existing name taken from China. It was common to borrow from China because Chinese culture had a great influence on Viet Nam, especially when all Vietnamese literature and scholastic materials were written in Chinese. So it is not new to take the name Ha Noi from China and import it into our country. In ZheYang, there is Thien Thai Mountain. This was the ancient hometown of our Bach Viet group. Thien Thai Mountain was the setting for the Luu Nguyen story about a man who came there to pick medicinal herbs, then got lost in the Cave of Fairies. Maybe the story was interesting so Vietnam took the name Thien Thai to name a mountain in Bac Ninh province, and another mountain in Thua Thien province. So is the name Ha Dong which is also taken from China. It is not surprising because we did use Chinese system of examination regulations to royal court organizations. It is also not surprising that we imitate a name!

As I mentioned above: When the music video Hue – Saigon – Hanoi was released, some audience members wrote articles and posted them on the internet, indicating I did not clearly understand the words Ha Noi. They reminded me of some facts, similar in content as the mail sent by Mr. Nguyen Tran, to which I am replying to.

To be honest, the explanation given by Mr. Nguyen Tran, similar to some articles posted on the internet, is very reasonable and persuasive at first glance. Ha Noi lies in the middle, surrounded by Ha Dong, Ha Nam, Ha Tay and Ha Bac. It is clear and reasonable, how can anyone argue otherwise! A woman in Texas, in an anxious mood, cut the article and sent it to me, reproaching: “Mr. Ngan should do his homework more carefully!”

I would like to say that, of course I have read many articles that explained the name Ha Noi as “the land inside river”. Those articles mostly depended on definitions in a Chinese-Vietnamese dictionary, namely, the Nguyen Dynasty’s dictionary The author, Vo Huong An, clearly defined:

“The province situated between Hong River and Day River, so king Minh Mang named it Ha Noi” (not imitating an existing place in China as being told).”

Of course, everyone knows that Ha means “river” and Noi means “inside”. Combining the two words will render the meaning “inside river”. However, in my opinion, combining words to name a province in that way is forceful. For example, Ky Duyen is a name, but putting it in context of the Vietnamese-Chinese dictionary, then Ky means bizarre. Duyen means grace. However, one can’t simply say: Because that lady has a bizarre grace so she is named Ky Duyen. Ky Duyen is one name and the two words can not be separated.

The same applies to Ha Noi. Ha Noi is a name. Separately, Ha means “river” and Noi means “inside”. But the two words cannot be separated. It is not a compound word like Dai Noi, Thanh Noi or Quoc Noi.

When king Ly Thai To wrote the declaration of capital relocation, he clearly explained that the event of the dragon rising to the sky was the reason for naming the capital as Thang Long. As to why king Minh Mang chose the name Ha Noi to replace Thang Long, I have not read the declaration of the king or any record written by his courtiers, documenting the king’s explanation indicating name Ha Noi as “inside river.” Moreover, in daily expressions we normally say “inside the house, inside the garden, inside the capital, inside the cage…” but we have never heard “inside the river” because it sounds strange in Vietnamese. When we hear the words “Dai Noi, Thanh Noi or Quoc Noi” we can imagine it is inside a particular area. Inside the capital (thanh noi), in the country (quoc noi), it is clear in Vietnamese and everyone can understand the terms immediately. But “inside the river” sounds strange and awkward in Vietnamese! A land lying inside the river, as defined in the dictionary of the Nguyen Dynasty, is not called the land “in the river”! When mentioning river, we would usually say either the right side of the river and the left side or this side and the other. For example, the book Dan Toi Nuoc Toi (My Countrymen My Land) recorded: “Ha Noi lies on the right side of the Hong River.” Or the Chinese-Vietnamese dictionary of Nguyen Lam recorded: “Ha Noi is a province situated beside Hong River.” It is simple and clear!

King Minh Mang is one of the cleverest kings of the Nguyen Dynasty. He composed five volumes of poetry and two volumes of prose. It is hard to believe that a well-versed person like that would use the word “noi” (inside) to name a city lying between the two rivers.

Of course, there are cases when a territory is divided into two parts and people use the word Noi (inside) and Ngoai (outside) for easy differentiation. For example, Noi Mong (inner Mongolia), Ngoai Mong (outer Mongolia) in China, or in Vietnam when talking about the Thanh region, we usually say Thanh noi or Thanh ngoai. In the book called A Glorious Past, Nguyen Tuan wrote: “Cai Xanh is a famous player across many inner and outer Thanh areas”. In a smaller scale, there are villages such as Vinh An, which is divided by a large road. Half of it is densely populated, was formed a long time ago and was called Vinh An Noi. The other half is called Vinh An Ngoai, which is newly developed, less populated and closer to the field. But we should note that in all these cases, though both words Noi and Ngoai are used, neither of them stand alone! Following this way of naming, if there is Ha Noi then, to be rational, there must be a Ha Ngoai.

Maybe, the name Ha Noi does mean “inside river” and was not borrowed from China. However, I must see some documents detailing the declaration of king Minh Mang in order to believe it. For example, the declaration of the king might say: “I am standing here, looking at the Hong River, I see how this land lies inside the river, so from now on I name it Ha Noi.”

I look forward to reading a similar document. Then I will amend my previous statement. But until now I haven’t read anything like that! People who support this idea, like Mr. Nguyen Tran, could not give any document to prove the king’s intended meaning. Even in the dictionary of the Nguyen Dynasty, explaining Ha Noi as inside river, couldn’t provide any foundation for its conclusion.

Everyone knows that in China, there are places with names similar to Vietnam’s, such as Thai Nguyen, Son Dong, Kien An, Ha Dong, Ha Noi, Son Tay, Ha Nam, Truong Sa, Tuc Mac, Thien Thai… This can be coincidental or borrowed from China because in the past, Vietnam considered China as the celestial empire, all things from China were nice and beautiful. Ha Noi is one of those cases, considering king Minh Mang respected the Chinese royalty very much. When arriving to Hue from Thang Long to receive the crowning ceremony given by the Qing Chao Dynasty in 1821, an event king Minh Mang organized with grandeur. The king brought with him a delegation that included royal relatives, court officials and troops totalling 6,936 people! The Qing Chao ambassador did not ask for such! This was done solely on the king’s voluntary decision to treat the Qing Chao ambassador with utmost hospitality for 33 days and nights! It is not surprising if a person, who was so fond of China like him, took a name from China and used it in our country.

Mr. Nguyen Tran,

Back to your letter. If you wrote: “Ha Noi” means ‘inside river’ then stopped, and didn’t explain further, it would be better. However, you then added: “Because Ha Noi lies in the middle of the four directions: East, West, South, North and is surrounded by Ha Dong, Ha Tây, Ha Nam, Ha Bac.”

Adding this part makes your argument less convincing! In fact, it destroys the foundation of your argument because in reality, the four places you mentioned have neither connection with Ha Noi or to the Hong River for that matter!

1. First of all, king Minh Mang named Ha Noi in 1831. Not until 1904, more than 70 years later after king Minh Mang died, that the French formed Ha Dong province, which was previously known as Cau Do. Obviously, in Chinese, we all know that Ha means river, Dong means east. But on the map, we can easily see that Ha Dong lies west of the Hong River, not east. This means the name Ha Dong has nothing to do with Hong River. It is an existing name in China, and was taken to name a province in the northern part of our country like I’ve mentioned above!

In the book called “Handbook Of Geographical Sites In Vietnam,” senior scholar Dinh Xuan Vinh, who was praised by the entire Vietnamese intellectual society for his historical research projects, wrote about Ha Dong as follows:

“Maybe, those who named this province (Ha Dong) did it because this province is a sophisticated land like Ha Dong in China. (Our city of Ha Dong is the hometown of many outstanding historical and literature figures like Chu Van An, Bui Huy Bich, Nguyen Phi Khanh, Ngo Thoi Nhiem, Nguyen Trai…)

One minor detail should be mentioned here to avoid any misunderstanding: Huang He River in China flows from the North to the South, passing by Son Tay Province, and the land in the East of this river is called Ha Dong, made famous by the idiom “Ha Dong lioness” by a person named Su Dong Po, who used it to tease his friend who was henpecked. Therefore, the Ha Dong situated in China does truly lie east of Huang He River. The Ha Dong in Vietnam lies west of the Hong Ha River.

Regarding the land named Ha Dong in Vietnam, another idea explains: Perhaps the name Cau Do (in ancient Vietnamese script) sounds too “crude” so Confucian scholars in the area wanted to replace it with a nicer name while recalling an excerpt from a book written by Mencius: “When Ha Noi is in danger, evacuate citizens to Ha Dong.” Based on this sentence, Ha Noi and Ha Dong must be near each other, in protective position of each other. Therefore, the elders changed the name Cau Do to Ha Dong which lies next to Ha Noi, but is situated west of the Hong River (according to the book called Ha Noi, The First Half of The 20th Century, written by Nguyen Van Uan).

2. Ha Tay obviously has no relation with Hong river since Ha Tay is the combined name of two provinces Ha Dong and Son Tay. Because of its small area, in 1963 Son Tay was split by the Northern government, half of it merged into Ha Noi, the rest was merged into Ha Dong and since then it was called Ha Tay.

3. Similarly, Ha Nam, formed by the French in 1890, existed for more than twenty years, and was merged into Nam Dinh province. In 1963, it merged into Ninh Binh province and was named Ha Nam Ninh.

4. Lastly, Ha Bac was formed by the merging of Bac Ninh and Bac Giang provinces in 1963. It existed for a short time, then was split again, but retained the previous name, the name Ha Bac ceased to exist.

So, citing Ha Dong, Ha Tay, Ha Nam, Ha Bac to support Ha Noi is not a firm argument, let alone, totally erroneous.

I had discussed the name Ha Noi which I said on Paris By Night music video five years ago, but until now, there are still many who want to raise questions. In fact, I gave the answer in my book Stage Memories, published in 2010. Perhaps there must be people who haven’t read it, and continue to ask me to explain.

Dear readers,

I repeat this very often, not everything I say is true. In this life, God gives no one that special bequest! When discussing scientific or mathematic issues, there is no need to argue because it is clear and specific as 2 plus 2 equal 4, or about historical events which are as clear as Le Loi defeated the Ming troops, Quang Trung defeated the Qing troops. There is simply no doubt! But concerning knowledge of humanity, philosophy or personal thoughts, the line between right and wrong is very relative. What I said is only an opinion, a suggestion, but not an everlasting truth.

When I say something, I always try to verify it based on supporting documents with proper reasoning, never based on presumption or perception. And because I base on documents, there are things I think that are right at the moment, but can become wrong tomorrow when new documents are discovered. Such as when we were children, we all learned “Vietnam has four thousand years of history.” However, recently, thanks to the discovery of the book Brief History Of Viet Nam, written in the 13th century, scholars now know that king Hung founded the country about 700 BC, around the same time king Zhuang of Zhou reigned China. It means counting from the time king Hung founded the nation until now, our historical existence is only 2,700 years, not 4000 years as previously taught.

Maybe in the future, other reliable historical documents will be found and the number 2,700 years will no longer withhold!

To end this article, I cite a paragraph which I wrote in my book Stage Memories, on page 212 as follows:

“The noble purpose of debating always is to find the truth, and never about winning or losing. In order to achieve that, people taking parts in a debate must be objective and composed, and most importantly, they must get rid of the shallow prejudice that they are always right even before the debate gets started!”

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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