Báo Thiên Tower is one of the four famous sacred objects in the history of Việt Nam along with the Quy Điền bell, the Phổ Minh cauldron and the Buddha Di Lặc (Maitreya) statue. The tower clearly appears in a map of the Trung Đô citadel in the time of Hồng Đức (1490).
About Báo Thiên Tower
“In the summer of 1056, Sùng Khánh Báo Thiên Pagoda was constructed; some 12,000 kilograms of bronze were used to cast the bell, and the king was in charge of the work.”Báo Thiên Tower was located in the area now called Nhà Thờ Lớn (theGreat Church), at the intersection of Nhà Chung and Lý Quốc Sư Streets in Hoàn Kiếm District. It was built in two years during the reign of King Lý Thánh Tông along with the Báo Thiên Pagoda and was one of the grandest historical architectural works of its time. The Complete History of the Đại Việt Kingdomsays:
“In the spring of 1057 the 12-storey Đại Thắng Tư Thiên Tower was built.”
According to historians, the 80 meter high tower had a base of stone and brick and each floor had four doors; the doors at the top of the tower were made of bronze. Inside the tower there were several stone statues of immortals, humans, and other creatures set on platforms. There were few tall buildings in the capital at the time and the tower could be seen from many kilometers outside the city. The famous Trần Dynasty poet, Phạm Sư Mạnh, recited in front of the tower:
The tower watches the whole country;
It stands alone on the earth.
Because of its height and its upper storeys containing heavy bronze it was inevitable that it would be damaged by rain and lightning storms. Indeed, the Complete History of the Đại Việt Kingdom records that 168 years later, in the reign of Trần Thái Tông, “In the autumn of 1225, the peak of the tower fell because of a storm.”
In 1322, at the time of King Trần Minh Tông, it also says that an eastern corner of the tower collapsed in March.
In the early 15th century Ming troops invaded Đại Việt and Lê Lợi took up arms in Lam Sơn-Thanh Hóa to protect the capital, Đông Quan (Thăng Long-Hà Nội). He succeeded after nearly ten years of victories but at a significant cultural cost. As it is recorded in history:
“In the winter of 1426, because of the crushing defeat in Tốt Động west of the capital, Wang Tong’s troops suffered a shortage of weapons; therefore, they destroyed the Quy Điền bell and the Phổ Minh cauldron in order to manufacture weapons and flame-throwers.”
The Complete History of the Đại Việt Kingdom does not say that Commander Wang Tong ordered his troops to destroy the Báo Thiên Tower and take the bronze to make weapons, yet it seems probable that he took the bronze but did not destroy the tower. The Complete History of the Đại Việt Kingdom says that, 121 years later in the reign of Mạc Thúc Nguyên, “the Báo Thiên Tower collapsed in the spring of 1547.”
Báo Thiên Tower lasted for 500 years from 1056 to its collapse in 1547. In 1791, in the period of Tây Sơn (Nguyễn Nhạc), bricks from the tower with the line “Lý Gia đệ tam đế Long Thuỵ Thái Bình tứ niên tạo” were used to repair the citadel and the tower and the pagoda became ruins.
In 1873, French troops attacked Hà Nội for the first time. According to a book about Hà Nội, 1873-1888, by the French writer Andre Masson, a few years later Bishop Puginnier “decided to replace the small church that had been burned by a much larger church” so “he looked for a good place near the missionary (Nhà Chung), and he chose the area of Báo Thiên Pagoda.” With the help of the provincial chief of Hà Nội, the bishop sought out the heir to the pagoda and checked out the structure of the tower. He said that the tower had to be torn down for safety reasons and eventually the land was delivered to the priest. The church was begun in 1884 with money from the initial sale of 10,000 lottery tickets, donations from the public, and a second lottery. Three years later the work was finished and on Christmas Eve of 1887 the new Great Church (Nhà Thờ Lớn) was inaugurated.