Growing up, I’ve always had a soft spot for literature. I was a sucker for stories and I lapped them up when I had the chance, reading whatever I can get my hands on. At that time, I loved it as much as I loathed Maths. (The fact that I ended up in a profession involving numbers is beside the point.) The library is the closest thing that we can have to a place-dedicated-to-literature. I swear, if my country had something that’s also called a “temple of literature”, you’d have probably found me there. Worshipping. Daily.
But then again, if it were anything like what the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam turned out to be, I don’t think I’d be as worshipful as I’d thought. Instead of myths and lore involving fantastical characters and stories, it’s more of a scholarly structure.
If you have a 100,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) banknote with you, the back of the bill features this temple.
The Temple of Literature
Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam, of the Temple of Literature, is essentially two things: a Confucian temple (Van Mieu) and the first ever national university of Vietnam (the “Imperial Academy” or Quoc Tu Giam).
It was first built in 1070 as a temple and, since then, has undergone several restorations especially after sustaining damage brought on by disasters and wars.
Not long after, in 1076, the Emperor established the national university (Vietnam’s first), meant to exclusively cater to the mandarin class, which means the sons and daughters of Vietnam’s nobles, royalty and other elite members of the society at the time.
When another imperial academy was founded in 1802 in Hue, this university lost its clout as the university-to-be-in-if-you’re-rich-or-powerful and eventually turned into a regular school.
Today, it is known to be one of the finest architectural and cultural sites in Vietnam, not just in Hanoi. And if everyone puts it that way, then we should most definitely check it out, shouldn’t we? Besides, I was expecting some mythical elements to be there, to hopefully reawaken my dormant literature-loving self.
After checking out the Ho Chi Minh Museum, we followed the map we snagged from the hotel and walked to where the Temple of Literature is. It is open from 8:30 to 11:30 and then from 1:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. So we managed to grab some lunch nearby before going to the Temple in time for their afternoon opening.
The complex measures 54,331 sq meters and wholly enclosed by a brick wall. The brick walls aren’t that high, however, because at some point, when we were at the far end, some kids were just jumping over the wall, in and out.
Apparently, the layout mimics of the temple in Qufu, Shandong, where Confucius was born. One of its distinct features is having five courtyards, with one courtyard leading to another.
Your visit begins at the Great Gate, the main entrance to the Temple. You have to pay 10,000 VND (Php 25.00 or USD0.50) per person to be able to enter. You’ll get an English brochure along with the entrance ticket.
The First Courtyard
The Great Gate opens into the First Courtyard three pathways to get into the interior of the Temple. The left and right pathways are for the administrative Mandarins and bureaucrats. The middle pathway is where the King will walk.
Check out that middle pathway. I bet it looks pretty in the evenings during festival time when it’s all lit up.
The well-manicured lawns also featured animal topiaries of the animals of the zodiac, if I’m not mistaken.
Supposedly, the gardens in the First Courtyard served as a peaceful haven where the scholars relaxed and seek some solace from the hustle and bustle outside the Temple walls.
The First Courtyard ends with a gate that is divided into 3 smaller gates, following the order of entrance of the pathways.
The middle gate is the Dai Trung, or the “Great Middle” gate. The left gate is Dai Tai Mon (“Attained Talent”) while the right gate is the Thanh Duc Mon (“Accomplished Virtue”).
The Second Courtyard
The Second Courtyard is another area with well-trimmed lawns and even more topiaries. You can say this is another one of the gardens where the scholars of old “hung out”.
Its main point of interest is the Khue Van Can or the Khue Van Pavilion. Another famous structure symbolic of Hanoi, it has four stilts holding up a red pavilion with circular roofs and an elaborate roof. The guidebook says there’s a bronze bell inside. The windows are opened during special occasions when the bell has to be rung.
Once you pass under the Pavilion, you will find yourself in the Third Courtyard.
The Third Courtyard
I thought it qualified more as a pond, but apparently, it is a “well”. In fact, it is called Thien Quang Tinh or the Thien Quang Well. It translates to “Well of Heavenly Clarity”. Seeing how serene it was, I see why it’s a favorite spot for those who want some quiet and introspective time.
On both sides of the Well are long structures which are described as “great halls that house the treasures of the Temple.”
The treasures come in the form of the 82 steles or called the “Doctors’ Stelae”. This is my first encounter with these tablet-like objects. Originally, there were supposed to be 116 steles but the other 34 were lost over time.
Basically, they are stone tablets that sit upon stone tortoises (and if you’ve read my previous Hanoi blog posts, you’d have come across the reason why tortoises or turtles are such an important figure in their culture, history and even faith.
Presumably, to protect these steles from being damaged by the elements, they were placed under an elaborate roof and a fence.
On these tablets or steles are carved or inscribed with the names and places of birth of 1306 Doctors. By Doctors, I don’t mean the medical ones that cut you open; they are the men who took the three-times-a-year examinations at this National University from 1484 to 1780 and were awarded doctorates after passing the exams.
The Fourth Courtyard
The Fourth Courtyard is separated from the Third Courtyard by the Dai Thanh Mon or Dai Thanh (“Great Synthesis”) gate. Again, it has two other gates flanking its sides. On the left is the Kim Thanh Mon (“Golden Sound”) while on the right is the Ngoc Chan Mon (Jade Vibration).
The Fourth Courtyard is described as a ceremonial courtyard, with a wide area in the middle where various activities and ceremonies may be held. But on both sides are halls that house the altars of the 72 most revered disciples of Confucius.
This long building at the end of the Courtyard is the main ceremonial hall. It is called the Dai Bai Duong or the House of Ceremonies.
At that time, there was a group of students doing a rite of some sort, complete with some drum-playing and a whole lot of chanting/praying.
Right behind the House of Ceremonies is the building Dai Thanh sanctuary, where you will find the altars to Confucius and his 4 closest disciples Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi and Mencius.
Seeing the offerings, some were quite interesting and others made me go, “…whaaaa….?” Cans of beer? Seriously? Wow.
Oh well, wine is often an offering so perhaps that’s a spin….? *shrugs*
The Fifth Courtyard
At the very end of the Temple is the Fifth (and last) Courtyard, the site of the founded national university. In short, this is where the actual learning took place. In 2000, the Thai Hoc Courtyard was constructed on the site of the old national university.
Today, the Courtyard boasts the front building, the rear building, the left building, the right building, a bell house, and a drum house.
The first structure that will meet your eyes once you enter the gates is the Thai Hoc Vien or Thai Hoc House.
This also clearly doubles as a museum, with panels and displays set up for viewing by visitors. Like this giant stele that explains the significance of, well, steles, particularly on Vietnam’s academia and cultural heritage as a whole.
There was even a couple of ladies playing music on traditional musical instruments. It had that distinct twanging sound of the strings that I first encountered at great length in the Water Puppet Theater performance we watched the day before.
At the time, the rector of the National University (or Imperial Academy) was Chu Van An, who was honored almost as much as Confucius himself. His altar is a central point of interest inside the building.
There were displays all around the inside of the building, such as the uniforms of the students, their learning and writing tools, and even some manuscripts. Check out this miniature layout of the Temple of Literature enclosed in glass.
On the second floor of the House are altars dedicated to Ly Thanh Tong, Ly Nhan Tong, and Le Thanh Tong. They are the three emperors that made the Temple of Literature become the institution that it is today.
Ly Thanh Tong founded the Temple.
Ly Nhan Tong founded the University.
Le Thanh Tong was the one who had the Doctors’ Stelae erected. All 116 of them.
On average, students of the Academy studied there for 5 years – 3 years as shortest, with 7 years being the longest. Most of the students resided at the Temple, and so the building was constructed for their habitation.
Aside from the classrooms, there were dormitories specifically made for the students, as well as a storehouse.
I am greatly fascinated by the roof design. FYI, they are made mostly from wood and tiles. The result was quaint yet elegant at the same time.
I imagine this bronze bell to be rung to signal the beginning and end of a learning day.
On the other side, on the drum house, is a giant wooden drum that is banged on, perhaps for meal times? Or taps? I told you, I sometimes like to imagine stuff.
Today, of course, the place no longer operates as a school, but it is still the choice site or venue for various cultural and scientific activities, or when they are honoring or celebrating the talents of the country.
Stepping back out of the Temple of Literature, it made me appreciate the dedication of the Vietnamese in preserving their relics. And it did not even have to have heavy religious implications or an attachment with deity for them to put so much effort into preserving it and caring for it.
There were no fantastical creatures or tales to speak of (goes to show how little I know of literature, haha!) but it was a very informative tour. And a relaxing one, too. Walking around on the gardens in the middle of a hot and humid summer day can take quite a toll on you, but it felt like we were in the middle of nature while we were inside the four walls.
And it did not end there, because there was a park right across the road. We saw the gate was open, and there seemed to be no entrance fee, so we went right in. There was a guard, but he did nothing to stop us from entering.
This time, the topiary work on the garden was on a larger scale.
There were some who were hard at work trimming the bushes and lawns and even painstakingly going through the undergrowth. The smell of fresh grass being mowed was strong in the air and, oddly, it was refreshing.
The park had its own pond, where dog owners walk and exercise their dogs. There were even a couple of old men sitting there, fishing.
Now I see why this Temple is one of the most visited tourist spots in Hanoi. In my opinion, it gave off academic vibes more than anything religious or sacred. What I loved most about it, however, is how, within the walls,