The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam is something the Vietnamese are very proud of. It was founded almost 1000 years ago as a Confucian temple, but in 1076 Vietnam's first university was founded here also. Obviously only the elite and privileged studied here. There has been much reconstruction and parts added on since then, and I did find it unclear as to which parts were original and how far back some parts were built.
The Temple is located within a closed off green area, you enter on Quoc Tu Giam, so if you walk from Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum as we did, then you will find you are at the wrong end of the park and will then need to walk round it. It is actually a longer walk than on the map so I suggest getting a taxi or cyclo here. When you get to the enterance you will see the usual assortment of water and postcard sellers will be around (although hardly any motorbike taxis or cyclos when you want to return). The admission fee is nominal - about VND6000 (£0.20 or US$0.30) and guide books are available. We didn't purchase one, but the signage within most Vietnamese attractions being poor, we probably would have got more out of the visit with one than without, as for the most part we were unsure what we were looking at with only our Rough Guide to Vietnam to help us. The Temple is divided into five sections, divided up by gates of varied attractiveness. The first two sections are attractive, tranquil, manicured gardens with topiary. They were very peaceful and a pleasant haven from the bustle of Hanoi outside the walls.
We saw a few people taking time out to write their journal or postcards or just relax within the further courtyards (where there are stone steps lending themselves to seating as well as some shade from the heat). The third courtyard was probably the most photographed, with a more attractive gate (Khue Van Cac) to enter it, the centre contains a large rectangular pond, called the Well of Heavenly Clarity, around here are buildings containing old tortoise stelae, some dating back to the late fifteenth century, when candidates that were successful in the apparently extremely tough examinations had their names carved. Across the fourth courtyard, which is comparatively plain, is a ceremonial hall of some sort where there are some sculptures on Confucian disciples and a bronze giraffe standing on a tortoise, which I didn't understand the purpose or significance of. The final section contains a small museum relating to the temple and university.
Whilst the tranquillity and Chinese style architecture are lovely, I did feel I didn't get the best out of the Temple. I would advise going with a guide or a detailed guide book to get the best out of the experience. We were here about 30 minutes in total, but I think you could spend a lot longer if you understood what each section was better whilst there.
The Vietnamese are not city builders, and one should not look for the great architectural monuments that would be found in a Western capital city. Furthermore, the Temple of Literature was (accidentally) damaged by the French in 1947, and what the visitor sees in a modern reconstruction. It is, however, perhaps the single attraction in Hanoi that best shows the character of Vietnam and its people, who have preserved this monument to scholarship for almost a thousand years. The Royal College here was founded more than 950 years ago, which makes it earlier than the oldest European university. Two inscribed stones on either side of the entrance command the visitor to dismount: even emperors entered on foot, to symbolise the primacy of learning over worldly authority.
To enjoy your visit, do not expect a historic building; instead, enter into the spirit of the place and follow the symbolic journey; everything here is representative of your spiritual path towards wisdom. Once through the entrance gate, the path runs straight between two pools to symbolise the Confucian Middle Way. The gates into the next courtyard are those of virtue and talent; the carved stone carp represent the difficult journey upstream to reach your goal. Once through the gates, admire the stone stele, each some eight feet tall, bearing the names of the successful examination candidates, and enjoy some welcome shelter from the sun. The stele surround the Well of Heavenly Purity, which represents the purity of knowledge. Each stele is set atop a turtle, one of the four sacred animals and symbolic of eternity: learning lasts forever. The examinations were competitive and started at local level, so in theory anyone could aspire to sit the doctoral examination in Hanoi and, if successful, become a mandarin. There were some 2,500 doctoral degrees awarded in over 700 years. No dumbing down here. Since the goal of the Confucian scholar was not self-advancement but learning for its own sake, some successful candidates declined the mandarinate and lived quietly in the country.
Pass, at last, through the Gate of Great Success, to reach the Confucian Temple. Confucianism (arguably not a religion but a philosophical path) remains as popular in modern Vietnam as it was in the days of the emperors. The Vietnamese respect for learning has survived centuries and many changes of government. Along with respect for ancestors it is one of the chief characteristics of Vietnamese culture.
There is a small gift shop, where we picked up some carved wooden turtles as presents. There are also interesting short books in English about Vietnamese history and culture.
The temple of Literature, Hanoi.
One of the oldest temples in Vietnam is the temple of Literature which was in fact a Confucian temple built in 1070 and was Vietnam's first university. It was built to teach and educate the élite of society. It was used as a university from 1076 up to 1779.
The examinations here were very difficult indeed so there are not many people who obtained degrees. If they had done they would have had their names engraved on stone pillars called Steles which contains the engraved name of 1306 names of those students fortunate enough to pass their doctorates. The crown princes would be educated here.
You enter the temple through a magnificent archway the central arch being that for the emperor. On top of the archway there is another set of arches with a typical looking Chinese roof curling up at each corner with a dragon.
The temple is made up of five courtyards and through the temple there are three pathways the centre pathway was reserved exclusively for the Emperor, the pathway to the left was for the Emperors advisors and senior courtiers and the right hand pathway was reserved for the military.
Each of the courtyards are peaceful havens in which to read and study and one of them is surrounded by miniature trees akin to bonsai trees. Surprisingly within the walls of the temple it is very peaceful and you feel as if you are miles away from the madness of Hanoi within the protected walls of the temple. You could be in the middle of the countryside if it were not for the reminders of the taller buildings outside the temple walls.
Inside the third courtyard there is a large square pond with an elaborate stone wall carving surrounding it in front of the great hall. The pond is called the well of heavenly clarity. On both sides of the pond are pavilions containing the stele with the engraved names of the students which are blocks of stone on the back of tortoises.
The great hall is red inside and there are lots of ornaments and bureaux elaborately carved containing pens and writing instruments. The walls and pillars in the hall are decorated with fine art work or carvings in the wood. Once you have entered the great hall you come out into the fourth compound where there are two other large halls or pavilions on either side of the square. This is where most of the scholars studied.
Towards the rear of the temple are two massive structures containing a big drum and the other a massive bell. You are allowed to bang on the bell with the aid of a massive log which is swung on ropes.
There is a beautiful temple in the centre of the fourth courtyard and it was here that we took the opportunity to sit and relish the peace and quiet of the temple of Literature and watched the local people strolling in the park like grounds. It was very amusing to see people taking little bird cages around with them taking their birds for their daily walk. Here you can see people practising a form of Tai Chi.
There was a fifth courtyard that contained a university imperial academy
but it was destroyed by French bombing in 1947.
The temple is no longer used as a university but it is well kept and a beautiful historical place to visit and well worth it for the peace and tranquillity in the middle of a very busy and phrenetically paced City. I enjoyed the peace and calmness of the temple and would recommend it highly to anyone who visits Hanoi.