Hanoi is a fascinating city, with endless amount of history, culture and activities to keep you engaged through your stay. It can also be chaotic, with even the act of crossing a street being quite stressful. So, if you feel the urge to take a break and seek a peaceful spot as sanctuary, there is one – the ancient Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first national university.
A bit of history
It is within the hallowed gates of the Temple of Literature that a generation of future kings, mandarins, generals and doctors trained under the watchful eyes of well-respected and informed teachers.
Dedicated to Confucius, it was built in 1070 as a place of learning, more than religion. Initially, it only accepted members of the royal family and the elite as its students. However, in time, it allowed bright students from all families to be enrolled.
A student, once enrolled, could expect to spend between three to seven years at the university. The curriculum revolved around literature, poetry and Chinese philosophy. Tests were held every month, while major tests were help four times a year. Upon completion, students could sit for the National Exam. And if they came out with flying colours, then they had an opportunity to sit for the Royal Exam, administered by the Emperor himself. Successful graduates would then have their names engraved in stelae, which were mounted on stone turtles.
The Temple of Literature finally closed its gates in 1779, when the Nguyen dynasty founded Hue as the new capital. It functioned as a school until 1906. It was at this time that the French designated it as a historical monument. Nevertheless, in more than 1,000 years of its existence, it has continued to preserve its architectural styles through dynasties, wars and disasters. Even today, the government makes every effort to maintain it, making sure that the lawns and gardens are manicured.
It is a popular destination not just for tourists, but students also, who visit and pray for good grades. It is also the perfect location for their graduation photographs. Some of the settings also seem to be perfect for couples looking for their pre-wedding shoot.
Exploring the Temple of Literature
Spread across five different courtyards, there is lots to see at the Temple of Literature. From turtles in the pond and inscriptions etched on steles, to scents of incense wafting through the air as fresh graduates pose with their graduation certificate, it is no wonder that this hallowed place is also one of Hanoi’s favourite.
The first courtyard – The great middle gate
Upon entering the temple through the main gates, you will get to the great middle gate, or Dai Trung Mon. It gets its name from two books by Confucius – Dai Ho (great learning) and Trun Dung (doctrine of the mean). It features well maintained gardens, trees and ponds.
The second courtyard – The Pavilion of Constellation
It’s called Khue Van Cac, so named after a constellation. You will immediately recognise it with its red pavilion standing on four pillars. A bell, nestled inside the pavilion, is rung on auspicious occasions. Go on, take a second look at the VND 100,000 note in your wallet.
The third courtyard – The Well of Heavenly Clarity
The third courtyard in the Temple of Literature is known as Thien Quang Tỉnh. Two halls on either side house the steles of graduates. There were originally 116 of these stelae, carved out of blue stone and in the shape of turtles. Unfortunately, only 82 remain today. Students would rub the heads of the turtles just before their exams, praying for good luck. However, to help maintain these statues, everybody is barred from touching them now.
There is also a lake in the courtyard. Get closer and you will see turtles who have made it home. Turtles are considered as holy in Vietnam, representing wisdom. Which kind of makes their presence at the Temple of Literature quite apt.
The fourth courtyard – The House of Ceremonies
It is in the House of Ceremonies that new doctors come to pray and pay their respects to generations of doctors who have graduated from this university. Lanterns hanging from wooden ceilings give this place a very colourful vibe.
A little ahead is the sanctuary to Confucius. There are altars that have been erected honouring Confucius and four of his closest disciples – Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi and Mencius.
If you are looking for souvenirs to take back with you, now may be a good time to shop around as it is also full of souvenir shops.
The fifth courtyard – The Imperial Academy
The fifth courtyard was originally the first university. It is here that students were taught by teachers from 1076. Unfortunately, immediately before the French left the country, they destroyed the courtyard. It wasn’t until 2000 that it was reconstructed as a temple on the same ground. When you walk up to the first floor, there are altars dedicated to the three emperors who made a lasting contribution to the foundation and maintenance of the university.
When you walk out, don’t miss out on the large drum and a bronze bell in the courtyard. Only monks were permitted to touch this bell.
Information you can use
While the Temple of Literature is not a religious place, it is advisable to dress modestly. It is, after all, a place of education.
Photography is allowed within the Temple of Literature, try and not disturb the monks who perform their rituals. And as always, when in doubt, ask before you click.
It is also a large place. Give yourself anywhere between an hour to two to explore all the highlights in the five courtyards. And enough time to sit and catch your breath and rest later.
The Temple of Literature is open between 8am and 5pm on all days of the week, except Saturdays.
There is an entry fee of VND 30,000 per person. Students pay only VND 15,000 while children under 15 are allowed entry free of cost.
Depending on which part of the city you are based, it’s about a 10-minute walk from Hoan Kiem lake. You can hail a metered taxi if you don’t wish to walk.