Hanoi’s Quoc Tu Giam – The Temple of Literature
A MEMORIAL TO EDUCATION IN VIETNAM | Sharon Henry
When the bustle of Hanoi city becomes too overwhelming, an excellent place to visit for quick respite is Quoc Tu Giam, the Temple of Literature.
One of the many things we love about Hanoi is most of the city’s attractions are within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. From our hotel the Temple of Literature was a 15 minute walk through scooters, street vendors and skinny buildings.
That cacophony of street life in Hanoi, however, seemed to magically evaporate upon entering the temple’s gateway, which led into a leafy courtyard, and seemingly another world.
First University In Vietnam
From the onset you can’t help feeling a sense of awe that 1,000 years ago, before some countries were even discovered, Vietnam was building its first university. The Quoc Tu Giam was constructed in 1070 and is one of Vietnam’s most significant historic sites with relics recognised by UNESCO.
We realised from our first day in Hanoi, speaking to the many young people who approached us to practise English, that the Vietnamese hold education in high regard.
Amongst our fellow visitors to the Temple of Literature that day were families with young children, perhaps instilling from an early age the value of education.
Students to Quoc Tu Giam were first admitted in 1076, of royalty and the aristocracy (Mandarins). They were taught Confucianism the ‘ethical behaviour of a gentleman,’ a theory founded by Chinese philosopher, Confucius to whom the temple is dedicated. Courses covered literature, poetry, calligraphy and mathematics and the exams were said to be notoriously difficult.
Educational Good Luck Traditions
The university closed in 1779 and is now a memorial to education and literature. Students often travel here from across the country for good luck blessings before taking their exams, apparently preferring not to rely purely on study and revision!
The day we visited a group of students arrived bearing a colourful bunch of balloons that contrasted beautifully with the white, traditional Vietnamese Aoi Dai dresses the girls were wearing. Perfect for photographs which they happily posed for before being bestowed a blessing. Their exuberance was infectious and we felt it own our good luck blessing to have seen them.
We were also lucky to see a young couple possibly there for a pre-wedding photo shoot and snuck in a few shots. Both in traditional dress, very fitting for their surroundings they made a lovely picture.
The Stelea Tortoise Shells
The temple has five courtyards each with its own ornate entrance and we leisurely traversed one to the next. The centre section features a pond called the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity,’ which funnily enough was full of murky water. Flanked on either side are rows of tortoise sculptures protected under pagodas. The tortoise is considered sacred to the Vietnamese. We’re quite partial to them ourselves, given our 184 year old much loved Jonathan on St Helena.
In Vietnam tortoises, dragons, unicorns and phoenixes are the country’s four holy creatures that symbolises power, wisdom and longevity.
There are 82 stone tortoises in total around the Well of Heavenly Clarity. On the back of each one are ‘stelae’ or tablets engraved with the names and birthplaces of 1,307 graduates who earned doctorates here between 1442–1779.
It used to be custom for students to rub these tortoises’ heads for good luck, but today in the name of preservation the practice is now discouraged.
Festival Flag of the Five Elements
Swaying over the pond were two gigantic flags, the Vietnam flag and a colourful, square one we had noticed throughout the city. We’ve since found out the striking concentric design is the festival flag of the Five Elements, which is hung at places of historic or cultural interest. Each colour represents the elements of wood, fire, metal, earth and water; basis of the universe according to ancient Chinese philosophy.
The ‘Sage Sanctuary’ follows next. A spacious, “red” courtyard; red pillars, roofs, lanterns and decor. If you close your eyes it’s easy to imagine scholars of yore assembled here, studious and obedient in becoming model gentlemen.
Missing The End
Across the courtyard we found the, ‘Great House of Ceremonies’ where a bearded statue of Confucius sits in the company of four of his disciples. Altars to each have offerings of flowers, confectionery and money where people stand to pray. There was a hush about the place and coils of incense added a haze to the temple’s reverent atmosphere. Like the rest of the complex it was extremely photogenic.
At that point we thought we had come to the end of the temple grounds but apparently we missed the last courtyard to Thai Hoc, not realising until later. We hadn’t noticed any obvious entrance to that section. Although, by then the midday heat had taken its toll and we were pooped.
We headed back through the cooling garden courtyards and gathered our wits before stepping out of the temple’s sanctuary back onto the mêlée of Hanoi.
Visiting Hanoi’s Temple Of Literature
The Temple of Literature costs 30,000 VND (less than 1 British pound) to enter. There are a few interpretation boards in English dotted around and an information brochure is also available which includes a map – use it wisely unlike us!
If you’re looking for things to do in Hanoi, the Temple of Literature gets a thumbs up from us. Don’t forget your camera.
Opening hours: 8:30 to 11:30 and 13:30 to 16:30 every day except Monday and national holidays.
The entrance is on Quoc Tu Giam street, adjacent to Van Meiu street and Ton Doc Thang street.