The complex that once housed Vietnam’s first national university is an oasis of studious calm in the busy, over-populated capital of Hanoi. The Temple of Literature exhibits beautifully preserved, traditional Vietnamese architecture and primped gardens, that must be experienced when visiting Hanoi.
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A brief history of the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 during the time of Emperor Lý Thanh Tong. Shortly after, the complex went on to host the Imperial Academy—the highest educational institution in China’s traditional education system. The Temple was once the place of great academic pursuit and fierce examinations for the elite of Vietnam, who learned the principles of Confucianism, literature and poetry.
Today, it remains a place of ceremony and quiet worship to revered Chinese philosopher Confucius, along with the great sages and scholars that followed in his wake. Students and their parents come to the Temple to make offerings and pray for good grades. The charming setting is a popular backdrop for newly graduated students to gather in their traditional dress and have celebratory photos taken.
Layout and architecture of the Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature has undergone several reconstructions and restorations over its history to preserve the ancient architectural style through wars and natural disasters. Unfortunately, though French colonists declared the Temple a Historic Monument in 1906, they also destroyed part of the temple to create space for hospitals during the first Indochine War. Let’s take a walk through the Temple as it looks today…
The main gate
The Temple of Literature is situated on a long, narrow, 5.5ha (3 acre) plot. The main gate has three openings, intended to create hierarchical separation of visitors. The central arch was for the monarch of the day and the large bronze bell hanging above used to signal the arrival of an important person. The left doorway was for administrative Mandarins (Mandarins historically being bureaucrat scholars in the imperial government) and the right doorway for military Mandarins.
First & second courtyards – Gardens of relaxation and transition
Inside, the Temple of Literature is divided into five courtyards. The first two contain well-groomed gardens where ancient trees grow and topiaries are often trimmed into meaningful shapes. Leading from the first courtyard to the second courtyard is Đại Trung Môn (Great Middle Gate), which takes its name from two books of Confucianism “Great Learning” and “The Doctrine of the Mean”. The pair of carp that decorate the top of the gate represent overcoming hardships and achieving advancement.
Marking the transition between the second and third courtyard is the Khue Van Pavilion (Pavilion of Constellation), circa 1805. The circle shape within a square signifies the sky and earth respectively—together they represent a yin and yang harmony.
Third courtyard – Cleansing and purity at the Well of Heavenly Clarity
Within the third courtyard is Thiên Quang Tỉnh (Well of Heavenly Clarity) framed by two great halls that house doctors’ stelae. The Well was intended to bring a feeling of serenity to the complex that would help to purify people’s minds. The reflective waters were also used as a mirror for checking one’s appearance before entering more sacred parts of the Temple. The doctors’ stelae are blue stone carved with the names and birthplaces of royal exam graduates, along with details of the remaining monarch and reason for the exams. There are 82 of the original 91 stelae remaining and these stone databases have provided insight into the culture and education in Vietnam historically. The stelae are carved to appear on the backs of tortoises, which symbolize wisdom and longevity.
Fourth courtyard – House of Ceremonies and Confucian shrines
Moving into the fourth courtyard, through the Đại Thành Môn (Gate of Great Success), we see the Đại Bái Đường (House of Ceremonies). Within the House of Ceremonies are a pair of cranes standing on tortoises, which symbolize longevity and eternity. The tortoise is said to live for 10,000 years and the crane for 1,000 and therefore this pairing is associated with the saying “may you be remembered for 1,000 years and honoured for 10,000”. Courtyard four also contains Đại Thành Sanctuary, where locals make offerings at a shrine to Confucius and his four disciples.
Fifth courtyard – Imperial Academy campus
Inside the fifth courtyard is the Imperial Academy, which was technically destroyed by the French in 1946 but rebuilt as a temple in 2000. The two-story temple has an upper level dedicated to the three Vietnamese emperors who most contributed to the founding of the Academy in Hanoi. The lower level is a common place to see traditional Vietnamese musical performances and other cultural displays. There are also structures in the courtyard holding each, a giant drum and bronze bell.
Tips for visiting the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
- The Temple is a 2km (1.25mi) walk from the Hanoi Old Quarter where most travellers will probably be based.
- Opening hours are 7:30-18:00 in summer and 8:00-18:00 in the winter. It’s best to arrive at the Temple soon after it opens as it gets busy with locals early in the morning and later with tourists. Allow about an hour for your visit.
- Entry costs 30,000 VND (around USD$1.40) in cash. Children under 15yrs are free.
- Dress modestly, this is a place of worship. Ensure your chest, shoulders and knees are covered before entering the Temple of Literature.
- Take a guided tour if you have the opportunity, as there is so much more than meets the eye. The symbolism and ritual of the place is fascinating
- For more information, see the Temple of Literature website.
Plan a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam
The Temple of Literature was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of our time in Hanoi. I would encourage anyone visiting the city to take an hour or two to explore this wonderful historic complex. The architecture and gardens are stunning and provide a perfect moment of respite in a hectic city.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,