The tranquil and sprawling Temple of Literature was established in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, and became the site of Vietnam's first university, the Imperial Academy or Quoc Tu Giam, six years later.
Today the grounds make for an interesting wander and step back into history, though the buildings are much newer after repeated renovations over the centuries.
Set on a large, rectangular complex encompassing five walled courtyards connected by gateways, among green gardens sprinkled with hanging orchids and featuring reflecting pools, the temple is something of a retreat from the hustle on the streets outside.
The temple features on Vietnam's 100,000 dong note and was dedicated to the cult of Confucius, which broke the monopoly over education previously held by Buddhism. The layout is similar to that of the temple at Confucius' birthplace, Qufu in Shandong. Initially mandarins and high-ranking civil servants were educated at the university, typically for three to seven years, but later outstanding students of no particular rank were also educated here.
After walking through the entrance gate and a large manicured garden, once used by scholars to relax in, visitors reach the Well of Heavenly Clarity, beside which are 82 of an original 117 turtles (representing wisdom) carrying stellae listing the names, places of birth and achievements of graduate students who accomplished exceptional results during the Le Dynasty, which started in 1484. The names on some of the stellae have been scratched out—these are scholars who subsequently met with some sort of disgrace or royal disapproval, and were expunged from the record. In 1802, Emperor Gia Long transferred the national university to the new capital, Hue.
In modern times students used to come to rub the heads of the turtles for good luck ahead of their exams, but the turtles have now been roped off to prevent this.
Visitors will notice three pathways running through the complex. The centre path was for the monarch, the path to the left was for administrative mandarins and the one on the right was for military mandarins. Today you can use any of them.
A small museum towards the rear features various artefacts from the university's early history, such as fragile papers students wrote, pipes for papers and writing apparatus. There are also shrines to various emperors and philosophers throughout the complex.
For contemporary Vietnamese, the temple functions as a shrine to Confucius himself, whose influence is still very much a part of Vietnamese culture, and it serves as a testament to Vietnam's long history of striving for educational excellence.
The pamphlet handed out to visitors on arrival (for 8,000 dong) is of minimal use, though it does feature a map to explain which area is which. To really get a sense of what you're looking at, a guide is recommended; we didn't hire one, but a sign at the ticket office indicates they are available. Otherwise there are signs dotted throughout the grounds featuring some useful basic information in Vietnamese, English and French (much is repeated in the brochure).
By Samantha Brown.
Last updated on 24th April, 2017.
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