You Haven’t been to Hanoi if You Haven’t Been to the Temple of Literature

Great Middle Gate at the Temple of Literature

Great Middle Gate at the Temple of Literature

If you’ve come to Hanoi and not visited the Temple of Literature, then you’ve missed a chance that’s tantamount to visiting Paris but missing the Eiffel Tower, visiting London and skipping the British Museum, visiting New York City and missing a Yankees game. (Okay, okay, I admit – maybe it’s just a thing with me and the Yankees.) But I am serious about  the Temple of Literature, a five-and-a-half hectare compound of temples, pavilions and courtyards devoted to the legacy of Confucianism. This is why:

Green Space. Among its other attributes, there is a tremendously attractive spatial relationship here between buildings, open space and courtyards. The progression from  the Great Portico to the Constellation of Literature Gate to the Garden of the Stelae is a bit like walking through a dream of East Asia.  Most of us retain an image of Asia that’s come from glimpses, here and there, of ink paintings. This space is as close as you can get to actually inhabiting one of those ink drawings.

Turtles. What’s not to love about the turtle, their ancient pedigree, their longevity and their example as a slow-and-steady guide to life. In the Temple of Literature, 82 stone turtles support as many stelae inscribed with the names of 1,306 doctor laureates who won the nation’s highest academic honors between 1442 and 1779. During the war with America, the Vietnamese entombed these turtle and stelea to wait out aerial bombardments.

Confucius. The temple itself is an ode to Confucianism, and to know Vietnam is to know Confucius, ‘teacher of ten-thousand generations.’ There is a statue of the man himself in the Great House of Ceremonies at back. Vietnam is changing fast – as fast as a Polaroid, as one travel writer once said. But the superstructure laid down by Confucianism where the son defers to the father, the student to the teacher, and so on, is still in evidence. There have been many concessions to modernity in Vietnam, but you’ve still got to appreciate Confucius if you are to know this country.

Ironwood. Lastly, do marvel at the ironwood-timbered museum in Thai Hoc Hall at the Temple’s rear. This is actually new construction and replaces an older structure that was destroyed during the First Indochina War. The massive timbers here provide a glimpse of age-old architectural Vietnamese traditions.

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