Temple of Literature, Hanoi — An Ancient Confucian University

The Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), incorporating the Imperial Academy (Quốc Tử Giám), is one of Hanoi’s and Vietnam’s most important historical preservations.

Originally, it was built to honor the great sage Confucius. It soon embellished his spirit to become the leading educational institute for the next 700 years.

It’s one of the most picturesque and sublime places to visit in Hanoi, and can simply be appreciated as such. To make your time there more precious and memorable, read our brief guide for architectural insights and hidden gems.

Visiting the Temple of Literature

  • Location: View on Google Maps
  • Price:  30 000 VND / Children under 15: Free 
  • Hours: April – October: 07:30 to 17:30 / October – April: 08:00 to 17:00

The Temple of Literature is a national focal point and also a place of worship. People come here to pay respects to those who came before. As such, you should be mindful of how you dress and conduct yourself.

Don’t laugh or talk too loudly, and be mindful of others in areas of worship. You should take off any caps and hats in these areas too. No tank tops, bare shoulders, shorts, or mini-skirts either. 

Also, don’t walk on the grass, sit on or touch stone structures like turtles. Photography is okay, but be discreet inside buildings. Check first for notices before taking pics.

If you really want to appreciate the Temple of Literature, get there early before the crowds and the heat of the day. It can take an hour or so to go around. Afterward, you can relax nearby in a cafe and plan the rest of your day.

Importance of The Temple of Literature 

The Temple of Literature is a national relic site. It dates back more than 950 years or to 1070. At that time, the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông desired a place of worship for the philosopher scholar Confucius. This also included his four key disciples, and the seven sages.

It later became Vietnam’s first university and functioned as a place of higher learning for 700 years. The official name was Văn Miếu. It later incorporated the wider Imperial Academy or Quốc Tử Giám.

The Academy, only for royals, was established in 1076. This slightly predates even Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1096) universities. In the beginning of the Tran Dynasty (1225), its doors opened to commoners.

The Imperial Academy is typically not found on lists of the world’s oldest universities. This is because French occupiers permanently ended the prestigious examinations in 1919. The site then fell into serious neglect. Since national independence it has undergone successive renovations.

Temple of Literature Hanoi — Layout and Symbolism

The Van Mieu complex covers 54 000 square meters. There are five unique enclosed areas or courtyards. A straight-lined path leads through four symbolic gates (môn) to the inner sanctum. There is no gate to the 5th courtyard that was reconstructed in 2000.

1. Văn Miếu Môn — The Great Portico

Văn Miếu Môn Leading to 1st Courtyard
[ by David Petit from Flickr ]

Van Mieu Gate (Văn Miếu Môn,) or the Great Portico, is a popular and famous gate. Groups of students love to pose here for graduation pictures in full academic attire. In the relief friezes you can see an ascending dragon symbolizing endeavors for success. The other frieze shows a descending tiger indicating the resulting strength and power.

2. First Courtyard to Đại Trung Môn

Đại Trung Môn Leading to 2nd Second Courtyard
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

This courtyard follows a neat brick path with little hedgerows and ornate lanterns. You can walk around the side paths, but remember not to step on the grass. In the olden days, only royalty could walk down the central path.

Reaching the Đại Trung Môn, or Great Central Gate, you will notice its decorative roof ornaments. These are two carp swimming upstream and a pot of nectar. This gate leads into another grassy courtyard with many trees.

3. Second Courtyard to Khuê Văn Các

Khuê Văn Các Leading to 3rd Courtyard
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

This second courtyard of the Temple of Literature is a place of relaxation. It’s mostly enclosed by nature and includes two ponds. The main path leads to the picturesque Khue Van Pavilion. Khuê Văn Các actually means the Pleiades Pavilion, or the Gate to The Pleiades.

Many ancient people revered these stars. Sometimes known as the Seven Sisters or Maidens, they also represent the Seven Sages that accompany Confucius. The purpose here is to clear the mind before entering the gate.

The Pavillion stands on four pillars with a bell tower on top — symbolizing the five directions. Beyond this gate, lies the Well of Celestial Clarity. After being quelled by nature, and blessed by the Pleiades, hopefully these waters will reflect the clarity within your own mind. 

You’ll also find two side gates into this area. One is Bi Van Gate (Cửa Bí Văn), or the Gate of Magnificent Letters. The other is Suc Van Gate (Cửa Súc Văn), or the Gate of Crystallized Letters.   

4. Third Courtyard to Đại Thành Môn

Đại Thành Môn Leading to 4th Courtyard
[ by Mig Gilbert from Flickr ]

In this courtyard, on either side of the well or pond, are graves to some of the earliest teachers and doctors. There are also celestial turtles carrying steles on their backs. These steles bear the names of graduates who passed through these illustrious gates. This tradition started in 1442. The Đại Thành Môn, at the far end, means the Gate to The Great City. Although a small and humble gate with no decorations, it led to great things.

5. Fourth Courtyard of Văn Miếu

Temple of Literature Courtyard
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

This courtyard houses the original Temple of Literature, Văn Miếu. It’s the same design as the original temple in the hometown of Confucius in Shandong, China.

It was here that students took the incredibly difficult exam. Those that passed would get an invite to work for the imperial court. The side buildings used to be student dormitories of ancient times.

Through this building, you’ll come to the rear Khai Thanh Temple (đền Khải Thánh). It worships Confucius, his parents, and other scholarly sages. On the upper floor are shrines to Vietnamese kings who contributed much to the academy.

6. Nhà Thái Học — The Reconstructed Courtyard

Nhà Thái Học or 5th Courtyard
[ by Jody McIntyre from Flickr ]

This fifth and final courtyard, Nhà Thái Học, is to the rear of the main buildings. It  translates as the ‘College House’, with nhà meaning ‘house’. It’s a popular hang out for latter-day students, especially for formal graduation pics. 

This area was the original place of the Imperial Academy. However, the structures here were lost to time and war. The large building you see now is a modern fabrication from 2000. It highlights traditional features of Vietnamese architecture and serves as a venue for cultural and educational programs.

In the courtyard you will also find the largest drum ever made in Vietnam. It was crafted in 1999 for the 990th anniversary celebration of Thăng Long – Hanoi. This Sấm or ‘Thunder’ drum is 2.65 m high and weighs 700 kg. After the festivities, the Temple of Literature became its new home.

There’s a gift shop in this area and it used to be a large classroom. You’ll also find a little museum with some really interesting artefacts. These include ancient scrolls, calligraphy pens, bookcases, and handmade graduation gowns.

Hidden Gems in The Temple of Literature

The youngest recorded graduate was 11, and the oldest was 60. This is much the same as things are today.

If you miss out on the Temple of Literature, you can always have a look at it on the back of the 100 000 VND note

Hidden Gems in The Temple of Literature

Cum laude graduation gowns, as seen in the museum, only had four clawed dragons. Five claws were only allowed for robed nobility.

In the back temple is a shrine to Chu Văn An. He was Vietnam’s most illustrious teacher of old and a principled man. He refused the examination, preferring to teach on a village mountain top. Finally, at the behest of the emperor, he joined imperial ranks as dean of the Imperial College.

He was appalled, however, by ancient levels of corruption and nepotism. When the court refused his request to have seven corrupt mandarins neatly decapitated, he threw in the towel and went back home.

Opposite the drum in the 5th courtyard, students used to throw a coin up onto the building roof. If the coin stuck, it meant they would pass their exams. This is now forbidden to protect the structure. Anyway, there are no more coins in use in Vietnam so students just have to study harder.


We hope you enjoyed reading this article on the Temple of Literature and the Imperial College in Hanoi. Make sure not to miss this incredible historic relic and journey into the foundations of the Vietnamese nation.

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