Temple of Literature in Hanoi

Temple of Literature in Hanoi

The Temple of Literature, incorporating the Imperial Academy, is one of Hanoi’s and Vietnam’s most important historical preservations. Originally built as a place to honor the great sage Confucius in 1070, 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. You’ll be glad you did. 

Visiting the Temple of Literature 

  • Location: A 15 min walk from Lake Hoan Kiem 
  • 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 not only a national focal point, but it’s also a place of worship and a place 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, be mindful of others in areas of worship, and 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 allowed, but be discreet inside buildings and first check 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 the most important historical site in Hanoi and a national heritage site. It was established 950 years ago in 1070 by the Emperor Lý Thánh Tông to worship the philosopher scholar Confucious, 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 is Văn Miếu and located inside is the 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 were opened to commoners. 

The prestigious examinations and awards were permanently stopped in 1919 by the French occupiers. Since the reunification of Vietnam, this site has undergone successive renovation. 

Temple of Literature – Layout and Symbolism 

The Van Mieu complex covers 54 000 square meters consisting of five unique enclosed areas or courtyards. There are four central symbolic gates (môn) along a straight-line path that you pass through before arriving in the inner sanctum. There is no gate to the 5th courtyard that was reconstructed in 2000. 

1. Văn Miếu Môn Leading to 1st Courtyard

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

Van Mieu Gate (Văn Miếu Môn) or the Great Portico, is the famous and much-loved gate where groups of students love to come for their graduation pictures in full academic attire. On the other side is a straight bricked path with neat little hedgerows and ornate lanterns along the way. 

You can walk around the paths, but remember not to step on the grass. In the olden days, only royalty was allowed to walk down the central path. 

2. Đại Trung Môn Leading to 2nd Second Courtyard

Đại Trung Môn Leading to 2nd Second Courtyard
[ image by Roger ] 

The Dai Trung Gate (Đại Trung Môn), or Great Central Gate is noted for its decorative roof ornaments— two fish swimming upstream and a pot of nectar. This gate leads into another grassy courtyard with many trees.

This second courtyard is a place of relaxation and a space to clear your mind before you enter through the next symbolic porthole. This area is the most enclosed by nature and there are two ponds here. The main path leads to the picturesque Khue Van pavilion gate. 

3. Khuê Văn Các Leading to 3rd Courtyard 

Khuê Văn Các Leading to 3rd Courtyard
[ image by Roger ]

Khue Van Pavillion (Khuê Văn Các) actually means the Pleiades Pavilion or the Gate to The Pleiades. These stars were revered by many ancient peoples. Sometimes known as the Seven Sisters or Maidens, here they are associated with the Seven Sages that accompany Confucious. 

The Pavillion is supported by four pillars and there is a bell tower on top— symbolizing the five directions. Beyond this gate, you will be met with the Well of Celestial Clarity. After being quelled by nature, and blessed by the Pleiades, hopefully the waters will reflect the clairity within your own mind. 

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

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 back. These steles bear the names of graduates who passed through these illustrious gates. This tradition started in 1442.  

4. Đại Thành Môn Leading to 4th Courtyard 

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

Dai Thanh Gate (Đại Thành Môn) means the Gate to The Great City. It was here that students actually lived and studied to pass the incredibly difficult imperial examination. If you passed, you would be invited to work for the imperial court. Although a small and humble gate with no decorations, it lead to great things.

This courtyard houses the main temple building and is designed after the original temple in the hometown of Confucious in Shandong, China. The side buildings used to be student dormitories of ancient times, and the long main building was the examination room.

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

5. Nhà Thái Học or 5th Courtyard

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

This fifth and final Thai Hoc House (Nhà Thái Học) courtyard is around the sides and the back of the main buildings. It’s a popular hang out for latter-day students and many gather here for formal and informal pics after graduation. 

At the end of a lane, you will also see the period drum. This was used to signal the beginning and end of lessons or examinations. 

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— 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, Vietnam’s most illustrious teacher of old. A principled man, he refused the examination and preferred to teach on a village mountain top. Finally, at the behest of the emperor, he joined imperial ranks and became dean of the Imperial College. 

He was appalled, however, by ancient levels of corruption and nepotism. After his request to have seven corrupt mandarins neatly decapitated was refused, 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 the exam. This is now forbidden to protect the structure, and anyway, there are no more coins in use in Vietnam so students just have to study harder. 

Addendum 

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 porthole into the foundations of the Vietnamese nation. 

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