Great Middle Gate
The Gate of Great Synthesis
Dragon Motifs punctuate the ends of the tiled roofs
Entry gate to Temple of Literature
A prosperous statue of a lion
A typical symmetrical temple courtyard
The Bell Tower
The Pavilion of Constellation
The Drum Tower
Stone stelae resting on a carved turtle
The Well of Celestrial Clarity
Tranquil pond in the first courtyard
Altar at the House of ceremonies
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This sprawling complex represents the beauty of pursuing academic excellence

Lý Thánh Tông ruler of the Vietnamese kingdom

In the early eleventh century, Lý Thánh Tông, eighth ruler of the Vietnamese kingdom, wanted to honour Chinese philosopher Confucius. Engrained into Vietnam’s culture, there Confucianism functions as more of a social philosophy than a religion. In 1070, Văn Miếu (the Temple of Literature) was constructed.

Vietnam’s 1st University

Located south of the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long, it also became the site of Vietnam’s first university when Lý Thánh Tông’s son established the Imperial Academy in 1076. The school functioned for around seven centuries, producing hundreds of renowned scholars and mandarins. Originally only serving the elite class – royalty, the upper class, and bureaucrats – in 1236 emperor Trần Thái Tông broadened its acceptance in order to attain talent from all over the country. At the school, rigorous academics prepped students for the three levels of examinations necessary to become high-ranking officials. It took students between three and seven years to complete the curriculum. With subsequent dynasties making further updates to the temple, the site now covers an area of over 54,000 square metres. Designed in a unique combination of imperial and Confucian, the exterior of the sprawling complex is wrapped by an ancient brick wall. Inside, visitors are free to wander through its five courtyards, which represent the elements of metal, wood, fire, water and earth.

82 Stone turtles

Of the four animals considered holy in Vietnamese culture, the turtle is the only real one (the others are the dragon, unicorn and phoenix). Representing longevity and wisdom, eighty-two turtles divided into two rows support as many stelae. The messages they carry range from praising Confucianism and the reigning emperor, to dynastic philosophies and listing information about academic exams and doctors. Stelae construction began in 1484 under the reign of emperor Lê Thánh Tông (1442-1497). While there were originally 116 stelae, many were destroyed as a casualty of war in the early nineteenth and early twentieth century. During the Vietnam War, to protect the stone tablets from aerial bombings, the stelae were buried in sand and surrounded by thick concrete walls. In 1994, the shelters were rebuilt with funding from the Vietnamese government and the American Express Company (through the Indochina Conciliation Fund). Then in 2010, UNESCO officially recognised the stelae as historical heritage objects. Once touched by thousands of students in search of good luck, the stelae are now surrounded by a low fence to discourage further damage to these cultural artefacts.

Hanoi’s Temple of Literature

While it is no longer used for academic pursuits, the Temple of Literature is still widely appreciated by locals and foreigners alike. During our visit, hordes of youth donning graduation gowns were eagerly taking photos throughout the complex, merging the site’s historical significance with their own personal milestones. The temple also continues as a popular site for students to come and pray for academic success. From its easily accessible location near the city centre to its perfect balance of nature and stunning architecture, the Temple of Literature has invigorated many a student in its past, a tradition that remains alive and well to this day.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn