The Ho Chi Minh Complex in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District or French Quarter was an easy commute from our hotel at the Old Quarter but we were in for a mild surprise that Saturday morning. As we stepped out of our taxi and shuffled over to the entrance of the complex housing Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace and the One Pillar Pagoda, we were taken aback by the long, snaking lines of locals and tourists queueing up towards the entrance. Going through those lines would have taken an hour or more, we thought. Fortunately there was an even more picturesque attraction a short stroll away – and where the lines of visitors weren’t that long.
The Temple of Literature is often cited as an excellent example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture. Completed in 1070, it was built in honor of Confucius and is probably the most beautiful temple complex in Hanoi. This temple is actually more of an academic rather than a religious establishment. Until 1779 it hosted the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. Sitting like an oasis in the middle of a bustling city, it is a photographer’s paradise with its carefully landscaped gardens, wide courtyards and beautiful pavilions.
Five courtyards make up the Temple of Literature complex. The first two feature exquisite gardens, rectangular lily ponds and three parallel pathways that ran the whole length of the courtyards starting from the main gate. The green surroundings offer a peaceful retreat from frenetic city life that students of centuries past would have gladly welcomed. It wasn’t hard to imagine that feeling as we walked through the pathways flanked by verdant gardens and green pools, and this in the middle of a considerable crowd now touring the complex.
The first courtyard extends from the main entrance gate to the Đại Trung Môn or Great Middle Gate. Two lily ponds flank both sides of the 3 pathways.
The second courtyard contains the Khuê Văn Các or Constellation of Literature Pavilion, an elaborate double-roofed wooden gateway in red set upon four white stone columns. You’ll find the Khuê Văn Các often used as a symbol of the Temple of Literature and of Hanoi itself.
The Khuê Văn Pavilion leads directly into the third courtyard with the Thien Quang Well or the Well of Heavenly Clarity – actually a large rectangular pond that occupies the central portion of this courtyard.
On both sides of the Thien Quang Well are 82 stelae – known as the Doctors’ Steles – mounted on stone tortoises, with each stele recording details of candidates who successfully passed the state royal examinations held at the National Academy from 1442 to 1779. One often encounters the tortoise in ancient Vietnamese tradition; it is considered to be a holy creature and a symbol of longevity and wisdom.
We made our way into the fourth courtyard through the Đại Thành Môn or the Gate of Great Success. Before us were the main temple buildings – and a host of visitors – although they were fortunately smaller in number than the horde we saw at the Ho Chi Minh complex earlier.
The two pavilions on each side of the fourth courtyard once contained altars dedicated to the disciples of Confucius; today they house administrative offices and souvenir shops. At the end of the courtyard is the Ceremonial Hall within which lies the temple sanctuary with images of Confucius and 4 of his disciples.
The fifth and last courtyard housed Vietnam’s first university, the National University. This was established in 1076 with the principal aim of educating the country’s high officials. Consequently only members of the royal family, nobles and the elite were admitted into the university but beginning in 1442 it was opened to capable students from all over the country and across different social strata. The university closed down in 1779 but the buildings were painstakingly preserved.
This last courtyard houses the largest buildings of the Temple of Literature but most of these are careful reconstructions of the original which were destroyed during aerial bombings by the French in 1947. At the rear of the courtyard is a 2-story pavilion that includes a small museum and exhibits about the university’s history.
We finished our tour of the Temple of Literature well before the lunch hour but were famished by the time we exited its gates. As we mentioned before there is no shortage of places to eat in Hanoi and even our whole foods-plant based diet wasn’t a big hindrance as many of the city’ restaurants offer several vegan options. The only problem was we didn’t get to see a vegan bánh mi at any time during our stay at the Old Quarter.
We’ve been to Vietnam perhaps as many as 10 times in the past, although mostly to Ho Chi Minh City. Interestingly we never did get to sample a bánh mi during the 6 years we’ve been visiting. It was only during our stay in San Diego, California – which has a sizable Vietnamese community – did we get to learn about and enjoy this baguette almost regularly.
Right after we exited the Temple of Literature, however, we finally ran into a café that was serving vegetarian/vegan bánh mi. Needless to say we stepped right in and finally got to check off one more item in our bucket list for this place.