Vietnam Hanoi: Confucius Temple of Literature

Travel Period: 21 Sep – 28 Sep 2014

{PREVIOUS: Vietnam Hanoi: Cultural Time in Museum of Ethnology}

Hanoi Day 3 Itinerary –

  • Museum of Ethnology, Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake, Cafe Nola

Temple of Literature

Hanoi’s historic (and storied) Temple of Literature, a millennium-old Confucian structure in the heart of Hanoi.

The temple was built in 1070 and for nearly two centuries, despite wars and disasters, the temple has preserved ancient architectural styles of many dynasties as well as precious relics.

The statues of Confucius and his four best disciples: Yan Hui (Nhan Uyên), Zengzi (Tăng Sâm), Zisi (Tử Tư), and Mencius (Mạnh Tử), as well as the Duke of Zhou (Chu Công) and 72 other statues of Confucian scholars were carved and painted here. (source: Wikipedia)


“Here we are!” I exclaimed as I saw the entrance of the temple whilst on the taxi.

From the front, the temple didn’t seem that much of a big place. And I didn’t know how wrong I were, until we headed in and explored the vast grounds of the temple!

We were dressed lightly as it was a hot and humid afternoon and the crowd was sparse, since it was a weekday. We could thus capture a photo with the entrance with little human traffic at ease.

Standing in front of the main gate of the temple with the three pathways

The gate at the entrance opened onto three pathways which continue through the courtyards. In the past, the center path was reserved for the monarch (thus is the biggest entrance!) with a big bronze bell above it. The path to the left was for the administrative personnel while the one on the right was meant for militants. As tourists today, of course it no longer matter which entrance we take.

Also in the past, the bronze bell above the main gate was used to signify that an important person was coming through. On the bell, phoenix and dragon patterns representing the King and Queen could be found.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to make out the carvings on the bell from below, especially when we were eager to walk past it to explore the rest of the temple.

What Is the Temple of Literature?

Temple of Literature was actually Vietnam’s first National University. Back then, Vietnam was ruled by the Emperors of the Lý dynasty. The Lý Emperors looked to China (Song Dynasty) as a model for organizing a strong, centrally administered state so they started examinations to choose minor officials and establish an imperial academy, “Quốc Tử Giám” in 1076.

They placed it within this Temple of Confucius to educate Vietnam’s bureaucrats, nobles, royalty and other members of the elite. Even the Crown Princes had studied here.

A board at the entrance, detailing how it was like to study at the temple


By the way, before we crossed the entrance, there was this big board clearly depicting the regulations to be observed by the visitors. This is a sacred ground after all.


Most of the regulations are common sense, such as no littering nor vandalizing the place. The dress code is what visitors should pay more attention to, as the temple’s regulations require that our attire to be respectable and head-wear is to be taken off in the sanctuary/worshiping areas.

Cat was slightly concerned about her attire as she was wearing shorts (at decent length, rule says “no short shorts”) due to the hot weather and we had just came from the Museum of Ethnology. Well, the manager of the hotel had told us it was fine when we asked in the morning but apparently, not so (Probably should bring along a sarong or long skirt). There were occasional unhappy stares from some locals who were there to pray when we entered the inner temple with the statue of Confucius (not sure due to a little photo-taking or the attire) and we quickly scoot out very soon.


1. First, Second Courtyards & Well of Heavenly Clarity

Being an energetic boy, Dar was tempted to run around the courtyards but we made sure he couldn’t do so.

“This is a temple and sacred place, so you are not allowed to run around okay?” We explained to him, which he readily accepted.

Along the way, we came across topiaries (bushes that are cut into particular shapes) that represent the 12 zodiac animals and words of traditional Chinese values such as 德 (Morality) and 智 (Wisdom), two of which we put much emphasis on when teaching values to Dar. Being Chinese, he would be taught in Primary School, this book of “Di Zi Gui” —Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child — written in the Qing Dynasty. It is actually derived from the ancient teachings of Confucius, so this trip would be a nice introduction to Dar about Confucius.

We sure hope that he will grow up to be a fine young man with these good values instilled in him

“Let’s proceed on.” I said, after our stroll in the lovely ‘parks’. “As much as we had enjoyed this oasis amidst the city, we are here for the more “temple-related’ stuff after all.”

Walking on, we arrived at the third courtyard, which is no longer a lawn but an area with a big pool of water known as the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” (“Thiên quang tỉnh”). In it, we could spot some turtles (or tortoises), which we soon found out why as we walked towards one side of the courtyard.

2. Doctors Stelae

On both sides of the well stood two great halls which house the treasures of the temple — The Doctors Stelae.

These were erected by King Lê Thánh Tông in 1484 to encourage a culture of education. The turtle (“quy”) is one of Vietnam’s four holy creatures (also depicted in the Water Puppet Show)  and is a symbol of longevity and wisdom (now you know why they are reared in the well).

One of the entrance rules for Visitors were, “Refrain from writing, drawing, standing or sitting on the doctors’ stone slabs; Do not rub the tortoise heads…”

This was because it used to be a common practice to rub the stone turtles’ heads for good luck but this subjected them to wear and tear. That is why there are now fences to prevent people from doing this to the remaining 82 steles (used to have 116)


Cat and I were straining our eyes to try to make out the Chinese characters carved on some of the steles but we could only make out some of the names on them. Many of the characters were wearing off due to ageing.


3. Temple Entrance to the Fourth Courtyard

“Wow! These are beautiful!”

The gates leading to the Fourth Courtyard of the temple impressed us immediately as we approached them, due to their vibrantly painted red gates and the gorgeous carving of dragons on them.

大成门 — Translated as ‘The Gate of Great Success’, would be a gate we wouldn’t want to miss!

We made sure we took a photo with this great door for auspicious reasons, hoping that we will gain success in whatever endeavours that we will be getting into! Yeah!


Passing through the gates, we entered into the Fourth Courtyard, which has a much wider open space than the rest of the courtyards so far.

On each side of the ceremonial Fourth Courtyard stands two halls. Their original purpose was to house altars to the seventy-two most honoured disciples of Confucius and Chu Văn An (a rector of the Imperial Academy). They have now been converted into souvenir shops and drinks stalls (see below).


4. Beautiful Bonsais

We started wandering around the courtyard and the first thing that caught our eyes were the huge bonsais on each side of the courtyard.

From the size of the bonsais, we believe that they could have been around for many years. The rock formations blend in nicely with the plants and Dar was very impressed with them, especially when small pagodas or buildings were placed on those rocks.


5. Souvenir Shops & Drinks Stalls

Just behind the bonsais were the souvenir shops and drinks stalls!

Being in the Temple of Literature, we would of course want to get some literature-related souvenirs here.

“Look! These are nicely made!” Cat exclaimed, and our attention turned to the many pendants and bookmarks hanging on the walls and pillars just outside the shops.


We were particularly interested in the bookmarks with Chinese characters written on them. As we did not want to waste money on unnecessary souvenirs, we were very selective on the bookmarks and so we took quite a while to choose and buy them.

“Daddy! Can I go there?” Dar asked excitedly. Hmm? What had he seen?

With a small nod of my head, he quickly dashed towards one of the boxes at one corner of the souvenir shop.

Curious, I turned my focus towards the box and saw a box full of rubbery animals, mainly consisting of snakes and monkeys.

“No wonder…” I thought, as we knew Dar was very interested in snakes at that time. Thus it’s no surprise that he had such a huge reaction upon spotting that box. He must have been missing having a toy ‘companion’ throughout his Hanoi trip so far. ^^

“Is there a red snake?” Dar asked, as he searched through the box with me watching. His favourite colours are red and blue. Well… I hope the shop owner wouldn’t mind us rumbling through her stuff.

“Hmm… I don’t think so. There are only red monkeys; no red snakes.” I replied, upon a quick sweep with my eyes.

“THERE!” Dar exclaimed, as he spotted a red snake sticking its tail out and removed it from the pile of rubbery animals, raising his trophy high as he laughed gleefully.

But hey… I haven’t said I was going to buy it for you right? ^^|


And of course, we bought the red snake for him in the end (else we would have a sulking boy with us  for the rest of the trip ^^|). A child’s happiness is priceless, right?

“Daddy? Why did you say that there wasn’t a red snake?” Our little boy questioned. I wondered if it was just an innocent question.

Explaining, I said, “Well, at first I thought it was a monkey…” I wasn’t really expecting the red snake to be so good at hiding.

“Is it because I can see clearly, that I saw the red snake?” Dar continued. “Is it because I have bigger eyes (than you) so I can see better?”


Yes, I know I have very small eyes. Thanks for reminding me. ^^|


6. Inner Temple & Altar

In the middle portion of the Fourth Courtyard is the “House of Ceremonies” (“Bai Duong”). Judging from the name, it is likely where the various ceremonies are held.

Statues of Vietnam’s sacred animals, the Phoenix and Turtle could be found here, surrounded by brightly painted pillars and decorations. Once again, we were impressed with the beauty of the structures.


Adjacent to this building is the “Dai Thanh Sanctuary”, where Confucius and his four closest disciples Yanhui, Zengshen, Zisi and Mencius are worshipped. This is where the locals come in to pray for blessings with incense and offerings.

The sanctuary also hosts altars to ten honoured philosophers and a small museum displaying ink wells, pens, books and personal artefacts belonging to some of the students that studied at the temple.


While at the sanctuary, my photo-taking activity (slight only) was making two locals unhappy, so we didn’t stay long there. Take care not to take photographs of the religious figure at the altars. That would be rude and frowned upon.

Anyway, it appears there is a Fifth Courtyard in the temple but we didn’t realize and did not get to explore it.

7. Outside Garden

After we left the sanctuary, we sat down on the stone benches beside the drinks stall, after getting some canned and bottled drinks to beat the heat. It was a nice experience to just sit back and relax in the temple as Cat wrote in the travel journal that she had brought along and got Dar to draw his toy snake.

Drawing by Dar (Age 6)

We then followed the signs to the restrooms, which was accessible via a side exit.

It was here where we noticed large, beautiful motifs made up of flowers!

Look at the size of these motifs!

We had a good time admiring them, before we started to stroll out of the temple and headed out.

{NEXT: Vietnam Hanoi: Walk Around Hoan Kiem Lake}