An ancient world in new Hanoi

8 01 2012

Seemingly far removed from the commotion of Hanoi’s busy streets, lies a sanctuary of serenity – one that takes one away to a Hanoi of a thousand years ago. Built first to venerate the great Chinese sage Confucius, the Van Mieu or Temple of Literature, dates back to an era in which the city that it finds around it was founded, and is a wonderfully preserved work of architecture and one that serves as icon of Hanoi’s cultural heritage and a beautiful representation of Confucian inspired architecture that has survived to this day. The Van Mieu has also greater cultural significance to Hanoi and to Vietnam, being the site of the country’s first university – it is within its grounds, not long after it was built in 1070 that a centre of learning was established in 1076 – one that served to educate the elites for a system of public administration that was greatly influenced by Vietnam’s neighbours to the north and one that functioned for some seven centuries.

The Temple of Literature offers an escape from the crowded streets of Hanoi to a beautiful ancient centre of learning.

The Van Mieu complex we find today is one that has been built over a long period and is laid out around five courtyards, each with an ornamental portal serving as an entrance. Stepping through the first, the Van Mieu Gate, even with the buzz of the weekend’s crowd that was there, the tranquillity of the Van Mieu soon overcomes you as the dissonance of the busy streets left behind quickly fades away. The crowd – flocks of pretty ladies – fresh graduates from the city’s newer universities dressed in the traditional Ao Dai behind the layers of less traditional outerwear on what was a chilly winter’s day, seemed to blend into the well manicured gardens of the first courtyard and beyond the second gate in the second courtyard.

The Van Mieu Gate which is the main entrance to the Temple of Literature complex.

The well manicured first courtyard as seen through the second gate.

At the end of the second – the third gate, Khue Van Cac or the Constellation of Literature – a much more recent addition built in 1805 is one that is hard not to notice with an upper level where four radiating suns can be seen facing the four cardinal points of the compass. Through this gate, one is confronted by what seems like a huge reflecting pool – Thien Quang Tinh or the Well of Heavenly Clarity, flanked one both sides by open sided buildings that house 82 surviving stone stelae (out of the original 112), set on pedestals of giant stone tortoises – that of those conferred with Doctorates during the 15th to the 18th centuries.

The Constellation of Literature (Khue Van Cac). The third gate leading into the third courtyard where the Well of Heavenly Clarity is located.

A lady in an Ao Dai poses at a side portal into the third courtyard.

The Well of Heavenly Clarity in the third courtyard.

Some of the 82 surviving stone stelae of scholars who passed the examinations at the Temple of Literature.

The part of the complex where Confucius is venerated lies beyond the fourth gate, one that is flanked by two stone warriors. It is at the end of the courtyard where the Temple of Confucius is found. The two incense filled buildings are ones that house the Altar of Confucius, in the Bai Duong – the open sided House of Ceremonies where the Altar of Confucius at which the Emperor and Mandarins are said to have make offerings at, and in the red lacquered building behind the Bai Duong. Behind the red of the wooden panels that line the second building that the statues of the Great Sage and his four main disciples are found.

A stone warrior stands guard at the gateway into the fourth courtyard.

The fourth courtyard with the Temple of Confucius.

Reflection of the Temple of Confucius in a pail of water.

Wooden wall panels on the Temple of Confucius.

View through the Temple of Confucius.

Wall and door panels on the Temple of Confucius.

Temple of Confucius.

Statue of Confucius in the Temple of Confucius.

Inside the Temple of Confucius.

Beyond the Temple of Confucius, the fifth and last of the courtyards where the Quoc Tu Giam – the academy was located. The original buildings were destroyed by French bombing during the 1940s and much of what can be seen today is a reconstruction carried out in 2000. In the main building at the end of the courtyard, the altars to three of the Ly Dynasty emperors are found. On either side of the buildings, there is also a huge drum and a huge brass bell housed in two pavilion like structures – popular spots for those seeking a photo opportunity.

Altar to one of the Ly Dynasty Emperors in the reconstructed Quoc Tu Giam - the National Academy which was established in 1076 to educate Mandarins.

In the two hours I spent exploring the Van Mieu, it did feel as if I had lost myself in that ancient world that it had emerged from. Stepping back into the world that Hanoi has now become, I felt first a realisation and then a sense of wonderment of what I had just emerged from – a significant piece of the history of the country that I was visiting, one of a beauty and elegance that is a joy to behold, and one that goes far back to a time long before the country I am from was even put on the map.

Shadow and light - inside the Quoc Tu Giam.

A view through a screen towards the fifth courtyard.

Hanoi in its shades of grey

6 01 2012

Hanoi, which I visited this winter, is city that has made a big impression on me. It is a city that for a long while, I had wanted to visit. It is a city that has intrigued me in the past, having lived a good part of my younger days in a region whose political climate had very much been influenced by the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Hanoi, along with the rest of Vietnam, is today a very different world from the one that must have emerged from a war that would have devasted it. The city does still have many reminders of the war, as well as of the somewhat chequered history the nation it is a capital to has had. There is always that reminder of the Communist Party that still governs it in flags, banners, posters and also Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum making it difficult not to realise that, even as the country has embraced economic policies that would have those who led it during the war turning in their final resting places.

Two ladies pose in the traditional Ao Dai at the Temple of Literature. Hanoi is where tradition ...

... coexists and blends in with the new world.

An itinerant vendor stares into a shop window.

The charge of the two-wheel brigade on the streets of old Hanoi.

Two wheels that sometimes see well dressed riders dressed fashionably with killer heels.

The juxtaposition of new on the old is evident especially on the streets of the Old Quarter.

More juxtapositions ...

The is a lot of the old that is not just juxtaposed with, but blends very much in with the new that the country’s economic progress over the last two decades has brought. The Hanoi of old, set in the colourful narrow and bustling streets of the Old Quarter, sits beside the Hanoi of the French Colonial masters – its wide avenues and elegant buildings in stark contrast. In both, there are the sidewalks dominated by itinerant vendors or the low tables and stoold set up by vendors operating out of narrow doorways, in instances right next to a shop window with a display of the latest objects of desire. It is at the low tables and stools of the sidewalks where in fact the best fare in a city that celebrates its food can sometimes be savoured. Here well dressed men and women are often spotted sitting on the low stools in what almost seems a posture that lacks dignity, enjoying their night out in the city, or a bowl of pho in the morning before heading into the office. It is in scenes such as this that best illustrates Hanoi as a city that is full of contrasts and perhaps contradictions where it isn’t just where black is seen against white, but where there also are many shades of grey.

Two wheelers prove to be useful in many ways ...

... and many can't leave home with it.

Diners at Chả cá Lã Vọng - a well known restaurant that serves Chả cá - a must try "Grilled Fish" dish.

A pho restaurant spills out into the sidewalk in the Old Quarter.

Sidewalks are the domain of the many itinerant vendors.

Views of more sidewalks.

A young lady having a bowl of pho for breakfast on the sidewalk before heading into the office.

A back lane.

The sidewalks are where many locals are seen enjoying their night out.

Some of the best food can be savoured at the low tables and stools of the sidewalks.

A food vendor operating out of a doorway.

A sidewalk food vendor.

Evening falls on Hoan Kiem Lake - looking at Turtle Tower.