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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.