For a tranquil escape (along with a sublime Vietnamese slow drip coffee) in the bustle of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, little surpasses the Temple of Literature. Initially built as a Confucian temple, it became Vietnam’s earliest university almost 950 years ago (predating any European university) and still harbours the academic ambiance of years past.
Initially only offered to noble or royal students, the university opened to all students some centuries later. Passing the imperial doctorate examination that gave privileged passage to life serving the royal court was murderously difficult. Elegantly carved stone steles celebrate each successful student, documenting their name and town. The steles are perched on turtles symbolising the patience to obtain the education and the longevity of the Vietnamese nation and border a peaceful lake (the Well of Heavenly Clarity). Only 1300 names are listed across the three hundred years of steles that remain though undoubtedly others have been lost over time.
Rich in Confucian symbolism, the temple is laid out with the same plan as that of Confucius’s birth place in China. Five courtyards are separated by grand ornamental entrances and walls with a long central path. While the central courtyard contains the steles, one courtyard (the Courtyard of Sages) continues to celebrate Confucius’s teaching with people quietly sitting in contemplative thought.
The Temple of Literature is a Hanoi highlight celebrating scholarly excellence, the thought-provoking teachings of Confucius and remains a peaceful paradise of trees, lawns and history to escape the rush of Vietnamese life.