When you’re daydreaming about the places you most want to visit in the world, what do those dreams look like? Beautiful beaches with white sand and crystal clear water? Mountainous landscapes just begging to be hiked? Vibrant cities full of culture and delicious eats? When it comes to my own travel preferences, I’d almost always rather visit somewhere where, at the end of the day, I fall into bed smelling like trees rather than car exhaust, but that being said, I’d be missing out big time if I didn’t visit at least a few of Southeast Asia’s fascinating cities. And Hanoi definitely counts as fascinating…but also chaotic, busy, and noisy, so if you find yourself needing a break from the fast-paced city streets, then I recommend you spend a few hours at one of Hanoi’s most picturesque and peaceful spots – the Temple of Literature.
THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 as a temple to Confucius. While there is a sanctuary for worship on the grounds, the Temple of Literature was constructed as a place of learning rather than religion, and is known as Vietnam’s first national university. Students at the Temple of Literature, particularly in the early days, were members of the elite, mostly bureaucrats, nobles, and royalty, and their studies were focused on literature, poetry, and Chinese philosophy. The university closed in 1779, but many remnants of its use in those days still remain today.
The Temple of Literature is made up of five different courtyards, my favorite of which were the first two. After entering the temple through the main gates, visitors are led through the first of two courtyards featuring beautiful gardens with ancient trees, topiary animal sculptures, and small ponds. Everything is decked out in varying shades of green and the transition from busy city to quiet oasis is immediate. If you visit, take your time walking through these courtyards. They’re a much-needed quiet retreat after walking through the streets of Hanoi to get to the temple.
THE WELL OF HEAVENLY CLARITY
The third courtyard in the Temple of Literature is known as Thiên Quang Tỉnh, or the Well of Heavenly Clarity. Walking beneath the attractive Khue Van pavilion to enter the third courtyard, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the large pool of water at the courtyard’s center. A glimpse over the side into the algae-filled water will reveal a family of turtles who have made the Well of Heavenly Clarity their home. The turtle is considered holy in Vietnam and represents wisdom, which seems sort of perfect for a temple of literature, actually.
Besides the well, the other main attraction in the third courtyard is the Stelae of Doctors. In this section of the courtyard, stone turtles carrying large slabs on their backs listing the names of students who passed their royal exams overlook the Well of Heavenly Clarity. At one point in time there were 116 stelae, but only 82 remain today, some in better shape than others. On some of the stelae, the Chinese inscriptions are still legible (for those who can read Chinese, of course), but most have been worn down by weather and time.
THE HOUSE OF CEREMONIES & SANCTUARY
The fourth courtyard, featuring the stunning House of Ceremonies and the sanctuary to Confucius, is an unusual mix of place of worship and souvenir shops. We avoided the more touristy side of this section of the temple by quickly making our way to the House of Ceremonies, the largest structure we saw inside the Temple of Literature. With its red columns and wood beam ceilings from which antique-style lanterns hang, the House of Ceremonies is easily one of the prettiest sights to see inside the temple complex.
From the House of Ceremonies, we made our way into the sanctuary. Alters have been erected in the sanctuary honoring Confucius, as well as other honored philosophers, and the smell of incense fills the entire space. When we visited, no one was there praying or making offerings, so we took our time making our way through. This was both Lexie and Cory’s first temple experience, and my first in 20 years, although I certainly got my fill the first time around living in Asia! To this day, the smell of incense still takes me back to touring temples with my family as a teenager.
There is a fifth courtyard inside the temple complex, but it was either closed off or we just missed seeing the entrance on the day we visited. I hate we missed seeing it, so if you visit, come back and tell me how it was!
TIPS FOR VISITING THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
Bring 30,000 VND in cash. This is the current entrance fee for tourists, which equates to around $1.50 USD. Children under 15 are able to enter for free.
Arrive at opening time. This really only applies if you want the quietest experience inside the temple or prefer photos without lots of other people in them. We arrived at 10am, which I thought was early enough to avoid crowds, but Hanoi is a city of early-risers and at 10am the temple was already very full of visitors. Chances are, they, like us, were trying to beat the afternoon heat which is another reason to arrive early.
Dress appropriately. While not as strictly adhered to as other religious temples, there is still a formal dress code at the Temple of Literature. To be on the safe side, keep your shoulders covered and wear either long pants or long shorts.
Photography is allowed, but be respectful in the sanctuary. If you see anyone making offerings or saying prayers, come back and take your photos when they’re done. It’s considered insensitive and generally frowned upon to take photos inside a temple when people are there to worship.
Plan to spend at least an hour inside. It took us an hour to make it through all four courtyards we visited, and we were moving fairly quickly since we had lots to see in Hanoi that day. If you like to take your time and if you’re able to enter the fifth courtyard, you’ll likely need at least a half hour more to see it all.
Getting to the temple: It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake to the Temple of Literature. If you prefer not to walk, you can hop in a cyclo (human-powered bike taxi) and they’ll take you to the temple for a fee. (Probably best to agree on the fee before you get in!)
Looking for more Hanoi recommendations? Check out 8 Things To Do On Your First Trip To Hanoi for more sights to see, plus tips for visiting Vietnam’s capital!