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Hanoi, Vietnam-POW Prisons, Ho Chi Minh And Higher Learning

By John Saboe | Travel Ideas

Dec 31


The Temple of Literature or Van Meiu, Quoc Tu Giam was Vietnam’s first university. This temple is dedicated to Confucius as well as past scholars and sages, so significant it’s even featured on the back of the 100,000 dong note.

Confucius was a Chinese teacher, philosopher, and politician among other things. In the early part of his life in 500 B.C. China had broken into rival states battling for supremacy.

To bring more peace and harmony into society Confucius, created a code of ethics for people. He traveled the country to explain his principles. At the time his philosophy was radically different from the belief of acquiring status by power and heroic actions rather than selflessness, non-violent behaviour, and respect for others.

It was Founded in 1070 by emperor Ly Thanh Tong. Dedicated to Confucius or Khong Tu, when it first opened in 1076 entrance was only granted to those of noble birth. It wasn’t until 1442 that the university opened it’s doors to gifted students from across Vietnam who came to study the principles of Confucianism, literature, and poetry.

As you walk the main path of the complex you pass through the landscaped grounds filled with trees and ponds and several gates that lead into other sections with a total of 5 courtyards.

It’s easy to picture students taking a break to relax in between studies during the days of when the Temple of Literature was an active university. It’s still possible to feel some of that peace with just a dull rumble of motorbikes and traffic in the background. It’s easy to appreciate the traditional Vietnamese architecture with many structures and features made of wood and tiles.

In the third courtyard sits the pond known as the Well of Heavenly Clarity, sometimes also referred to as the Lake of Literature. It’s here where you also find the tombstone looking stelae dedicated to 1307 Doctors who studied here between 1442 and 1779. All of the stelae sit on stone tortoises, the sign of wisdom and longevity.

In May during exams in Hanoi, students were often seen at the temple rubbing the heads of the tortoise, believing it will bring good luck and a pass on their tests. Today there’s a fence in place to help preserve the turtles.

The fourth courtyard is dedicated to Confucius and 72 honored students as well as Chu Van An, known as an extremely passionate teacher.

There’s another tortoise on display, this one is gold plated ceramic. The tortoise is one of 4 sacred and mythical animals revered by Vietnamese, the others are the Phoenix, Dragon, and Unicorn. This area is also where Confucius along with his four closest disciples are worshipped.10 other philosophers are also honored in this sanctuary.

Because the Temple of Literature is such a picturesque location of history and traditional architecture there’s probably not a day that goes by without young couples posing for their wedding photos. Depending on the time of year you’ll also notice students upon graduation or completion of studies taking pictures.

During the time the Temple of Literature was operating as a university right up until it’s closing in 1779, students lived as well as studied here.

Along with Confucianism, poetry, and literature, students learned Chinese, Chinese philosophy, and Chinese history. They had minor tests each month and four major ones every year. Students were enrolled in the university anywhere between 3 and 7 years.

The fifth courtyard was constructed in 1076 to be the imperial academy.
In 1236 the Minh Luan House, more classrooms and dormitories were added. Khai Thanh Shrine was constructed to honor Confucius’ parents. In 1946 the French destroyed the fifth courtyard and it wasn’t until 2000 that new buildings were constructed along with the addition of a bell and drum tower.

Ceremonies are organized in the fifth courtyard for cultural scholars and events along with other activities.

Ho Chi Minh is considered the founding father of modern Vietnam. He was a communist revolutionary, prime minister and president. He died in 1969 before he could realize his dream of a united Vietnam.

Upon the fall of Saigon and the end of the war the former capital of the south was renamed after him. That same year a mausoleum was constructed in Hanoi where his body is displayed under dim lights in the cool central hall of the building.

The mausoleum, inspired by Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow is open to the public daily from 9 to 11am. There are strict dress codes and even body posture. No shorts or skirts, and hands must not be in your pockets or arms crossed. Photography or video is not allowed and even outside of the mausoleum when the doors are open there is a minimum distance where visitors to the area are allowed.

Still, it’s definitely worth visiting just for the fact that there are only 5 former leaders on display, this way, in the world. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is located at the center of Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945 establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Another site in Hanoi worth a visit and that should take less than two hours to properly cover is the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, known to American POW’s during the Vietnam War as the Hanoi Hilton.

Much of the prison was destroyed in the nineties for development but the original gatehouse remains as do some of the old cells and corridors. The displays are mostly focused on the days when the prison, run by the French colonists, kept Vietnamese political prisoners.

Inside a model of the original prison compound is on display along with lots of stories and articles of clothing of revolutionaries. Some of the cells are remembered as places where Vietnamese looking to overthrow the French suffered.

A guillotine used by the French to behead revolutionaries is in a haunting room complete with soundtrack. There are a couple of rooms where flight suits, photographs, and other personal items from captured U.S. military are on display which most will find interesting. Including pictures of young North Vietnamese female soldiers capturing and marching big tall American soldiers through the jungle.

Another room with the use of mannequins shows how crowded and horrid the conditions for Vietnamese prisoners were. Originally to house 450, records show there were up to 2000 imprisoned here in the 1930’s.

The prison is really a show of the fighting spirit of these revolutionaries honoring their suffering for the eventual freedom from the French. There’s even the actual sewer on display that many escaped through.

The final outside area of the museum is where a memorial is located and a haunting mural/sculpture depicting the torture and suffering of the Vietnamese that were jailed here.

Hanoi is the polar opposite is some ways to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, more traditional and formal in some ways, even strict, with much of the old quarter closed by 11pm. Different but still fascinating and exciting in it’s own way, and I can’t wait to share more.

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About the Author

I am a broadcaster, photographer, writer and videographer with a passion for travel throughout Asia. I love making connections and engaging with people. I am spiritual and seek adventure wherever I go.