Van Mieu — The Oldest University in Vietnam

Sixty years after Hanoi was established as a city in independent Vietnam, Van Mieu (or more popularly referred to in English as The Temple of Literature) was founded as a Confucian school. The temple is one of the oldest and most significant buildings among Confucian complexes in Vietnam, and still remains a treasured cultural edifice. 


The Temple of Literature is located three blocks down from the Thang Long Citadel along Van Mieu Street. What inspired me to check out the temple was not because it is one of the must-visit sights in Hanoi but because I am interested in the educational system of countries and what better introduction to Vietnam’s educational system than the country’s oldest university?

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First courtyard. (Photo by Joel Lopez.)

The temple was a Confucian university and was open mostly to the male children of the king and mandarins (civil servants). Later on, the university was opened to all talented young men in the kingdom. The temple is divided into five courtyards — five being a symbolic number in Confucianism, and the most sacred of all courtyards are the most inner courtyards. Again, like in the Thang Long Citadel, there are three pathways and entrances, the middle of which was reserved for the king.

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One of the 82 still standing steles.
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Rows of steles.

The temple is open to visitors everyday except Saturdays, from 7:30AM to 5:30 AM (during summer) and 8:00AM to 5:00PM (during winter). Adults must pay 30,000VND (US$1.28, Php69.50) for entrance. There are audio guides available but I was not able to note the price. While the temple is technically a university, guests are encouraged to wear decent clothes because the temple is sacred — that is how much they value education. The fourth courtyard contains the ceremony house, which is the most sacred place in the temple, while the fifth courtyard contains the academic rooms. Now, some of the buildings have been converted to souvenir shops. There is even a Hanoia branch inside the temple grounds. We also learned some of the buildings were converted to offices because the temple also serves as the Center for Scientific and Cultural Activities.

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Fourth courtyard.
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Fifth courtyard. (Photo by Joel Lopez).

After having satisfactorily inspected the nooks and crannies of the temple, we crossed the street to Ho Giam (Lake Giam) because I got curious of the tables upon tables of books underneath several tents. Turned out, a portion of the front of the lake is a book shop where secondhand Vietnamese books are for sale. Surrounding the small lake were native cottages that sold native arts and crafts, such as handcrafted paper, calligraphy, and stuffed toys. The Temple of Literature is also near the Museum of Fine Arts, so that might also be worth checking out.

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At the ceremony house.
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Calligraphy book.

Just like in many Vietnamese architecture and design, the details found in the structures inside the Temple of Literature are full of symbolisms and functions but what I found most unique were the engraved stones (technically called “steles”) on top of turtles in the third courtyard. If I did not read ahead information about the Temple of Literature I would have thought these were tombstones. Turtles are symbols of long life and wisdom to the Vietnamese and the engravings in these stones were names of the passers of the national exams. This made me think of how much they value education and passing the exam, which also explained why, one of the skits at the Thang Long water puppet theatre involved a parade held for a son who passed the national exam. It was not just a source of pride, it was an honor.

Feature image by Joel Lopez.


Logan, William and Thuc, Nguyen Hong 2004, University planning and design under confucianism, colonialism, communism and capitalism: the Vietnamese experience, in Planning models and the culture of cities, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, Catalunya, Spain, pp. 1-12.


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