The Temples of Hanoi

Hanoi has temples hidden across the city. Every neighborhood has one. Some are Buddhist or Daoist temples; others are Confucian temples or ancestral shrines built to honor famous Vietnamese heroes. To the average tourist without much experience in eastern religions, it can be hard to differentiate between Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples and some ancestral shrines. Even I had a hard time figuring out what each temple was without having access to literature about them. I noticed that many temples had similar architecture, even using red and gold throughout the buildings. The temples use imagery of serpents, turtles, dragons, and cranes. All these animals are tied to important legends and folk tales in Vietnamese culture, so they appear in building or temple that is religious or tied to the ruling kingdoms. After reflecting and reaserching the temples in Vietnam, I found a few ways to tell them apart.

The Buddhist temples and ansesrtal shrines are the easiest to tell apart from a quick glance. If it’s a Buddhist temple you usually can spot a swastika. This symbol in eastern religions, including Hinduism, Jain, and Buddhism, stands for good luck and prosperity. Vietnamese Ansestrial shrines usually have the person’s name (sometimes in Hanja/Hanzi Chinese) on a stone, paintings, or photographs of the person in lew of statues. Shrines to import historical or legendary figures like Trang Huang Dao are exceptions to this rule (his shrines are also Taoist temples).

If you still can’t figure out which religion the temple belongs to, look at the cental statue. You will notice most of these statues sitting down, often with hands in similar positions to each other. However, there are several key diffrences in telling them appart.

A statue of Buddha is usually sitting cross leggade, or standing and in rare cases laying down with its head proped up on his elbow. Buddhist statues are depicted bald or their hair is curly and kept in a bun on top of the head. The statue will also be wearing a monk’s robe some time covering only one shoulder or completely open showing Buddha’s chest. Now there are several diffrent statues including the Buddha of Compassion but this is a good starting point if you are unfamiliar with the religion as a whole.

A statue of Confucius usually has a handlebar mustache and a goatee (length can vary) and has a scholar’s hat. Many figures (not all, though) are depicted in traditional Chinese garments of red and gold. Although it may be hard to see, Confucius is also shown sitting on a throne-like chair that blends in with the ornamental carvings surrounding him.

Lastly, Daoist statues in Vietnam can be even harder to distinguish as they can have features of one or both Buddhist and Confucian figures. The ones I saw were like Confucias sitting on a throne like chair. They clothed in garments that looked like cloth with armor on the front, and usually, one of the statue’s hands was holding or resting on a sword or weapon. Sometimes, the other hand was holding what looked to be a piece of wood. There are many Doauist deities, but the ones I saw were all depicted as warriors and often had animals, especially turtles, at their feet.

Now with a few ways to tell the temples of Vietnam apart, travel with me to the temples of Hanoi.

Quan Thanh Temple or Tran Vu Temple

The temple was one of four Douist Temples built facing the cardinal directions to protect ancient Hanoi from evil spirits constructed in the 11th century. Quan Thanh Temple is dedicated to the deity Xuanxwu the god of the north, who can control the elements. He is also known as the ‘black’ god and is often depicted as a turtle entwined with a snake. The statue of Xuanxwu at Quan Thanh Temple is all black, and if you look closely at his feet, you can see a turtle and a snake. This stunning temple has intricate details on its roof and bonsai gardens donning the courtyard, making it well worth the small entrance fee.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

I was so bummed that the temple was closed when I finally reached it, but the pagoda was still a sight from the bridge connecting the temple to the street. Even from far away, you can see the white Buddhist statues and their details on the pagoda. If you’re visiting it in the Summer, it is just far enough from surrounding sights (Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Quan Than Temple); the heat will make you sweat profusely. When you schedule a visit, know it closes between 11:30am and 1:30pm.

Ngoc Son Temple

This temple is an ancestral shrine to the famous war hero Tran Hung Dao and a temple to the Daoist God Van Xuong De Qua. Tran Hung Dao defeated the Chinese Yuan Dynasty (technically the Mongol Empire, but it was referred to as Chinese) in the 13th century. This temple is located at the far end of Old Quarter Hanoi on a small island in Ho Hoan Kiem lake.

It is not common for ancestral shrines to have statues representing the ancestor, nor is it common for them to be so ornate (not including the royal shrines). Tran Hung Dao is different; his real-life defeats have become almost mythical, like that of Arthurian legend. Legend has it that during his campaigns against the Chinese invaders, Tran Hung Dao took a bote to the middle of Ho Hoan Kiem lake to beseech the gods for help. The gods answered by gifting him a powerful sword that emerged from the lake on the back of a turtle. This sword gave him the power to command Viatnams armies and defeat the Chinese invaders (Mongolian Empire). Upon victory, he would return to the lake giving the legendary sword back to the gods giving his thanks and that of the people of Vietnam.

Ngoc Son Temple is a unique temple combining ancestral worship traditions with Daoist and Confucian traditions. Making it worth the steep entrance fee of 30,000VND. This place is a popular destination amongst locals and tourists alike, so expect it to be busy no matter when yu. If the price ad amout of people deture you atleast swing by after dark to see the temple lit up at night from across the lake.

Temple of Literature

To the average person, the Temple of Literature is precisely what you expect from its name a temple. However, Confucianism is more a philosophy that dictates how a country is ruled and the everyday life of its people than a religion. So, this temple is less of a temple and more of a school or library where scholars and government officials would have studied philosophy. This is also a place where students wealthy enough to afford private tutoring from any part of society would have traveled to take their exams. Passing these exams would allow them to enter the scholar class. This class was held above all others besides royalty.

At the Temple of Literature, I was surprised to see a temple to Confucius. In my experience in Korea (where I live at the time I’m writing this), buildings holding a similar purpose to that of the Temple of Literature in a Confucius society do not have a temple. Instead, it may have a small shrine or a painting of Confucious with a small ancestral altar. The landscape of this temple is an excellent representation of Confucian architectural practices that emphasize harmony with nature. At the same time, the ornamental roofs display dragons with mosaic ceramics embedded in the stone are uniquely Vietnamese. I really enjoyed the short walk around the grounds. It was fascinating to see the similarities and differences between Confucianism in Korea and Vietnam while reflecting on how its ideals and practices helped shape the two countries.

When exploring the beautiful temples of Vietnam, ensure you carry extra clothing to cover your legs and shoulders so you can check them out as you wander the streets.

All The Places

Ngoc Son Temple30,000 VND – P. Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, 

Quan Thanh Temple aprox. 10,000 VND – Đ. Thanh Niên, Quán Thánh, Ba Đình, Hà Nội 118810, Vietnam

Tran Quoc Pagoda??? – 46 Đ. Thanh Niên, Trúc Bạch, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội, Vietnam

The Temple of Literatureaprox. 10,000 VND– 2RHP+PF Đống Đa, Hanoi, Vietnam

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