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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

Temple of Literature and Water Puppets in Hanoi

Day 744

A much better day today after yesterday's frustration. We visited two iconic yet very different places in Hanoi, both from ancient times. The Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and the Water Puppet show - but was this another weird show like the one we had in Paraty?

After the most divine coffee e-v-e-r with thick foam and coconut cream swirled on top, we walked to Van Mieu, otherwise known as the Temple of Literature.

This temple was initially built in 1070 dedicated to Confucius with a similar layout to the Temple in China where he was born.

We decided to splash out on an Audio Guide (total of £2.07) and the narrator wished us a meaningful and emotional visit.

The whole area is split into five courtyards, but before anyone reached these, they were commanded to dismount from their horse as a mark of respect. We didn’t take ours today.

We walked through the main gate with a bronze bell added in the 19th century to notify when an important person was entering. It’s decorated with a phoenix and dragon representing beauty and power; also signifying the Emperor and Queen.

As we entered the first courtyard, even though a few other visitors were milling around, the place felt peaceful; the symmetry, lily ponds and ancient trees brought a harmonious feeling to the area. In the past, scholars would also relax here, escaping from the bustle of the city.

A few of the courtyards and gates, such as this one, were split into three. The centre path or gate was used only for the king and high-ranking people. The left was for the administrators and the right for the military. We used the central ones! Order had its place; the first lesson within Confucianism was to learn how to behave respectfully. Knowledge came later.

The next courtyard was Khuc Van Cac, meaning “Constellation of Literature”; rather apt as this is home to the first university of Vietnam. It’s a beautiful pavilion built in 1805 and now a symbol for Hanoi. I loved the round windows under the elaborate double roof. A feat of structural engineering with all that weight on the top.

The third courtyard has several rows of large stone steles on turtles as they are a symbol of longevity and wisdom. These were erected in 1484 by the Emperor to honour the doctor laureates passing the royal exams. Each stone was engraved, giving valuable details for historians. As our narrator on the Audio said: “Excellent talents and good virtue are the sustaining elements of a country.”

The Dai Thanh gate and the courtyard beyond is a ceremonial area where Confucius, his four disciples plus ten honoured philosophers are still worshipped. We loved the two dragons flanking the moon on the rooftop and the two cranes standing on the back of tortoises symbolising dualism in the universe.

Finally, at the back of the area is the fifth courtyard of Thai Hoc, built as the Imperial academy in 1076, the first university in Vietnam, and remained open until 1779. Sadly the area was destroyed by the French in 1946 but reconstructed 54 years later. A bell house and drum house was incorporated with the bell made in 2000 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Thang Tong, and the drum is the largest in Vietnam, weighing in at 700 kg, made from 50 pieces of 300-year-old Jack fruit!

In one building, we saw a selection of items excavated in 1999, showing the simple life of the students, including clothes, pottery and educational material. We also learnt how the students lived. This included details of punishments they endured if they behaved inappropriately, ranging from writing 150 pages to 50 lashings to even doing military service.

The students enrolled for three to seven years, and the charge per student was based on their social status. Each month they had to take a minor test, then four major tests annually. Those successful could sit the national exam and if still passing, moved onto the imperial examination, with the questions written by the monarch himself. The top three became Laureates, very prestigious positions indeed.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time here, was it meaningful and emotional? The former, not so emotional, but our tummies were rumbling. It was time to find food.

Late afternoon we booked tickets for the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Was this going to similar to the extraordinarily weird Puppet show we saw in Paraty with our family last Christmas? -We hope not!

Thang Long Water Puppet Show

We are pleased to say that the show was fabulous. It began with six musicians playing instruments I hadn’t seen before. One had just one string which the player vibrated to form her tune – amazing.

Suddenly a puppet appeared in the water – a jolly chap who, the story goes, was born in heaven and was sent to earth as punishment for stealing a peach. He jiggled and splashed in the water. How did he move? Was someone under the water? Surely not, they wouldn’t be able to breathe for that long.

We were watching an art form that was created by farmers a thousand years ago, and we’ve never seen anything like it. It’s undoubtedly a unique art.

There were 17 mini-performances altogether which lasted about an hour. This included colourful dragons swimming around, spitting water and fire, I wonder if the front row got wet.

Next, a little boy appeared playing the flute on the back of a buffalo with more splashing. He was joined by farmers sowing rice which miraculously grew.

One of the scenes was a farmer trying to catch jumping frogs. The audience cheered when the frog was finally caught. The singers were making various sounds resembling croaks and kept laughing. I am sure they were competing as to who could make the funniest noise.

The acts showed a lot about farm life, looking after ducks and saving them from the sly fox, to fishing, all with much frivolity, including a Dragon boat race.

The atmosphere changed to a serious note for the “Glorious return of the Candidate to his native village to pay thanks to the ancestors after his success in the National Examination”. Not the catchiest of titles; appropriate for us as we’d visited the Temple of Literature this morning.

The puppeteers were brilliant, how they synchronised children swimming, and moved the neck of the Phoenix up and down, I don’t know.

On one of the final acts, I at last worked out how the puppets moved. As the unicorns (which looked like dragons) played ball, I saw the bamboo poles. OK, so I know how the puppets were moving, but I still hadn’t worked out the more detailed movements. Tim reckons there are pulleys going down the bamboo sticks. Any ideas?

The lights went up and coming out of the curtains standing in the deep water was the puppeteers, a group of talented men and women who made our day.

Paraty, eat your heart out, this is how to do entertaining puppetry.

#TempleofLiteratureHanoi #VanMieu #Confucius #KhucVanCac #ConstellationofLiterature #Hanoi #Vietnam #OldestUniversityInVietnam #BiggestDruminVietnam #DrummadefromJackFruit #ThangLongWaterPuppetShow #AmazingWaterPuppets #HowdotheWaterPuppetsmove

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