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Friday, March 13, 2009

Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) - Hanoi - Vietnam

I've mentioned before that I discovered food blogs while searching for a recipe for Cha Ca Thang Long (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Turmeric Fish with Dill). I can't remember why I was craving those particular flavors at that time. It's not a dish I grew up eating as dill is mainly used in northern Vietnamese cooking. Besides, for me, since cha ca literally means fish paste, I think of my mom's fish paste patties.

Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) - Hanoi - Vietnam 1

Unless you're Vietnamese, the nuances of regional differences won't make much sense to you. No more is that clear than when it comes to speech. There are six tones so just a different inflection will be a different word. Throw in three A's (a, ă, and â), two E's (e and ê), one I but sometimes Y, three O's (o, ô, and ơ), and two U's (u and ư). The accents are on top of each of the vowels. There are also two D's (d and đ).

I remember reading once that when you're young, you learn languages on one side of the brain. While my Vietnamese isn't as fluent as my English, I can still navigate Vietnamese pretty well. Or rather, I should say South-Central Vietnamese. Northern Vietnamese with its ZZZZ sounds for the letters D, G, and R completely throw me for a loop. I can feel the other side of my brain shifting as it takes several seconds to translate the Northern dialect into South-Central before I can understand what someone is saying. In some cases, with the completely different vocabulary for some simple objects and I can't understand at all.

For me, being in Hanoi was akin to the time I lived in London. Technically, we were speaking the same language, but the different pronunciations and vocabulary often left me blank.

Granted, I wasn't at my best my first day in Hanoi. I was fighting a cold that had me alternately dizzy and sniffling. I thought Saigon was hot, but Hanoi was an absolute sauna. And the very first place my Vietnamese teachers/tour guides took us to was to you-know-who's mausoleum and museum.


Then we had an extremely overpriced (by Vietnam standards), but very delicious lunch of the aforementioned cha ca Thang Long at the restaurant that invented the dish, Cha Ca La Vong.

Afterward, I pleaded off from the rest of the day's tours because I was simply too sick to push on through. So I missed the trip to Van Mieu (Temple of Literature).

By the end of the month, Hanoi had grown on me a little bit. On my last day, I woke up super early and started at Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword Lake) to catch people exercising around the lake.

Then, I hailed a xe om (motorbike hug), Vietnamese slang for a person who hires out their motorbike like a taxi, to take me to Van Mieu. While I'm much more comfortable in Saigon, I can appreciate Hanoi for its centuries of Vietnamese history.

Built in 1070, Van Mieu was erected as a Confucian temple. In 1076, it housed Quoc Tu Giam (Imperial Academy), Vietnam's first university, educating bureaucrats, nobles, and other members of the elite until 1779.

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I caught a glimpse of the sweetest-looking grandma and grandson out for the day to visit the temple too.

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The inner courtyard.

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A somewhat 360 degree view of the inner courtyard.

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So what were those huge steles atop tortoises?

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Since it was such a rigorous test and passing the imperial exams was such an honor, in 1484, Emperor Ly Thanh Tong established the tradition of carving the names of the men who made it through.

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Out of the 116 steles, 82 remain.

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For many Vietnamese, passing the exams was a way to improve their family's circumstances and social status. Remember the folktale of Luu Binh and Duong Le?

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I bought some incense and matches to light at the altar to ask Confucius (?), all 2,313 men who passed the exams (?), anyone (?), to help me with my education. What can I say? We nerdy Asian kids can use all the help we can get to be smarter. :P

I then wandered around the rest of the complex.

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The list of the men who passed the exams in 1535. I could have sworn the numbers were their ranking and I only snapped this because the only name I recognized was Nguyen Binh Khiem, a famous Vietnamese poet. But he couldn't have been #32 since history records him as placing #1 that year at the relatively old age of 44.

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After that, I hailed another xe om back to the Old Quarter, bought some shoes I had been eyeing, and then it was time to pack and leave Hanoi.

Song Hong (Red River).

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Song Hong (Red River) - Hanoi - Vietnam 2

Other Vietnam posts can be found in the tag Series: Vietnam, but I suggest reading the series in this order:
Mekong Delta - Vietnam
Com Lam (Vietnamese Sticky Rice in Bamboo) - Sa Pa - Vietnam
Tien Dung Chu Dong Tu Temple of Love - Binh Minh - Vietnam
Pho Cuon Ha Noi (Vietnamese Rice Noodle Rolls Hanoi-Style)
Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword Lake) - Ha Noi - Vietnam
Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) - Ha Noi - Vietnam
Cha Ca Thang Long (Vietnamese Hanoi-Style Turmeric Fish with Dill)
Sofitel Plaza Saigon Chocolate Buffet - Saigon - Vietnam

1 year ago today, a little tweaking with my banana bread recipe.
2 years ago today, Ca Phe Sua Da/Ca Phe Sua Nong (Vietnamese Milk Coffee Iced/Vietnamese Milk Coffee Hot).


  1. Oh, the memories. Not about the language, unfortunately (I'll all two left feet there, more's the pity) but about Hanoi. I did all those things except for the museum and mausoleum. We are talking about returning, maybe this Christmas...

  2. Great post, WC! I love it. I love how you say "you-know-who's museum and mausoleum" and your honest description of Hanoi (not the all flowery kind like it's so beautiful and whatnot).

    And it's strange that Nguyen Binh Khiem is #32... The exams consisted of 3 levels, maybe he was #32 in one of the levels and only became #1 in the final round? Just a guess... So peculiar.

  3. Thanks for the memories! Even though Parker An is from central and I enjoyed the central/southern people and food more, I also really liked our time in Hanoi and Halong. The temple of lit was awe inspiring for me. Hoping we can make it back to the area on our first return visit, hopefully next year.

  4. Tammy,
    I liked Hanoi more because my friend invited me home with her and we had a lot of fun hanging out with her cousins. I did like all the historical things there were to see, but the food, the language, the heat, I could do without.

    Well, it was that or he-who-must-not-be-named. :P Is he on the same level as Voldemort though? And no, I don't think I would ever discuss Hanoi, or Vietnam, in flowery terms. Not my style or how I saw things.

    It's been so long, I had forgotten what that #32 stood for.

    You and me both! I wonder how Parker will do on his first trip back?

  5. @WC: his body is still in tact, but I don't know if he stored his soul in separate places. This uncertainty might make it harder to defeat him once he gets revived. :-P

  6. Ubermuc,
    I'm sure there are plenty of anti-communist Vietnamese who believe that he-who-must-not-be-named's soul was divided and that's why they must fight to defeat him! :P


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