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Chambers at Large in The Temple of Literature and on Train Street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Updated: Jul 14

The day my fellow travellers and I spent in Hanoi was hot, humid and full of surprises.  Our tour began at the Temple of Literature where students studied in courtyards under banyan trees or sat under pagodas or contemplated what they had learned whilst walking around koi carp ponds.

The five walled courtyards are joined by one straight path, used by royalty and those of higher rank.  Commoners, like my good self, took the side paths, but walked through a red roofed gates where the steps force one to bow when facing the temple in the fifth courtyard. Studies included how to behave respectfully and when visiting temples visitors were asked to cover knees and shoulders, but some paid no heed to this simple request.

The third courtyard contained a square pool called The Well of Heavenly Brilliance.  To the sides are stone stelae on tortoise shaped pedestals.

The reptile symbolises longevity and  the names of successful candidates are carved in the stones, now faded with age as they date back to the fifteenth century.

The fifth courtyard was where students from the royal family studied in the eleventh century.  Statues of Confucius and the first principal of the school tower over visitors in the temple, surrounded by offerings of fruit and flowers. Standing alongside are statues of phoenixes symbolising beauty, and a unicorn representing power.

Military personnel in green and yellow uniforms were present visiting the site and I learned that national service is compulsory for men when they reach the age of eighteen.  Young women join the armed forces voluntarily, but see it as a means to finding a good job.

Our next stop was to be mausoleum of former president Ho Chi Minh.  However the site was closed due to a delegation arriving and the queue already in situ was not moving.  I for one was not standing in 30C heat, in high humidity with no water for two hours, possibly more, just to see the resting place a man who wanted to be cremated, not interred, his ashes scattered elsewhere.  Quite rightly the visit was abandoned and our guide suggested that we head to Train Street, which proved to be the highlight of the day.

Train Street is exactly what it says.  It’s a long street flanked on both sides with shops, bars and restaurants and down the centre runs a single train track.  Every four hours or so a train from Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) to Hanoi passes through. 

My fellow travellers and I were invited to sit on tiny wooden stools with our backs to a wall by the train track.  Many ordered a cold beer, myself included.  The waitress laid the tops of the beer on the track and tables were flattened on the ground when the train was approaching.

We were instructed to sit well back and sit well back we did!  The train comes down the one line track at about 40km per hour and it was a hair’s breadth away from me when the locomotive swept by hauling a number of passenger carriages.  Never have I been so close to a fast moving train and the experience, although partially dangerous, was thrilling! 

Once the train had passed we retrieved the now flattened beer tops and I will make mine into a fridge magnet to ensure I won’t forget my visit.

Other streets in Hanoi are thronged with scooters, both on and parked by the roads.  It is the major mode of transport.   However, of an evening several of the streets are closed, especially by the Hoan Kiem Lake, which is in the centre of the city.

We went to a water puppet show nearby where vibrant puppets performed on a pool of water.  The show is exceedingly popular, telling tales of fishermen, dragons and royalty, all accompanied by women singing and men playing stringed instruments and the drums.

Coming out of the puppet theatre the streets were now crowded with people, I was approached by an impeccably dressed teenage boy and a younger lad of about eight.  ‘Excuse me, madam,’ the teenager said in perfect English, ‘but would you mind speaking with my friend who is learning English.’

‘I’d be delighted,’ I replied and looked down at the dark haired, round faced student who held an A4 piece of paper in his hand on which I could see a list of questions written in English, the Vietnamese translation beside them.

‘Good evening, madam,’ he said, his words perfectly enunciated.  ‘What is your name?’

I told him and asked him his.

‘My name is Kwan,’ he replied.  ‘Where do you live?’

He looked completely confused when I replied ‘Ireland’, but I pressed on and asked him where he lived, to which he replied, ‘Hanoi,’ but then he consulted his piece of paper and amended his statement.  ‘I live in Hanoi.’

At that moment I was summoned by my guide to go for dinner and not wanting to keep my fellow travellers waiting I said to Kwan, ‘I have to go, goodbye, it was lovely to meet you’.

He quickly emulated me, reiterating my farewell. ‘It was lovely to meet you too.’

I was thanked for my time by the teenager and as I walked away I was struck by the politeness and civility of the youngsters.  It was refreshing and as my tour of Vietnam progressed it became apparent that the local people are most respectful and courteous.  More than can be said for some of my fellow travellers who, by and large, were British. 

‘Manners maketh man’ is an alliterative adage I was taught early and it has stood me in good stead.  However, it appears there are a growing number of selfish individuals who lack common courtesy or display a sense of entitlement and are sorely in need of taking a basic lesson in respect at the Temple of Literature or speaking with the likes of young Kwan.  I hope he does well in his studies.



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Please click on the link to read more about my tour of Hanoi which reveals its turbulent past and progressive future.




From Hanoi I travelled to Ha Long Bay to take a cruise amongst the karsts. It was a journey I will never forget. To find out why, please click on the link:



 

    

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I always enjoy your descriptions of your travels. How kind of you to allow the young student to practice his English.

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