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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The temple of literature

Day 2 in Hanoi, had a bit of a lazy time, but at least the jet lag seems over. We woke up a bit late, and had Pho Bo for breakfast - a mild, aromatic beef and noodle stew, before going for a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake. This is where people do Tai Chi every morning, and you can see why - it's a little oasis of green in the middle of the city. All around it are roads, with people roaring past on motor scooters, but by the lake it's tranaquility itself. Hanoians(?) stretch out and relax, read, or stroll slowly by. In the centre of the lake, a red bridge leads to a religious complex, which has a Buddhist pagoda, a Taoist shrine, and a Confucianist one. The lake itself is called the "lake of the lost sword", as legend has it that a famous Vietnamese king was on the lake one day, after having won a battle, and a turtle came up from underneath, and asked him for his magic sword. He passed it over, and the turtle sank beneath the water once more, ready to pass the sword onto someone else, should Vietnam need it again.

After the lake, we had a cup of bubble tea. This is a tea based drink that comes in all sort of flavours. You choose the one you like (I had red bean, Sara sweet cherry), and they mix the flavouring powder with tea, drop in some sago beans and ice, and put the whole thing in a cocktail shaker for a minute. It's very refreshing, sipped through a large straw - and intermittently lumpy, as a sago bean comes up with the liquid.

Suitably refreshed, we walked to the temple of literature, about a kilometer to the west of the lake. This is the site of the oldest remains in Hanoi - a temple complex from about 1000ad. In fact, not many years after the founding of the temple, it was made a university, too, making it pre-date Oxford in England. Another very beautiful and tranquil place, made more poignant by the fact that many of the buildings these days are replicas, as the others were destroyed in one of the many wars fought in Vietnam this century.

The temple itself was interesting in being dedicated to Confucious, and hence scholarship. This was the way the ruling class used to be chosen: people would turn up here hoping to pass the official examinations and become a Mandarin. They would carry a bamboo bed, a small tent, tea making apparatus, food, ink and paper - and steel themselves for one of the hardest exams the world has known. In the 15th century, for example, out of 3000 entrants for one exam session, only 8 passed. On the other hand, being a mandarin was the passport, for a person of any background, to wealth and a privileged life. From the fourteenth century onwards, one of the kings asked for permanent records of those who passed the exams, so there are large stone stelae, carved with the names in the halls down the sides of the complex - each one mounted on the back of a stone turtle.

The two interesting things I take from this is how much like China Vietnam is. The tai chi, chinese medicine and Confucionism, as well as the temple style, are all very chinese. Also, it's an interesting contrast to our own time, where so many people have a university degree these days, and O-levels regularly have pass-rates above 90%. I suppose it's something like the mandarin experience I was expecting when I passed my degree, but as time goes on in England, the increasing numbers of people getting degrees devalues them, and makes it harder to prove your worth with scholarship. One comment that was made in the fourteenth century was that the foundation of a state was virtue and learning, and that the state fails to prosper when this is forgotten. I guess we'll have to see about that one.

On our way home, we passed through the park next door. It had a pagoda in the middle, and a long winding path through some fountains. This seemed to be the park of health, as many of the people were undergoing some sort of physical therapy - massage, stretching, walking backwards, or slapping themselves. They also seemed older than the people elsewhere, so perhaps they were more in need of better health.

And finally back to the hotel - but not before passing a reminder that Vietnam is a communist country: a statue of Lenin. As befits such a statue, it fronted a large square, but most of the people seemed more interested in playing games. In fact, badminton courts were marked on the pavement all around. We were particularly impresed by two men who were playing badminton without any raquets - just using football techniques to pass the shuttlecock over the net.

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