As it was only a couple of days before the Lunar New Year and the Tét holidays the streets of Hanoi appeared to be much busier than normal, the streets were cluttered with impromptu stalls selling trees, flowers and Tét decorations. ML and I had been warned that the Temple of Literature like most tourist attractions would probably be busy with tour groups so we were advised to get there as it opened – this turned out to be a really good tip as for the first hour or so it was easy to see and photograph things without extraneous people sticking a head, elbow or some other unwanted body part into our photographs.
As normal we were awake bright and early so as we got out of the taxi it was just on opening time. You know it’s going to be good when before you’ve even walked through the portico you come face to face with a giant topiary dragon who glares at you with his beady eyes, his claws outstretched trying to snag you for a quick snack between meals.
Walking through the portico is like entering another world, you step from the hustle and bustle of the busy city street into a tranquil ordered calm environment. Probably how it feels to walk through the wardrobe into a soft silent world except rather than the white of snowy Narnia (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C S Lewis), green is the predominant colour.
Scattered across the lawns either side of the path are topiary animals looking like escapees from a children’s game. I kept expecting them to move when I turned away in a slightly sinister version of Grandmother’s Footsteps/Statues/Red Light, Green Light. I have a slightly macabre imagination and could almost hear the whispers of the animals as they planned to bring me down, the goat butting me from behind, the snake and the dragon trapping my hand and feet ……….. you see what I mean.
Real life intruded into disturbing thoughts as a professional photographer arriving with his model, he posed her against the pillars of the first gate, and when ML and I took a couple of pictures of her he pulled a face that would have done the topiary pig proud so we moved on to the second courtyard.
The displays here were of garish bright red/orange against cool green plants, a Vietnamese version of the carpet bedding displays beloved by UK councils and that can be seen gracing many a city or seaside town and regularly seen at Chelsea Flower Show.
At this point I lost ML he was drawn off into the next courtyard enticed by huge brightly coloured flags reflecting into water. I was fascinated by the trunks of the trees and spent far too long just looking at them.
The gate through to the next courtyard looked like someone had put all their favourite Lego pieces together and come up with this amazing end result. Four white pillars decorated with stylised patterns, to me they reminded me of clouds or the sinewy body of a dragon – who knows what the artist intended. On top of that is sat a red and gold wooden building housing a large bell. Around the edges is a small walkway, it would make an amazing tree house, you would be able to spy out 360 degrees. I’m sure it has a more lofty use than that of a lookout point for pirates but I like my use better.
A huge pool of water is through the next gateway into the third courtyard – you can understand why it is called the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’, although it could just as easily be named the ‘Well of Heavenly Tranquillity’, an oasis of calm and contemplation until it was shattered by the first tour groups arriving on their whistle-stop tour of the many sites of Hanoi, luckily they snapped away at the water, listened to a short commentary and spend more time arranging themselves so they could take yet another ‘selfie’ on the steps in front of the gateway.
Then I caught sight of the tortoises, I’ve already explained about the stelae set on the back of tortoises in Temple of Literature – Part One. You have to peer quite closely at them to identify the decorations and the writing on the upright blocks, but what caught my attention was the carved tortoises. They looked ancient, regal and I’m sure deserved to be up there with better known tortoise like Morla from Never Ending Story, or the Great A’Tuin from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
They have that look of gravitas about them as they bear the weight of the stone block on their backs. I imagine them when the temple complex is closed and the light dims that they are relieved of their burden as they lumber off around the gardens, stretching their stiff limbs and nibbling the grass here and there (I know they don’t eat grass but it’s my imagination so here they do) before returning to their place in serried ranks ready to be admired for another day.