Friday, August 10, 2018

Tonkin, mon amour – the temples

So, Hanoi's architecture was something that fascinated me, as you could probably tell from my previous post on the city. But another important aspect, and which I also loved, was Hanoi's temples. And let me simply start with an iconic one, Tháp Rùa (which means Turtle Tower, 塔𪛇), in the Middle of Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, or Lake of the Returned Sword, 湖還劍). 

Now, OK, I'm cheating a bit, because this is a 19th century tower to commemorate a legend about the Vietnamese defeating the Chinese in the 15th century. But there used to be a temple where it stands, OK? And frankly, standing there, in the middle of the lake, it gave it such a special and mystical air...

By the north end of that same like lies Ngoc Son Temple (Đền Ngọc Sơn, 玉山, or Temple of the Jade Mountain), famous for its gorgeous and very Vietnamese crimson bridge. This was the very first Vietnamese temple I entered, and I was fascinated by the differences in the details with China's temples. Because, of course, being Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian, the inspiration is Chinese. But as in Japan or Korea, it's the details that make the whole difference.

Now, I'm definitely no expert. And I haven't been to every single temple in China nor have I memorized all their characteristics. But what caught my eye, for example, was the incense burners with lion or dragon faces spewing forth clouds; or the tall and elegant phoenix sculptures, or the ubiquitous use as offering of a weird fruit (vegetable?) that looks as if it had a bunch of fingers growing out of it. 

Turtles being such a sacred animal, the temple had a stuffed one too. Huge. And bonsai trees. And placid views of the lake. Nice place, this temple.

Our walking around the city also brought us to this other jewel. Alas, I have no name for it. It's simply a temple inside a business building at 102 Hàng Bạc and, due to the nature of Hanoi buildings (remember how many of them are super narrow), it ends up being a very labyrinthine, bunched up hidden space you can only reach through a narrow set of stairs, with no sign at all. Incredible. 

And then, there's what is supposedly the oldest temple in the city, the Bach Ma Temple (Đền Bạch Mã, or White Horse Temple). We had to wait a bit for this one, as we arrived during lunch time. Because you should know, temples, museums and everything closes for a couple of hours around noon. But we used the time to explore more alleys, streets, have a bowl of deliciousness as one does in Hanoi, and come back energized to see the temple.

And there, see? The incense burner, again, clouds coming out of the dragon faces. Loved the clouds. Loved the concept. And also, more phoenix statues (I prefer the "chubby" ones at Ngoc Son Temple, by the way). And something that sort of reminded me of Guangdong Province in China – the patterns on the top of the side shrines, but still, the colours, the specific shapes... I don't think I had seen that before.

Of course, French rule had to bring with it Catholicism, right? And with it, St. Joseph's Cathedral (Nhà thờ Chính tòa Thánh Giuse), which sits in a nice square surrounded by cafés. Actually, this was where one of our walking tours of the city ended, and it was just perfect, because there was a Cộng Cà Phê in an old building and it was the perfect place to relax, chill, and enjoy the views.

On another tour of a different part of the city we also came across another Catholic church. No idea what it was called, but it was nice to see it painted a deep ochre, like most of the historical buildings around it. A nice touch of colour.

Another hard to find place? Hai Bà Trưng Temple. In your map, it looks really easy to enter, just by a lake. But if you don't approach from the right street, you find yourself in a maze of narrow alleys, constantly doubting your direction. In theory founded in the 12th century, this is part of a series of temples dedicated to the Trưng sisters, who combated the Chinese domination at the beginning of our era. When we went there, it was very quiet. And you can see plenty of female figures, as it would befit a temple like this.

OK, I guess by now you're getting a bit tired of temples. But hey, all in all we spent a whole week in Hanoi. So of course we had to see a lot, right? Now, when we got to this one below we were already very tired, with all the heat, humidity, and intermittent showers. But I myself still enjoyed it quite a bit. It's the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu, 文廟). It's a thousand years old, served as a Confucian place for scholarship and instruction, and provided me with plenty more curious things to look at and appreciate.

For example, I noticed how the decoration above some of the roofs was covered in tiles with blue tinges, another thing I did not remember seeing in China, and which gave them a very distinct character. Oh, and the Dharma wheel as motif, especially in one of the towers. Now, that's Buddhist, but it was clear that Buddhism and Confucianism and Taoism were not being kept orthodoxically separate around here.

And there were two other details I loved. First, the tiles of the roofs. I'm not sure what shape they had, like some leaf perhaps? The habibi thought they looked like lotus leaves... Anyhow, they gave such different patterns when viewed from various angles. So beautiful. And also, the profuse use of cloud motifs on roof endings, on some steps and platforms... I don't know, they were so nicely done, and this play of images, as if the building were in the sky? I liked that.

Then, there's the temples around the massive West Lake (Hồ Tây). First, you have the Trấn Quốc Pagoda (or Chùa Trấn Quốc, 鎭國寺), Hanoi's oldest pagoda and Buddhist temple, some 1400 years old. Unfortunately, it just so happened that it was one of those lunch-time closing times, so all we could do was look at it from the outside. Which was plenty, since the pagoda by the water offered some beautiful views.

And, since it's close nearby, there's another really small and quaint temple on a tiny island, Cau Nhi Temple (Đền Cẩu Nhi), which you can only access via a bridge.

To the south of these, also close to the lake, is fantastic Quan Thanh Temple (Đền Quán Thánh). Some thousand years old of Taoist spirituality. Actually, we didn't really intend to visit this one, since we had already seen temples aplenty. But you know, we were in the area, the weather was fine (it was near sunset time), it was open... And it was one of our best experiences.

As before, I kept noticing the subtle but significant differences in style, like this decoration at the top centre of the temple. Covered with more of the blue-tinged tiles I had seen before (you know, as if someone had broken a ceramic vase and had used the random pieces to decorate?), a Cthulhu-like being loomed above. Really, what kind of mythical beast was it? So unlike any other creatures I had seen, and then on top of that – blue. And once again the incense burners with lion-like mouths breathing clouds. And a new item – a delicate and elaborate work of wood depicting some dramatic scenes and hanging by the entrance. Sure, we had scene similar works by Chaozou masters in China, but hanging? Also, gold cloud shapes on red lacquered pillars, and Chinese characters done in mother pearl. Beautiful.

That would have been more than enough, but it just so happened that, when exiting the main hall, there was a martial arts lesson going on. A master training students in Vietnamese martial arts, both bare-handed and with weapons (sword). The master looked really severe, and his students were remarkably good. What an unexpected treat!

Finally (did you just breathe a sigh of relief?) – the ubiquitous smaller temples that don't make it to any guidebooks. Because Hanoi is full of them! Maybe this is what mainland China was like before the cultural revolution? filled with shrines and family-sized temples in every neighbourhood? So charming!

So, there, a "brief" sample of spiritual Hanoi. So colourful and interesting.