Story: Historian Le Van Lan

Photos: Archive, Nguyen Van Cu, Phu Duc, Le Viet Khanh, Hachi, Ha Hong

Historian Le Van Lan explains the history of Hanoi’s most famous schools

Constructed in 1076 under the reign of Emperor Ly Nhan Tong, the Imperial Academy is the oldest school in Hanoi. As its name suggests, the Imperial Academy was originally a school for princes and the children of Ly dynasty nobles. Later, talented commoners were also granted the privilege of attending this school. During the Tran dynasty, in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the nation had many “Imperial Scholars” from humble backgrounds, including exceptional headmasters like “The Great Teacher” Chu Van An, it was high time for the school to change its name to “The Hall of Higher Learning” and officially become a university. In the 15th century, under Le dynasty rule, this place became the nation’s cradle of talent.

The Temple of Literature - Imperial Academy

Nearly a thousand years later, this prestigious royal academy remains practically intact today, outside the southern “Dai Hung” gate of the Imperial Citadel, in the southern area of Thang Long. It originally stood on the bank of a vast old lake, called “Thai Lake” – whose remnants include Ba Mau Lake, Bay Mau Lake, Thanh Cong Lake, Thien Quang Lake, and Hao Nam Lake.

There exists another lake – whose size is only a fraction of its former self – called “Van Lake” (literally “Lake of Literature”) as it used to be the place where scholars from the Imperial Academy and other learned folk came to recite poems. Part of it remains, located in front of the Temple of Literature – Imperial Academy.  Around current-day Van Chuong (literally “Literature”) Street, many small ponds remain, remnants of former large bodies of water. Many Imperial students once lived in this area because of its proximity to the school.

The Imperial Academy was built by various lakes

And so began the tradition of building schools on the banks of a lake or a river in Vietnam’s capital. In the 17th century, this tradition continued with the construction of Mr. Vu Thanh’s famous Hao Nam School. Having passed the national exam in 1685, Mr. Vu Thanh served as an official in the Le – Trinh dynasty. After growing weary of the chaotic environment at court, Mr. Vu Thanh resigned and opened a school near Bay Mau Lake, drawing thousands of students from all over the country. Mr. Vu Thanh’s lectures drew such large audiences that the school grounds became overcrowded. Those who arrived late, including even royal children disguised as students, had to sit on the many bamboo boats that filled a corner of the lake, listening to the teacher’s voice rippling across the water.

The Imperial Academy is the oldest school in Hanoi

In the 18th century, Tu Thap School was opened by Mr. Pham Quy Thich, a senior doctor of the year 1779, to replace the famous Hao Nam School. It was situated near the temple by the remnants of Bao Thien Tower, the greatest among the Four Great Treasures of Annam from the Ly and Tran dynasties, overlooking Luc Thuy Lake – as Hoan Kiem Lake was known at that time.

In the year 1826, a graduate of Tu Thap School, Mr. Vu Tong Phan, who became the first laureate of Hanoi in the Nguyen Dynasty, also left the court and settled in a place near Tu Thap School to open his own school, named Ho Dinh (literally “the pavilion by the lake”). The school was named for its location, right on the bank of Hoan Kiem Lake, under the shade of an old banyan tree. This lush banyan still stands in the courtyard of the People’s Newspaper on Hang Trong Street.

The banyan that provided shade for Ho Dinh School still stands today

By the mid-19th century, the school had gained the title of “The training facility for Tonkin’s laureates and bachelors”. A stone stele was erected in 1873 right next to Ho Dinh School’s banyan tree to honor Mr. Vu Tong Phan. It also recorded the names of bachelors, doctors, teachers, students, officials, etc. who were graduates of the school, the most famous of whom were laureate – minister Nguyen Tu Gian and laureate – provincial education commissioner Le Dinh Dien.

Living in the same era as the Ho Dinh School was Mr. Nguyen Van Sieu, a student of Tu Thap School and classmate of Mr. Vu Tong Phan. He became a junior doctor in 1838 and was honored as “Sieu the Divine” (in comparison to “Quat the Great Sage” or Cao Ba Quat).

“Sieu the Divine” also resigned from court after a brief stint as a Nguyen Dynasty official and opened a square-shaped school called “Phuong Dinh” near Giang Nguyen. “Giang Nguyen” means “The river’s beginning”, with “river” referring to the famous To Lich River of old Hanoi. This school was named “Phuong Dinh” not only for its unique square shape, but also in reference to Nguyen Van Sieu’s manifesto, expressed through this famous verse:

“Though I know round is clever

I vow to be the honest square”

The French High School of the Protectorate - Chu Van An High School remains on the bank of West Lake

With such a meaningful name, Mr. Nguyen Van Sieu’s square-shaped school set by the mouth of the To Lich River was famous not only for its many excellent students, but also for its dedication to teaching honor and ethics.

When old Hanoi’s devoted educators took on the mission to teach students and hone their fine and noble qualities, they built their schools beside bodies of water, placing their trust in traditional principles of feng shui. “People converge like water” means that  places where bodies of water meet are places where talent gathers.

This age-old concept was a highly-honored traditional value in ancient Hanoi, upheld until the early 20th century, when the French came to colonize Vietnam and brought their values of Western civilization. In 1908, Mr. Klobukovski, the Governor General of Indochina at the time, established an important and prestigious school named “French High School of the Protectorate”. After the revolution in 1945, it came to bear the noble name of “The Great Teacher” Chu Van An. The school has a rich history as the place where many of Vietnam’s greatest talents studied. It has changed with time but still lies on the bank of an iconic lake in Hanoi, one that Cao Ba Quat once compared to the legendary beauty Xi Shi – West Lake!