Ngoc Son Temple is Hanoi must see temple, sitting pretty on a delightful little island in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake with an elegant scarlet bridge – The Huc Bridge, constructed in classical Vietnamese style and lined with flags – connecting the island to the lake shore.
Surrounded by water and shaded by trees, the small temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao (who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century), La To (patron saint of physicians) and the scholar Van Xuong. Inside you’ll find some fine ceramics, a gong or two, some ancient bells and a glass case containing a stuffed lake turtle, which is said to have weighed a hefty 250kg.
Among top 10 things to see in Hanoi, the temple is one of the most picturesque temples of this City.
To get to the temple, the visitor walks through the Three-Passage Gate (Tam Quan) and across the Light of Dawn Bridge (The Huc).
The first gate displays a series of parallel sentences. The two large red Chinese characters on the first gate are Happiness on the right, and Prosperity on the left (two of the three important symbols of a good life, Happiness (Phuc); Prosperity (Loc) and Long Life (Tho)).
Just inside the first gate is the Pen Tower (Thap But), a ten-meter high stone structure whose tip resembles a writing brush, standing on a “mountain” in the shape of a peach, known as the Writing Pad (Dai Nghien). The mountain represents a good foundation, or the earth, and the symbols on the tower say “Writing on the clear blue sky” (meaning always be truthful). This is a principle of feng shui, the Taoist philosophy of the harmonious arrangement of elements. The Pen Tower is the introduction to the temple dedicated to literature and poetry. There is a small altar on the mountain where one can pray to receive permission to enter the temple.
The second gate is surrounded by Taoist symbols. On the left is the tiger. On the right is the Vietnamese dragon. The tiger and the dragon are the symbols of stability for a large construction, following the feng shui theory. Panels on the reverse of the gate show the carp gazing at the moon’s reflection, and a pine tree with roosting storks (phoenix), which symbolizes longevity.
Above the third gate is a large stone representing an ink stone or inkpot. Nguyen Van Sieu placed this stone so that on the 5th of May (lunar calendar) the shadow of the Pen Tower falls on the ink stone. Why this date? There are 120 stars in the Chinese/Vietnamese Taoist horoscope. One of these is represented by Van Xuong, the saint responsible for literature. On May 5, Van Xuong’s star crosses the sun’s trajectory.
A quote from Nguyen Van Sieu is written on the white scroll in the center of the gate. The scroll is surrounded by bats symbolizing happiness (the word for ‘bat’ in Chinese is phuc which means happiness in Vietnamese).
The fourth entrance is called the Moon Gazing Pavilion. Surrounding the pavilion are typical Taoist I Ching symbols of watching and protecting. The dragon-horse is on the right, carrying the eight I Ching symbols for the eight elements on its back, and a yin yang mirror to send back evil spirits. All the Taoist wisdom was imparted in a dream to the ancient king of China by a tortoise – I Ching, feng shui, yin yang – in other words, a unified theory for everything. The tortoise, seen on the left, carrying a book and a sword on its back, as well as being a Taoist symbol, in Confucian belief indicates that military might and knowledge must go together.
To the left of the main temple is a side room containing the preserved body of a giant soft backed turtle (rafetus leloii). It was found in 1968 and was said to be 500 years old. This gives credence to the legend about the giant turtle, which took the magic sword of Le Loi in the 15th century (in Hoan Kiem Lake history).