Ngoc Son Temple

Den Ngoc Son, or the Temple of the Jade Mountain is one of Hanoi’s most picturesque temples. It is built on an islet in Ho Hoan Kiem where, in the 16th-18th centuries, there was a country villa used by the Trinh mandarins when they boated on the lake. In the 19th century, the site became a Buddhist pagoda, then a temple for the cult of a deified Chinese warrior, Quan Cong, and later for the Spirits of Literature and of the Soil. This shrine is now dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a 13th century Vietnamese military national hero, scholar Van Xuong, and to Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian master who assumed responsibility for extensive additions and repairs made to the temple and the surrounding areas from 1864. The present building reflects the Chinese style favored by the Nguyen rulers of that time.

Entrance Complex and Bridge

To get to the temple, the visitor walks through the Three-Passage Gate (Tam Quan) and across the Morning Sunlight Bridge (The Huc). The entrance complex, designed by Nguyen Van Sieu, consists of a series of three gates, replete with Taoist symbolism.

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. Conditions of a good life, very important to Vietnamese, are 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 temple itself is reached by crossing the red-painted wooden bridge called The Huc (Rising Sun). Originally, when the lake was much large, visitors to the temple came by boat. In the 18th century, a simple bamboo bridge was built.

Nguyen Van Sieu built a red wooden bridge in the arched shape of a sickle-moon or an ivory comb. The original bridge was destroyed by fire in 1958, but rebuilt in the same style. From here you can watch the sunrise.

After crossing the bridge, we come to the fourth gate. Above this gate is a small room with circular windows, called the Moon Gazing Pavilion. Surrounding the gate are typical Taoaist 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.

Ngoc Son Temple exemplifies the harmony of Taoist feng shui. It is surrounded by water, which directs energy toward the temple. The temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, and the scholar and saint of literature Van Xuong.

To the left of the main temple is a side room containing the preserved body of a giant soft backed turtle (rafetus leloii). This  turtle is 2.1 meters long, 1.2 meters wide, and weighed 250kg. 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.

One or more large turtles still inhabit the lake. At any time of the day people will be seen looking into its waters, hoping to catch sight of a giant turtle, as it is considered a sign of good luck to glimpse the head rising above the water. Smaller turtles are also seen. These have been set free to bring good fortune to the giver./.