In the first days of Tet, I was invited to go to several temples to learn more about how people in Hanoi usher in the New Year. We had four temples on our itinerary, all of which were fairly near to where I lived. Although I’d visited them all before (and even written about one for Fodor’s a number of years ago), I’d never done so during the Vietnamese New Year.
The four temples we traveled to (along with half of the city, in the case of two of them) were, in the order of our visits: Quan Thanh Temple (Đền Quán Thánh), Tay Ho Temple (Phủ Tây Hồ), Van Nien Temple (Chùa Vạn Niên), and Tao Sach Temple (Chùa Tảo Sách).
The first temple we visited, Đền Quán Thánh, is situated on the corner of Thanh Nien and Quan Thanh roads, a very short walk from Truc Bach Lake where I live. Because we were visiting several temples today, we drove rather than walked (and were charged five times the normal rate for parking).
The temple is important for several reasons, including its historical significance. It was originally built in the year 1010, serving as a gate protecting Thang Long, the capital of Vietnam at the time.
The temple also houses a number of interesting artifacts and items of worship.
Offerings include a variety of items, as you can see in this picture.
These two statues sat on a table to the side of the statue of Tran Vu.Perhaps the best known is a black, carved-wood statue of Tran Vu, a famous government official from ancient times. Made of bronze in 1677, it stands nearly four meters and weighs over four tons. During Tet, especially, Vietnamese people come here and pray before the giant figure, rubbing money on its bare foot and then rubbing the money all over their hair and bodies. This is meant to transfer good luck to the worshippers, with the luck manifesting itself during the year in the form of greater wealth. I found it somewhat tacky—the idea of people’s spiritual life being so directly connected with money and the pursuit of wealth seems contradictory—but the Vietnamese see it differently, I know. Good luck is meant to follow in the wake of worship, and I suppose that greater wealth is one example of good luck.
At the bottom left of the photo, people crowd around Tran Vu's bare foot to rub money on it for good luck.
I also enjoyed walking around the temple grounds, which sit in the shadows of giant mango, jackfruit, and gum trees. There are standing altars on each side of the main temple building, and people burn various spirit offerings there.
One of the stone carvings in the temple's walls.
A future worshiper and patron of Quan Thanh temple, , dressed to the hilt in pink.
The second temple we visited was Tay Ho Temple (Phủ Tây Hồ). This has long been my favorite temple in Hanoi, but this admittedly has much to do with its setting: on the shore of West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi.
The small road leading to the temple, particularly in the days preceding and following the New Year, are full of stalls selling various kinds of votive offerings, food, and prayer-writing services in the ancient nôm script.
Notice the Nike swoosh on his hat...
He was in this for the money. He did this quickly, offering no good wishes for the New Year or instructions for using this prayer at the temple, and immediately turned his attention to other customers when he'd finished writing this.
Inside the temple—after you walk past an interesting roofed enclosure where people prepare trays on which they place their spirit offerings, and also a wall of the main temple where the photographed faces of arrested temple thieves are posted—there were hundreds of worshipers.
There was another area inside the grounds where people prepared their offerings. Below are a few photos of some of the offerings, as well as examples of the crowds we found here.
I actually set a scene at this temple in the final chapter of my most recent novel. I might as well pull from it here, as it introduces the reader to what I think are some interesting things about the temple:
Dang Thai Mai Road ended with a long stretch of temple stalls and lakeside restaurants, their clay-tile rooftops flecked with soot and dead leaves. Opposite the temple and across the bulldozed land, French-style villas had been thrown up like carelessly tossed dice.
Nathan entered the compound. At the main temple dozens of women knelt on the hard ground praying. On the front altar above them stood the Court of Five Mandarins. From behind a gilded throne the Jade Emperor—a lacquered statue in a gold robe and tasseled red hat—gazed over the women toward West Lake. The temple was filled with incense and the sounds of mumbled prayers.
In the courtyard he passed people praying at twin altars. At the far end, votive offerings burned in a large furnace. Beyond the smoke—the medium through which prayers were transmitted to heaven—Le sketched at the water’s edge.
He looked around them. There was a numinous quality to the place; rooted in the constant presence of incense, trees, water, and sky.
The temple had been built in 1573 to honor a celestial princess. And West Lake was said to have been created when a golden calf was lured by the sound of a tolling bell. The animal lost its way and circled around and around looking for its mother until its hooves created a basin that eventually filled with water.
When we left we decided to exit from a different gate than we had entered. On the road between the temple’s two gates are various restaurants specializing in seafood.
They’re most famous, perhaps, for two items: bánh tôm, which is basically shrimp fried in puffy circles of rice-flour batter, and snails harvested in West Lake.
We ordered two dishes just to tide us over. The first was bánh tôm, served with a spicy dipping sauce (nước chấm) and a basket spilling over with lettuce and various herbs. They were crisp on the outside, and chewy the way that good batter when fried is chewy. The shrimp, too, were excellent: big ones, one or two per piece.
The second dish was called bột lộc. This dish uses small shrimp and chopped wood ear mushrooms, which are combined in sticky rice parcels and topped with fried shallots. They, too, are served with herbs and nước chấm, and are fantastic.
The prices were higher for Tet, but not by a great deal. For all of this, including two hot teas, we paid about US$5. (This was about half the price of what the restaurant next door wanted for the same items, which is total lunacy.)
This restaurant is called Thanh Mai and can be found at 61 Phu Tay Ho Road. You can tell the owners that Sapuche sent you, but they'll have no idea what you're talking about...