The second day we visited the historical centre of Hanoi; North of the Sword Lake. A taxi dropped us at an old city gate. The name of the Gate is written in Chinese門河東 (Mén hédōng). We looked at it and Kim asked me if I could read it. I told him that it means “The Gate East of the River” but I didn’t know why it was called like that. Kim said that this makes sense since a hundred meters East flows the Red River.
Looking at the map I was surprised to read a different name: Quan Chuong and in the guide book yet another name: Dong Ha Gate. In reality the official name is Dong Ha Gate; meaning exactly the same as written on it in Chinese and very close to the Chinese pronunciation “hédōng” but local people tend to call it the Quan Chuong Gate.
According to some historians the name was changed into Quan Chuong which means chief guard honouring the Chief guard who led the troops fighting against the French in 1873 when they attacked Hanoi to enter the city through this gate.From there we walked to the Cho Dong Xuan Market.
The market was built by the French at the beginning of 20th Century it is now the biggest wholesale market in Hanoi. Inside you find a diversity of goods such as electronic appliances, silk, clothes but also fresh food. Around the Market building there are a large number of street-food stalls.
We didn’t enter the building but instead walked through the crowded street observing the people buying fish and vegetables. When we arrived at the end of the Market Building we decided to turn left entering the Hang Khoai street.
After some hundred meters we stand in front of a Temple. I looked at the Chinese characters “觀古天玄”meaning: ancient temple of the Dark Lord (the Dark Lord is a Taoist God which I like to call in French “le Dieu des Ténèbres”). Such a name was clearly an invitation to enter and visit the Temple but unfortunately the main entrance was used by workers carrying out restoration work. After a short hesitation we decided to look for another entrance which we found in a tiny street just adjacent the left side of the Temple. Once inside we were amazed by the tranquility one could hardly hear the nice of the very busy street.
The Temple was apparently not only used to worship the Dark Lord but also as a vegetables garden and even for drying cloths!
In fact since the second world war and particular during the war against South Vietnam (i.e. US) many people came to Hanoi and squatted the Temples. Although the local government tries to restore the most important temples it is not easy to displace families living there since many decades. We have seen temples in historical Hanoi used as parking slots or as garage where motorbikes where repaired.
Above the main entrance a bronze bell is suspended it weighs some 500kg and stems from the first Year Canh Thinh (1793) Tay Son Dynasty.
Kim drew my atteattention to a stele apparently written in Chinese. When looking more closely we found not only Chinese characters but also a name written in western alphabet “Joseph Lagisquet” followed by a short sentence in Vietnamese “Chứng kiếnTu tạo Đình tự” ! We were intrigued by Joseph Lagisquet, it was the first time that we found a name written in western characters on a stele in a Vietnamese Temple.
I tried, without success, to read the title written in large Chinese characters from right to left on the stele: “ 記碑修重觀天玄” (Jì bēi xiū zhòng guān tiān xuán).
In front on the other side of the Temple was another stele apparently erected for the same reason but without any mentioning of Joseph Lagisquet.
I took a lot of pictures of both steles with the intention to try to find more out this evening on internet at the hotel.
In the evening I found more information on the Temple and on Joseph Lagisquet.
The Temple, called Huyen Thien in Vietnamese, was built under the Ly Dynasty (1009-1255 AD). Originally it was built on a peninsula surrounded by Tay Ngai Lake but during the French period the lake was drained to expand the city. It is sometimes called a pagoda because it worships a Taoist God, Buddha, and Mother Earth. It was restored many times; the last important restoration took place during the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945).
Originally it was a Taoist Temple but with the decline of Taoism in Vietnam it became also Buddhist Temple.
On Geneanet I found information on Lagisquet. I then decided to contact the person, Pierre Lagisquet, who managed this item on Geneanet and received immediately a reply saying that Joseph was a child born out of wedlock in Hanoi in 1888, acknowledged by his father François Charles Lagisquet (1864-1936). His mother was an Annamite girl. His father was one of the architects together with Broyer and Harley of the Opera of Hanoi.
Joseph started as a day laborer, became a foreman and finally manager and expert for dangerous and dilapidated buildings.
Joseph’s father, François Charles Lagisquet, married in 1913 a Vietnamese maybe the mother of joseph. He was elected to Hanoi City Council in 1921 and became the Deputy Mayor almost until his death in 1936. He lived in the rue Maurice Lagisquet (named after his son who died in combat in 1918). His wife sold their house to a doctor from Hanoi who invited Ho Chi Min at his home. Later the house became the Spanish Embassy visited in 2006 by King Juan Carlos and the Queen. The street name has changed into Chan Cam and the house was converted in 2010 into a luxury restaurant: “Madame Hien Restaurant”. In memory of the Lagisquet family the dining room is called the Lagisquet Room.
I finally succeeded in translating the title inscription on the stele: 記碑修重觀天玄 could be translated as: stele on the events of the important restoration of the Temple of the Dark Lord.
Left on the stele there seems to be a date and with some difficulty I found the meaning. 皇朝保大五年四月六日 : the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Bảo Đại i.e. 6 April 1930. Bảo Đại was the son of Emperor Khải Định of the Nguyễn dynasty. He was born on the 22 October 1912 and named Prince Vĩnh Thụy. He lived during his childhood in the Imperial Palace in Hue. Prince Vĩnh Thụy succeeded his father on January 8, 1926 and took the name of Bao Dai (guardian of Grandeur).
I then asked a Vietnamese friend, Nguyễn Thị Anh Thư, to translate the text written just after Joseph Lagisquet i.e. Chứng kiếnTu tạo Đình tự she told me that it means that M Lagisquet witnessed the Temple’s preservation (Chứng kiến: witness Tu tạo: preserve Đình tự: temple).
With these new elements we may assume that Joseph Lagisquet was in charge of supervising the restoration of the Temple in 1930.
I then tried to translate the text on the stele but without success, I succeeded only in translate bits and pieces but not full sections. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is very difficult to make pictures with sufficient contrast between the stone and the engraved characters. The characters are moreover written in the non-simplified style and many were damaged over the years. Just as an example “temple” is written now in China as 观but on the stele it is written 觀!
From what I could read it seems that the “Lagisquet” stele concerns donations made for the restoration of the Temple.
The characters used for the title of the second stele are almost identical to the first one except the last character 記which has been replaced by 銘 i.e. on the first stele the last word is 記碑 meaning : – record of events inscribed on a stele – and on the second stele the last word is 銘碑 meaning: inscription on (an event).The title铭碑觀天玄修重can therefore be translated as: inscriptions on a stele concerning the important restoration of the Temple of the Dark Lord.
The second stele does not comprise any sums paid but I was unable to discover the purpose of the stele. When back in France I contacted my Chinese teacher to assist me in the translation but very soon it became clear that many of the signs were difficult to read and some of them seemed not to be Chinese characters.
After some research I found that Vietnamese people have over the years formed new characters unknown in China combining existing elements of Chinese Characters to form a new character with a specific meaning and pronunciation. The same happened in Japan by the introduction of Kokuji (国字) “national characters”) and in Korea where these are known as gukja (國字). In Japan and Korea the number of new characters is very limited compared to the Chinese characters in use whereas in Vietnam the native characters are larger in number than the Chinese ones.
It seems that not many people can read these old texts I hoped to find a Vietnamese Nom dictionary similar to Chinese Dictionaries but couldn’t find any. From what I can read it seems that the Lagisquet stele enumerates cost items. The other stele has no such elements.
The content of the steles remain thus a mystery at least the details of it maybe at a next visit in Hanoi or elsewhere I will meet someone who can read these characters!
Just before leaving the Temple the Hall opposite to the main entrance opened and we could see the statue of the Dark Lord (Tran Vu in Vietnamese)!
short video on this visit