quoc hoc sign

Quoc Hoc Hue: One of Vietnam’s Oldest Schools as Cultural Heritage Landmark

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Quốc Học Huế high school is one of the most revered academic institutions in Vietnam. While its high-achieving students and tough entrance exams are what it is most commonly known for, Quốc Học Huế is also one of the country’s oldest surviving schools and a cultural heritage relic. 

Walking the tree-lined pathways, Quốc Học Huế doesn’t blankly inform you of its socio-political importance in modern history but stands as a mild amalgamation of elements that show its survival through a series of historical changes. It has educated some of Vietnam’s most notable figures in modern history and its past depicts the frictional transitions of power and politics in the first half of the 20th century.

quoc hoc gate

The History of Quốc Học Huế

Quốc Học (which means national study) opened in 1896 under the feudal reign of Emperor Thanh Thai to educate the sons of the royal family and mandarins. The French had already completed their capture of Indochina and incursions into Vietnamese cultural autonomy would shortly follow. Quốc Học received renovations in 1916 and classroom enrolments would extend beyond royal ties to include elites and sons of colonial administrators. The school’s iconic front gate and colonial architecture from this period still stand today. Hai Bà Trưng School, which neighbours Quốc Học Huế, also opened around this time to educate young women of a similar social stature. 

Renovations once again took place in 1936 and Quốc Học became a French Lycee. Curriculums in French and chữ quốc ngữ (the Romanized alphabet) would work to control the Vietnamese intelligentsia and repress a growing nationalism amongst Vietnamese. 

Vietnam school

Quốc Học Huế quickly became a hotbed for academics and young intellectuals. A French-controlled syllabus provided students with western subjects such as art and philosophy but wasn’t enough to vanquish anti-colonial sentiment. While under house arrest in Huế, revered anti-colonial patriot Phan Bội Châu wrote a poem to the students of Quốc Học Huế, urging them to seek pathways for Vietnam’s liberation:

“[…] Đừng ham chơi, đừng ham mặc, ham ăn,

Dựng gan óc lên đánh tan sắt lửa.

Xối máu nóng rửa vết nhơ nô lệ,

Mới thế này là mới hỡi chư quân! […]”

([…] Do not be playful, do not be ostentatious, voracious,
Train your brain to extinguish the fire.
Flush hot blood to remove the stain of slavery,
This is how a gentleman should be! […]).

Extract from poem “Bài Ca Chúc Tết Thanh Niên”

By Phan Bội Châu

When anti-colonial sentiment escalated to armed conflict between the French and Viet Minh, Quốc Học relocated out of the city to Ha Tinh province from 1945 until the war ended in 1955. With the demise of French Indochine came the partition of Vietnam and the end of the Nguyen Dynasty. 

bronze ho chi minh statue

While Huế had lost its monarch and administrative powers, alumni of Quốc Học would go forward to take on pivotal roles in the country’s political narrative. Hồ Chí Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp successfully led the war against French colonial forces and became president and army general of North Vietnam. Another student, Ngô Đình Diệm, would controversially lead South Vietnam as its first president. Other notable alumni include future Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng, Xuân Diệu and Tố Hữu, Điềm Phùng Thị (writers and artists), Tạ Quang Bửu, Tôn Thất Tùng, Đặng Văn Ngữ (scientists) and Trần Hoàn, Châu Kỳ, Nguyễn Văn Thương (musicians) among others.

After reunification In 1975, Quốc Học Huế resumed as an academic institution while removing former colonial influences from its syllabuses. The school ceased single-sex education and allowed for male and female students to study together. In 2012, Thua-Thien Huế People’s Committee recognised Quốc Học Huế as a school for gifted students.

Quốc Học Today

Quốc Học Huế continues to teach the region’s brightest students and is still considered one of the best high schools in the country. Candidates can only enrol at Quốc Học after taking a rigorous entrance exam. About 6000 applicants take the test at the end of each academic year, yet only 400 are make it into the high school.

While Quốc Học has long been free from the French-controlled syllabuses, its long-standing structures make it one of the most visually attractive schools in Vietnam. The campus comprises three blocks of 42 classrooms, a central building with a big auditorium and an extensive library. There is also a football pitch, badminton and basketball courts, a swimming pool, a canteen and a dormitory for students studying away from home. A bronze-coated statue of Ho Chi Minh stands at the centre of the grounds. Emblazoned on the top of one building are the words “Hiền tài là nguyên khí của quốc gia” (Talents and virtues are the nation’s sap), a gentle reminder of how the ambitions of hard-working students align with their country’s.

Quoc Hoc Slogan

Frankly, Quốc Học isn’t an essential stop for all visitors to Huế but of interest to those that want to visit an important part of Vietnam’s modern history. Quốc Học is one of few remaining locations that represent the various powers and struggles of the nation’s past. Quốc Học has now reached a more harmonious period of history and continues to produce some of Vietnam’s brightest students.

Visitors are welcome to walk around Quốc Học school, providing that classes are not in operation. It is best to visit between the hours of 11:00 and 13:00 or 16:00-18:00 or during school holidays.

Quốc Học Huế
12 Lê Lợi, Vĩnh Ninh,

quoc hoc


Written and researched by Luke Digweed and Thanh-Phu Tran
Photos by Hồ Huy


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One Response

  1. When the French arrived in Indochina, teaching was limited to learning Chinese characters and classical Chinese and Vietnamese texts. The exams were literary contests, every 3 years. King Dong Khanh understood that the best way to fight against the French would be to develop education by integrating Western knowledge. He died too soon to do so and it was his successor, King Thanh Thai, who set out on this path. He entrusted Ngo Dinh Kha with the role of creating a modern school. Ngo Dinh Kha was a senior Mandarin and father of the future President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem (from 1955 to 1963). He chooses the “raspberry” color of the buildings to attract more students. These were, at the beginning, the sons of mandarins and princes. French students rather went to religious schools in the city (notably Providence).

    The aim was therefore to teach Western science. Of course, at that time, the teachers were French. The students therefore studied French, but also Vietnamese (Quoc Ngu) and a little Chinese.
    The programs were French including French literature. It is undoubtedly thanks to this that we saw the emancipation of the Vietnamese pupils .. No one cannot read Victor Hugo et Descartes without thinking what freedom is .. In 1944, quite late therefore, they began to teach Vietnamese history and geography.

    I know 2 Vietnamese who studied there in the 1940s. Both are very proud to have studied there and speak remarkable French. They also keep fond memories of some French teachers (because not all of them were “colonialists”). However, their respective trajectories were different:
    The first was the best pupil in his village (Phuoc Tich, 40km from Hue) and could study in Quoc Hoc (Khai Dinh at that time) for free. Subsequently, he joined Ho Chi Minh. He even passed his thesis about Victor Hugo in the jungle! (See his interview in French on my blog https://blogparishue.fr/sam-resistant-et-francophile).

    The second still lives in Hue. He followed the South Vietnamese regime.

    Of course, in a century, there have been many changes in this school, both in teaching methods and in buildings. But even today, for those who wish, they can chose to study French. There are even bilingual classes.

    Francois Denis Fievez, blogparishue.fr

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