Throughout South and Central Vietnam, you will find remnants of the Cham people who, once upon a time, forged a mighty kingdom that ruled the famed South East Asian spice trade. My Son Sanctuary (Vietnamese spelling: Thánh địa Mỹ Sơn), now a UNESCO world heritage site, was always the spiritual heart of the Cham Empire.
The towering red brick temples may cause one to think of places like Angkor Wat, however, the Cham were a different people. Back in the day, they clashed with the Khmer Empire and in a revenge attack ransacked the holy ground of Angkor Wat.
Although the Cham people still survive as an ethnic minority in Vietnam and Cambodia, much of who they were is forgotten. Without knowledge of the Cham and who they are, a visit to My Son Sanctuary is unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
Origins of the Cham People
The Cham were a Malayo Polynesian people with an Indianized culture and religion. Shaivite Hinduism was the core of their religion, but they worshipped other deities and most importantly Yan Po Nagar as the mother of the land— also identified as the goddesses Bhagavati or Thiên Y Thánh Mẫu in Vietnamese.
In legend, Lady Po Nagar, was married to a Chinese prince who refused to allow her return to her birthplace of present-day Nha Trang. By mystical power, she and her sons floated back on sandalwood logs and gathered together the first Champa people.
Many scholars believe that the origins of the Cham lie in the earlier Sa Huynh (Sa Huỳnh) people whose culture flourished in present day south and central Vietnam as far back as 1 000 BC. Around the 4th century, the Cham arose as a united force under the rule of King Bhadravarman, who largely established the preeminence of My Son.
The Rise of the Cham Empire
Around the year 446, the Chinese invaded Champa in reaction to Cham coastal raids and these southern regions once again fell under Chinese sovereignty. It wasn’t until the 6thh century that the Champa were free of Chinese rule and left to develop their own cultural and political destiny.
The Champa political entity then evolved into four decentralized states namely, Amaravati (now Quảng Nam); Vijaya (Bình Định); Kauthara (Khánh Hoà, Nha Trang); and Panduranga (Ninh Thuận, Phan Rang).
Under King Indravarman II of the 6th Champa dynasty, the capital was relocated in 875 to the province of Amaravati, or present-day Quang Nam near Hue. During this period, many elaborate palaces and temples were constructed, and the expanse of the Empire reached the 18th parallel.
From the 7th to 10th centuries, the Cham dominated the silk and spice trade between China, India, the Indonesian islands, and even into the Abbasid Empire in Baghdad. They also continued to engage in piracy and coastal raids.
The Sun Sets on Cham
By the 10th century, Champa’s power had reached its peak and started to face increasing pressure from the Dai Viet (Đại Việt) kingdom to the north.
In 1145, the new strongman of the Khmer Empire, Suryavarman II, invaded Champa from the west. However, two years later the Cham also got some new blood with King Jaya Harivarman who fought the Khmer back, and his successor went on to ransack Angkor in 1177.
Incessant battles continued between the Cham and the Khmer into the 12th century and by the 13th century, the Cham were also under attack by the Tran Kings of Vietnam. In 1471 the Dai Viet – Cham War commenced and with an internalized China and embittered Cambodia, there was little help on hand for the Cham Kingdoms.
Finally, in 1832, the Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang (Minh Mạng) ended the remaining small independent Cham state. The royal bloodline died out by 1900.
The Story of Princess Huyen Tran
The Princess Huyền Trân is a popular figure in Vietnamese culture. If you go to Hue, you can visit her temple at the Princess Huyen Tran Cultural Center. She was the daughter of Emperor’s Trần Nhân Tông who, in 1301, inadvertently promised her hand in marriage to the Champa king Jaya Sinhavarman III.
Her brother, now the new king, reluctantly honored the marriage in 1306 and she became Queen Paramecvariin of Champa. Her dowry were two provinces of the flailing Champa empire of present-day Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, and Thừa Thiên – Huế Provinces.
A year later the old king died and, by Champa custom, his wives were set to be immolated on the funeral pyre. This did not sit well with the Dai Viet, so the king sent his general Trần Khắc Chung to rescue his sister. In popular legend, the general succeeds and the couple falls in love and disappears.
Present Day Cham People
Many Cham who fled the expanding Dai Viet kingdom in the 15th century had already converted to Islam. Thus, to this present day, most Cham people are actually Muslim.
Cambodian Cham speak a western dialect and use Arabic script, whereas the Cham in Vietnam mostly speak the eastern dialect and use their own script.
Although exact numbers are hard to come by, almost half of Cambodian Cham perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge period between 1975 and 1979. Today around 600 000 Cham, largely marginalized and impoverished, continue to live in Cambodia in fishing communities along the Mekong River.
The Cham population of Vietnam is around 160 000. Those living in the central regions still predominantly follow the Hindu religion, while those in Saigon and the south are mainly Muslim.
My Son Sanctuary in War and Peace
As the Cham kingdoms fell, My Son became largely lost to time and reclaimed by nature. However, exploring French colonialists stumbled across the site and in 1903 formal excavations under Henri Parmentier. He uncovered some 71 structures in a 2 km radius.
The French actually restored the main temple, but it was completely destroyed during the American War. The Viet Cong operated bases in the area and much of My Son was reduced to ruins by B-52 bombings in August 1969.
The preservation of My Son is partly due to the famous Polish expatriate Kazimierz Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski arrived in Vietnam in 1980 to head up a Polish – Vietnamese team dedicated to archeological preservation.
Due in large part to his tremendous efforts, My Son Sanctuary gained attention and recognition, as did many historical sites in Hoi An.
What to See in My Son Sanctuary
The My Son Sanctuary lies within an elevated geological basin surrounded by mountains. As such it was easily defended and is recorded as the longest inhabited archeological site in former Indochina.
There are about 70 structures covering 2 km, some still intact, others in various states of ruin or repair. Temples were erected during various periods from the 4th to the 14th centuries, but most date to around the 10th century AD.
At the ticket gate, there’s a museum, and it’s always a good idea to start there first. Once you cross the bridge, there’s a tram that will ferry you to the main site, unless you have a motorbike and then you can park in the upper parking lot.
There are three main groups of temples and you can follow the paths around which will then loop back to the rest area. Here you will find toilets, souvenir shops, a cafe, and you can catch the tram back to the entrance.
How to Get to My Son Sanctuary
My Son Sanctuary is one of the most popular half-day tours from either Danang or Hoi An. It’s about 40 km from either location and the usual options apply.
A Grab Car (Vietnam’s Uber) or a private car hire is cheaper for a return journey than a taxi— so long as you feel you don’t need any guide to show you around. You can pay for a guide at the sanctuary if one is available when you are there.
If you’re going by motorbike, the road to My Son is fairly straight and in relatively good condition. Semi-pro cyclists also like to ride there, and there are a number of cycling tours you can join, especially from Hoi An.
You can also take a public bus from Danang central bus station. Hop on the no.6 bus— it takes about 30 minutes and costs 15 000 VND. The first bus is 6 a.m.
Best Cham Towers in Vietnam
Perhaps the most famous Champa site in Vietnam is Po Nagar in Nha Trang city. This is one of the largest functioning Cham complexes you can visit.
Many of the best cham towers are in Bình Định province. In Qui Nhơn city, you’ll find the twin Doi Towers (Tháp Đôi) near the city center at 18 to 20 meters high. About 25 km from the city is also the Canh Tien Tower (tháp Cánh Tiên) and the Banh It Cham Tower (Tháp Chăm Bánh Ít) is very impressive too. Further away, around 50km, are the three majestic Duong Long Towers (Tháp Dương Long).
Further down south, just 183 km from Ho Chi Minh City, is the coastal town of Phan Thiet – Mui Ne with the Po Sa Inu Cham Towers which date back to the 8th century.
Traveling 130 km north of Phan Thiet – Mui Ne, or just 70 km down from Cam Ranh city, there is the Po Rome Tower. This is one of the most decorative and last Cham towers to be constructed. Po Rome was one of the last Cham kings who tried to unite Islamic and Hindu factions. Nearer to Phan Rang city are the Po Klong Garai towers.