One of the sights to see near the Vietnamese tourist hotspot of Hoi An is My Son, Vietnam’s most important centre of the ancient Champa Kingdom and another UNESCO World Heritage site in this most fascinating country. While Hoi An ancient town is regarded as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a multicultural Southeast Asian trading port developed over centuries, one of many that once dotted the coast, My Son’s survival has been a struggle and by comparison, quite astounding.
Over time, My Son has been: lived in, worshipped, added to, fought over, built and rebuilt, studied, described, depicted, photographed, flooded, bombed, mined, restored, admired and now, tramped over by tourists (290,000 of them in 2017). There’s been the usual episodic relic raiding pilferers over time, the plague of archeological wonders worldwide whenever they come into contact later with the less desirable side of human nature; but these were followed by the might of the US air force, bombing on an industrial scale, and army demolition teams choppered-in armed with high explosives. Few other, if any, such heritage sites considered to be of outstanding universal value have endured in the wake of such forces. Clearing the unexploded remnants of war including landmines is ongoing, so best mind how you go.
The My Son “Sanctuary” is a remarkable architectural ensemble that developed continuously over a 1,000-year period, between the 4th and 13th centuries CE. The write-ups will tell you the site presents a ‘vivid picture of spiritual and political life in an important phase of the history of Southeast Asia’ for the Champa Kingdom (formed by the Cham people and those of Linyi). The monuments are regarded as unique and without equal in Southeast Asia. Presumably, this is so as My Son was the most significant religious and intellectual centre of the Champa Kingdom.
The site is Champa’s lesser counterpart to the other grand cities of Southeast Asia’s Indian-influenced civilisations: Angkor and Sambor (Cambodia); Ayuthaya and Phimai (Thailand); Bagan (Myanmar); and Borobudur (Indonesia). These cities have suffered too: Angkor to war and pillage, Ayuthaya to the ravages of time and flooding, Bagan to earthquakes, while Phimai and Borobudur seem remarkably preserved, the latter despite the constant threat of pyroclastic annihilation from nearby Mount Merapi.
My Son sits in a natural geological basin ringed by mountains along the border of Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam, an area famous for its cinnamon and ginseng, and home of the Cham Islands. Nearby is the source for the sacred Thu Bon River, one of the largest river systems in central Vietnam. The river flows past the monuments, out of the basin, and through the historic heartland of the Champa Kingdom to the South China Sea (or East Sea to the Vietnamese, and not to be confused with the stretch of water the Koreans claim as their name for the so-called Sea of Japan). The location of My Son gives the site its strategic significance as it was also easily defensible.
Over 1500 years ago the Linyi and Cham coastal federations co-existed when, for reasons that are not clear, the two states melded into one which was increasingly referred to as Champa. Until the 11th century CE, and even later, Champa ruled the coast of central Vietnam, from the southern border of China’s Jiaozhi province (once upon a time around modern-day Hanoi) to the Khmer Empire in the Mekong Delta, where the name for southern-most Ca Mau Province means “Black Water” in Khmer (Teuk Khmao).
There was never one unified Cham state or empire. Rather “Champa” was an ‘archipelago-like constellation of small, interconnected coastal kingdoms scattered down the central coastline’. Over the centuries, they morphed into five major realms. One was Amanravati, part of which was along the Thu Bon River at Hoi An and incorporating My Son. Champa, like other neighbouring polities at the time, was a collection of small territories, a patchwork of often overlapping mandalas or what’s been called a “circle of kings”.
Through the ages the Khmers attacked and occupied Cham territories. Later the Chams pushed back and drove them out. The golden age in Cham history was presided over by the charismatic Po Binasor, later killed in battle and never equaled by his successors. He extended Champa to the Red River delta and sacked the Dai Viet (Greater Viet) capital Hanoi, twice. The only forces stopping Champa were the Chinese. In 1406, Ming armies occupied the Red River, and transformed it once again into an imperial province. Although the Dai Viet again pushed out the Chinese, the country’s new leaders (the Le, Trinh, and Nguyen) saw the survival of their small state in territorial expansion southwards down into the coastal lowlands. This was the start of Dai Viet colonialism of what is now called Vietnam that began with the massive Le attack on Champa in 1471.
It also marked the beginning of the end for Champa as an entity. The Nguyen lords transformed Cham territory into the new province protectorate of Thuan Thanh. The great Emperor Gia Long allowed the Cham to keep their protectorate and king, but his son, Minh Mang, however, did not. In 1835, he ceased indirect imperial rule of the remaining Cham incorporating them by threat of force into the Nguyen administration.
To get to My Son from Hoi An is an hour on a “moto” or step-through motorbike (a scooter to some). I hired one and a rider in Hoi An, it’s easy enough. We cut across narrow concrete footpaths running through rice fields to the motorway underpass before riding up one bank and through a gap in the steel side barrier joining the main flow of traffic south, an ad hoc off-road on-ramp. Our trip went through villages, and along country roads. There didn’t seem to be any signs. There were multi-coloured flags, and advertising hoardings on rudimentary shop fronts. Here and there children played, dogs barked, and country traffic in a tropical landscape.
Entrance to the My Son site costs about US$3.25 and includes transport from the main gate to the start of the walking tracks, about 1.5 kms. My transport was a jungle green jeep courtesy of the US Marine Corps – it still had the original markings – in mint condition complete with entrenching tools and driven by a gruff Vietnamese. The blast of air generated by open-air motorized transport under the morning sun was a welcome relief.
The main archaeological ruins are divided into groups, each designated by letter. Champa architecture is noted for its intricate brick work, but researchers have yet to understand for certain how the Chams managed to get the baked bricks to stick together. One thing is known, the monuments were masterpieces of brick construction of the period, both in terms of the technology of their construction and because of their intricate carved-brick decorations. The traces of 68 structures have been found at the site, though only 25 have managed to survive repeated pillaging, the ravages of war, and other repeated onslaughts over the years.
During the US war, My Son was used by the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam or “Viet Cong” (the abbreviation for Vietnamese communist favoured by Saigon officials), so the site was targeted by US planes. The structures at Group A were almost destroyed. According to locals, structure A1 was considered the most important at My Son and managed to remain impervious to US bombs, so they sent in a helicopter-borne team of engineers to blow it up. All that remains of this archaeological wonder is a pile of rubble.
At Group E there are two large structures, one of which was covered by a large corrugated iron roof to protect restoration work. The neighbouring structure was partially collapsed and overgrown, the distance between the two about 30m. The ground between the two comprises two massive holes, bomb craters, America’s footprint in Southeast Asia. So close are they the edge of these craters has touched forming almost two parts of one giant hole much resembling the lenses as viewed through a pair of binoculars. The larger of the two craters I estimated was about 7-8m across and at least 4m deep, the sides of this large crater were exceedingly steep and almost perfectly symmetrical, like an inverted cone. I was amazed that either of the two Cham structures survived such blasts.
US bombing of the site caused international outrage. Following the destruction of A1, Phillipe Stern, an expert on Cham art and curator of the Guimet Museum in Paris, and with one of the largest collections of Asian art—though how they acquired them all maybe open to question—wrote a letter of protest to then President Nixon. Nixon then ordered US forces to continue killing the Viet Cong but not to damage the structures in the process. As Henry Kissinger once said to Richard Nixon underpinning a lack of military strategic planning, “the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle … They are not designed for this war…in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.”
My Son’s tower temples owed their spiritual origins to the Hinduism of the Indian sub-continent spread through trade and the Malay conduit. Indeed, Malay and Arab peoples referred to Chams as from the ‘lands below the winds’. It was the Cham who brought Islam to the Vietnamese coast in the 15th century CE through their intra-regional coastal connections. Arab traders had long traded with Southeast Asia (Chams in Cambodia and elsewhere today are Muslims). Under Indian influence many temples were built to the Hindu divinities such as Krishna and Vishnu, but above all Shiva. Although Mahayan Buddhist penetrated the Cham culture, probably from the 4th century CE, and became strongly established in the north of the kingdom, Shivite Hinduism remained the established state religion.
The tower temples have a variety of architectural designs symbolizing the greatness and purity of Mount Meru, the mythical sacred mountain home of Hindu gods at the center of the universe, now symbolically reproduced on Earth in the mountainous homeland of the Cham people. They are constructed in fired brick with stone pillars and decorated with sandstone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Their technological sophistication is evidence of Cham engineering skills while the elaborate iconography and symbolism of the tower-temples give insight into the content and evolution of Cham religious and political thought.
Much of the work in documenting and preserving My Son was credited to Henri Parmentier, a Parisian-born architect, art historian and archaeologist, who was one of the first European specialists in the archaeology of mainland Southeast Asia, and in Java. Before him there was Camille Paris; colonial official, coffee grower, cartographer, and modern “discoverer” of My Son. I say to credited to them because, as with Angkor in Cambodia, any locals involved in such work invariably are not credited. Studying Khmer history became Parmentier's lifework but also Cham culture. He studied, described, and depicted preserved Cham monuments in Vietnam including at My Son with photographer Charles Carpeaux, which took them two years and later, at Po Nagar in Nha Trang. Parmentier was head of the École française d'Extrême-Orient (the French School of the Far East and known as the EFEO) for 28 years until 1932 when he retired and then moved to Phnom Penh, where he died in 1949. To say he immersed himself in his work is an understatement. Though as some have argued, it was a kind of cultural imperialism as it was seemingly the job of French scholars and colonial administrators to reclaim local history following a precipitous and protracted period of decline. As with the history of Angkor, it was deciphered, restored, and bequeathed to them by their colonial masters.
Conservation of the My Son monuments began in the early part of last century soon after their “discovery” in modern times. Unfortunately, their preservation last century was followed by their destruction mainly by the American military as we have seen, but also earlier during World War II, and the First Indo-China War (the war against the French). Unlike Angkor where it seems little, if any, of the entrance fee is spent on restoration and maintenance, My Son seems by comparison, to be in finer fettle with work actively undertaken at district, provincial and central government levels, or seemingly at least when I visited.
The southwards expansion of the Viet people eventually meant the end for the Cham of everything that had been theirs for centuries – a unique coastal confederation with close commercial, cultural, and religious ties to island Southeast Asia, a distinct language with its own writing system, very different ways of dress and conceptions of time and space, as well as unique social organisations, land rights and fiscal administration. For the Cham, colonial assimilation not only shattered their political independence for good, but it also threatened their very existence as separate cultural and religious entities. Today, they are still found in central Vietnam, but also in Cambodia, Malaysia, and in Thailand.
My ride was waiting at the bottom of the drive. We went for lunch under tin roof at a restaurant in a field next to the road. I paid. There were remarkably few other vehicles, visitors or locals passing by. Aside from the two of us, the restaurant was empty save for the owner’s dog. It’s amazing in a country as populated as Vietnam you can have some much time and space to yourself, or at least you could and probably still can.
My Son in Vietnam, where it’s easy to immerse yourself in the past and the present.