During my stay in Hoi An, I decided to do a one day trip to the ancient ruins of Mỹ Sơn. There are many ancient temples scattered around Indochina; most notably the great Angkor Wat in Cambodia (read about it here), and picturesque Bagan in Myanmar. The My Son ruins in Vietnam (pronounced Mi Son, and translates to beautiful mountain in Vietnamese) is less well-known, but is one of the country’s most significant archeological sites.
The Ruins of Mỹ Sơn
My Son is located within a valley, surrounded by mountains and thick jungle. It was built by the Champa people who ruled Central and South Vietnam for more than 1600 years, until 1832. They were mostly Hindus, and the temples of My Son were dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. About 70 structures were built altogether — they were initially made of wood; but later replaced by bricks and limestone.
After the Champa rule ended, the temples were abandoned and consumed by the jungle; until they were rediscovered (and documented) by the French during their occupation some 60 years later. However, after the bombing by the US during the Vietnam War/American War in 1969, only 18 structures remain. Now, efforts are being made to restore and preserve these mainly red-bricked temples. My Son was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
I wanted to visit My Son on my own — but I was traveling solo; so hiring a taxi was too expensive, and I didn’t want to ride on a motorbike. After talking to the receptionist at the hotel I was staying at, she suggested that I join the My Son Sunrise Tour. It costs US$10 for a 4-hour guided tour; and totally worth it!
The tour started at 5am with a pick-up from my hotel. There were only 10 people on the tour that day; and we arrived at My Son at about 6.30am, just as the day turned bright (note that the sunrise tour is not exactly to see the sunrise, it’s just an early morning tour). We had the entire place to ourselves to explore for about 2+ hours, with our knowledgeable tour guide. When we left My Son at 8am, most of the tour buses were just coming in. There’s an option to return to Hoi An on the boat (with a village stop); but I decided to head back on the bus.
When the French documented My Son, they divided the 70 odd temples into 10 prominent groups. There are only a few structures left now, and some have been restored and are open to visitors. A shuttle service brings visitors from the park entrance to the ruins; and there are walking paths between some of the main groups.
Group B, C and D
A short walk from the shuttle drop-off point is the first cluster of temple ruins — labeled Groups B, C and D. This is the biggest cluster of complete temples and towers in My Son, and the tour spent the most time exploring this portion.
The 3 groups are located next to each other. Group B has a main temple that is mostly destroyed, with its fallen boulders lined up at the side of its sandstone base. Group C’s temples are mostly still standing and have beautiful carvings. Group D has two rectangular structures, and one houses some old relics and several bomb shells from the US attack. There are many Linga-Yoni altars (in a phallic shape) that represents the God Shiva inside the temples.
Group A and A’
To the East of Groups B, C and D is the cluster of temples from Groups A and A’. There were initially 13 towers in Group A and 4 in Group A’, but they have been severely destroyed. The remains are covered with vegetation, and I noticed a couple of workers cutting the grass around the site during my visit.
The only few things left to see is the huge Yoni altar inside one of the destroyed temples, and a couple of carvings on the remaining walls. Red-bricks used to construct the temples are being preserved and piled-up around the grounds.
On a low hill in between Groups A and E, are the temples of Group G. The 5 towers that used to be here are almost completely destroyed, except for one of the temples with just its base and walls remaining.
Our guide took us around the lone standing tower in the group, with its red-bricks shining bright orange under the morning sun. He pointed out the foot of the tower that has fierce Kala (monster) faces, and the large lion carvings at each of the corners of the tower.
Group E and F
To the North of Groups A and G are the ruins of Group E and F. There are a couple of towers and temples that have been restored and are still standing, but most are broken down and overgrown with vegetation. Some are built atop small hills that are completely covered with grass, and are inaccessible.
There are major restorations being done on several towers from both Groups E and F, with some of the broken bricks being replaced with new ones. Look for the huge tablet that has extinct Cham writings carved onto its surface.
Ending the Tour with Group K
After visiting the few accessible groups of My Son; we made our way back to the shuttle drop-off point. It was approximately a 15 minutes walk via a long paved pathway through the forest. Throughout the walk, our guide told us a little more about the My Son structures that were made with the brick baking method, and the female-dominant Champa people. We also passed by Group K along the way, which only has a small lone tower remaining.
There is a traditional dance performance at My Son when the tour groups arrive, but we missed it because we were too early. There’s also a museum and a post office in the vicinity.
I had a very educational time at the Cham ruins of Mỹ Sơn. I’m glad I decided to take the 4-hour tour rather than head there myself — I had a worry-free trip to the ruins, managed to explore it before the crowds arrived, and had a guide with interesting stories that made the visit so much more informational and entertaining. It was a lovely morning immersing myself in the unique Cham architecture, and being brought back to the past of Vietnam.