Nubile dancers in glittery red costumes, a traditional pipe blower and a sensuous Apsara dance in the midst of centuries old ruins… My Son is a sensory overload—even by Vietnamese standards. This lush green valley overlooks the misty Cat’s Tooth Mountain and jungle streams besides making for an evocative group of ruins perennially fighting off tropical overgrowth. Looking for an Asian Indian Jonesculture-crammed holiday? This site is your best ‘undiscovered’ bet. Is it any wonder most travel enthusiasts and tour touts call My Son, the Angkor Wat of Vietnam?
Indian by origin
Once, more than sixty structures stood in these forests and today there are about twenty surviving formations. My Son was also the religious centre and capital of the Champa Kingdom. This Hindu empire—of Malay origin—controlled Central Vietnam for roughly a millennium. Historians believe that the sea-faring Chams traded in silks and spices and consequently had commercial connections with India which meant they absorbed Indian art, architecture and even Sanskrit.
Lost to the jungle for generations and re-discovered in the 19th Century, Frenchman Henri Parmentier divided My Son’s 71 remaining temples into 14 groups. Post which it briefly served as one of the umpteen hide-out used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Sadly, American bombings have destroyed a large portion of this complex and even today, your guide will recommended that you stay on the main paths because of stray—old—land mines.
You will also notice that while most shrines were devoted to Cham Kings, Indian deities, especially Shiva, is a prominent main-stay as he was considered the founder of this dynasty.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
A good place to start is at the exhibition hall near the entrance, which packs numerous stones inscribed with Sanskrit besides a map of the entire site. My Son’s UNESCO World Heritage status means you need to adhere to basic rules about marshalling points as well as walking the last leg to reach the actual site. Rest assured, because it’s a wonderful walk through a thick jungle with iridescent butterflies and birds. The ruins are smartly signposted and divided into near 10 groups. Expect to see exquisite niches that hold lamps, Shiva lingams and sandstone blocks which were then used as base for the ancient temples. A mesmerising range of images will greet you; from gods, goddesses and animals to scenes of battles and devotion. Phallic lingams and their female counterparts the yoni, lie carelessly on the grass. Take in the quaint architecture; from pyramid-like roofs that are very typical of Cham towers to sacred water basins. If you look carefully, you will notice that all the buildings were built with bricks but no mortar. How their architects manage to hold the bricks together, is still a puzzle—scholars believe that may have used an oil or tree resin indigenous to Vietnam.
My Son was not only the site of the multiple temples but also the burial place of kings and national heroes. Most guides will also tell you tales of the Cham Kings built mandapas, gopuras and left behind inscriptions on leaves and stones in Sanskrit and Cham. Historians are thankful to the fact that a few of these have survived to be a rich source of history. A visit to My Son is nothing short of an enriching experience. It may not be of Vietnam’s best-known places but it’s certainly the most atmospheric.
Published in Conde Nast Traveller( Digital Version), 2011