My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam

Ruins at My Son Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site
Ruins at My Son Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site

My Son Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in central Vietnam, about an hours drive from Hoi An. It is a sprawling complex of temple towers dating from the 4th to 13th centuries; although the majority of the remaining temples date from the 10th and 11th centuries. My Son was inhabited all this time, one of the longest continual settlements in Indochina. My Son (pronounced Me Sohn) was both the political and religious center of the Champa Kingdom during this time. The name “My Son” means “Beautiful Mountain” and reflects the strategic and easily defensible location in a lush valley, surrounded by high mountains.

The Champa Kingdom ruled central and southern Vietnam from the 2nd to the 17th century. It was an offshoot of the Han Dynasty of China, formed when that dynasty broke up and the former Han official who was in charge of the area created his own kingdom. During the early years, the Champa Kingdom still had ties to China, but eventually became strong enough, due partially to strong trade networks and the port at Hoi An to become independent. Throughout the later centuries of the Champa Kingdom, the kingdom was attacked by the Khmer Empire on and off. The Cham got a few blows in as well, including sacking Angkor in 1177. The Cham were also under attack from other kingdoms from within present-day Vietnam, as well as the Mongols. Eventually, these wars wore down the Champa Kingdom and by the 17th century the kingdom was totally absorbed by the Vietnamese. Despite the early ties to China, the Champa Kingdom was heavily influenced by Indian culture and religion. My Son is a Hindu complex, with the majority of temples there dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

When the site was surveyed in 1899, remnants of 71 temples were found. These temples were divided between 14 groups, including ten with multiple temples. These groups were assigned letters to identify them: A, A’, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, and K. Each temple was then numbered as well. Restoration efforts were started by the French in the late 1930s, and several major temples were restored before they left during World War II, especially in the “A” section.

My Son ruins, including a bomb crater left by a bomb from the Vietnam War
A bomb crater left from a U.S. bomb during the Vietnam War still scars the earth in front of temples at My Son

Unfortunately, lots of these temples and other structures were destroyed during the Vietnam War (the area was a Viet Cong hideout), mostly during one week of carpet bombing in August 1969. There are still unfilled bomb craters throughout the area, and not too far away there are still unexploded land mines. On display are several bomb fragments which are now part of the site’s history. This was one of the toughest places to be as an American: there were so many visible reminders of the damage that was done to the environment and the landscape of Vietnam during the war.

My Son Sanctuary made an excellent half-day trip from Hoi An. We took a small van and had the perfect sized group of about ten people. Our guide was knowledgeable and explained the significance of some of the temples and their representations of different parts of the Hindu religion. One of the most interesting things about the architecture and construction of the temples is that all the bricks are held together by some unknown mortar or glue. Even with all our modern science and chemical analysis, no one has been able to figure out what the substance is. So while more recent efforts at restoration have been successful, there are still some pieces missing (literally and figuratively).

My Son, while not as visually striking as Angkor Wat is an incredible place full of history. In many ways, it is similar to the temples at Angkor (especially the Hindu ones). Some of the same symbolism was present at both places. The level of intricacy and detail is awe-inspiring and would be amazing even if it was done with modern tools. I hope that the restoration efforts at My Son Sanctuary are successful and that the site is preserved for future generations.