Mỹ Sơn – a Trip to a Different Times

For thousands of years, the region of South-east Asia was being influenced by cultures coming not only from East Asia but also from India. The geographic position between China and India is implied in the other name of the region, the name that was used mainly by Europeans during colonial age – Indochina. When it comes to Vietnam, I have always perceived it as a country related rather to East Asia, maybe due to its close proximity to China. But it wasn’t always the case. After all, Buddhism came to Vietnam from India. And not just Buddhism. Today I will take you to place where jungles of central Vietnam are hiding structures that are just as impressive as they are surprising – Mỹ Sơn is an ancient site with a great number of magnificent Hindu temples that were thriving from 4th to 14th century.

I have learned about this place in Hoi An where I stayed in a beautiful Greek-style villa on the outskirts of the city, right in the middle of coconut plantations and backwaters. Next day, me and my girlfriend rented a scooter and headed to Mỹ Sơn. The normal distance from Hoi An is around 60 km. That is if you take the highway. We took the long way through rural roads. We had to go back many times as all the navigations kept leading us into dead-ends in fields (or jungle). The best way was to keep heading towards the mountains on the horizon. Roads were dusty, sceneries were simply amazing, serenity mixed with many special local traits of all kinds. And every bigger village have a very large and nice cafeteria. The ice coffee we tried in one of these surpassed even cafeterias in major tourist streets of Vietnam, a country that is a true powerhouse when it comes to coffee culture.

After several hours of cruising through paddy fields and around beautifully decorated villages and temples, we have connected to the main road. Traffic now required our full concentration as the road was full of bikes and trucks trying to quickly get to their destinations. We have arrived at Mỹ Sơn in the late afternoon and we were the last people to buy tickets that day. We have passed the main gate and signs informing visitors that India helps to preserve this site. Then we hopped into the electric road train, a surprisingly fast one, and admired extremely lush, and to an eye of a visitor that lacks experience, even pleasant and hospitable jungle. We have arrived in a valley, roughly 2 km wide, surrounded from all sides by mountains. The mountains are picturesque, high, some of them have very surreal shapes. Kings of Champa chose the perfect spot for their religious site. Nearby were located two Cham cities that were, back then, called Indrapura and Simhapura.

As we walk into the area with temples, sunset starts and air is filled with big dragonflies. There are more than 70 temples, many are very well preserved, some are partially/nearly ruined. The architecture feels like a mixture of local and Indian tradition, some pillars look like pieces from eastern margins of the Macedonian empire, while the shape of other buildings resembles Mayan structures that were thriving… roughly during the same time as Mỹ Sơn…

There are 4 types of structures – a kalan which is a tower with a deity inside; a gopura which is a gate-tower; a mandapa which is a hallway; and a kosagrha – a building with a saddle-shaped roof. Most of the structures (especially the later ones) are made with dark red bricks, some use stone. Decorative reliefs and sculptures on the walls are carved directly out of bricks. Given the extraordinary endurance of these bricks (structures that are not in very good shape were destroyed by US carpet bombing during the Vietnam War), only kings could afford such building material.

Mỹ Sơn was a place of worship of god Shiva, and many well-elaborated lingams – the main symbols of this Hindu deity – can still be seen here in excellent conditions, along with several stone stelae completely covered by tiny and very orderly ancient letters of texts in Sanskrit and old Cham. The place served also as a burial site for the royal family and most important members of the country’s elite. Mỹ Sơn is one of the most important ancient sites in the whole South-east Asia, a very special one that shows not only natural and architectural beauty but stands as solid evidence of an extinct civilization and never-ending cultural change. As such, it is recognized by UNESCO since 1999 and meets special criterion C (II) and C (III).

Just when we were crossing a bridge over the crystal clear river and I was picking up oddly shaped stones, we were called back to the train as it was closing time. On the way back, it was dark, and phone batteries died, and we got lost even on the highway. As we tried to cross from one highway to another, we ended up in the jungle again and could not even find way back. I almost run over a tarantula, soon the road completely disappeared in vegetation. We turned back, took another turn and the other highway appeared on the horizon. To get there, we had to wade through a river and… I will rather end here. Trip to Mỹ Sơn was a very interesting and valuable experience and if you will not take a tourist bus, it will meet ALL your needs for adventure.

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