One of the most popular half-day trips from Hoi An is a visit to the Cham ruins of My Son, approximately 35 kilometres from the old town. Now, the hype surrounding the UNESCO-protected Champa temple complex built in the years between the fourth to 14th century, generally makes for a rather disappointing trip if you do it the standard way. This means a crack-of-dawn departure in a cramped minibus hurtling down the busy highway after so much time spent doing hotel pick ups that you completely miss the sunrise and generally hit the coach park at the same time as 20 other busloads of tourists.
What was once described as one of the most important temple complexes of Champa is now — thanks to heavy cannon fire by the French and Saigon troops working under American support, who also blanketed the area in landmines and fired randomly at the various constructions — a rather sad pile of bricks with only a few rather overgrown temples standing. If you are expecting a “mini Angkor” prepare to leave hugely disappointed.
Temple relic buffs would be better heading towards the Cham Museum in Da Nang where most of My Son has ended up. It’s the biggest Cham museum in the world and has become home to practically every salvageable decorative part rescued from the ruins, and extensive research makes it a very informative lesson in Cham history and architecture.
If you have a keen interest in the war years in Vietnam, My Son — with a good guide or failing that a good guide book — is incredibly rewarding (if only to hear one of your tour group pointing out the perfectly round cute little duck ponds and being told sternly that they are in fact bomb craters).
And the rest of us? Well if you ditch the $5 bus tour and any huge expectations, hire yourselves a decent bike and make an adventure of it, My Son can actually be a great day trip, especially as while the buses are doing the hotel rounds at 06:00 you can still be tucked up in bed with plenty of time for a hearty breakfast before you leave. If you are in need of directions, pick up a decent map at the Sleepy Gecko on Cam Nam Island; if you are lucky the owner Steve can talk you through the route or even take you on it if you would prefer the comfort of an arranged bike tour.
Aim to leave at about 10:00 and you can stop in at the ancient pottery village of Thanh Ha, which is on the road to My Son. Just 20,000 VND will get you in to roam around and a free clay animal. Thanh Ha is very much on the tour route, but weave in and out of the old houses and workshops and you’ll stumble across some surprising clay works — the Houses of Parliament and the Eiffel Tower reside there in scaled-down models. You may also get to sit at a wheel and potter your own piece of art. While you’re there, drop by the village pagoda, which is one of the oldest in Hoi An. It’s a very good example of one that has not been subjected to modernisation.
The rest of the route to My Son takes you through some incredible scenery and tiny villages that specialise in brass works, with little shops flanking the roadside selling big brass gongs infinitely cheaper than the shops in town. If you get a bit puckish on your way, look out for a “mi quang” sign, and stop for a delicious chunky cao lau-like noodle dish with fresh herbs, river prawns and rice crackers broken up on top, a specialty of the area. The roads are really easy to negotiate and you’ve got plenty of time to weave in and out of the villages, aiming to arrive at My Son anytime after 13:00, when the coach parties have departed.
It’s a hot climb on foot up a hill once you have parked and paid your My Son entrance fee. Then you’ll find the jungle-clad Cham ruins, which won’t take very long to scout around. Then the choice is yours; follow the pathway towards the bordering Cat’s Teeth mountains and cool off in the Suoi The mountain streams or hop on your bike on road 606 to visit the beautifully preserved Bang An tower, one of the only remaining octagonal towers of its kind, thought to have been built between 878 and 977 and used to worship Shiva the destroyer.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.