Quang Nam's efforts to market My Son sanctuary as the "Angkor of Vietnam" are a little misguided, but that's not to say it isn't well worth seeing. Those who make the trip expecting to see a vast well-preserved city on par with the incomparable Angkor Wat will be disappointed. However, as the religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom, it is one of the most significant Cham sites in Vietnam.
Drawing spiritually from Hinduism, the Cham built temples to honour Hindu divinities with fired brick, stone pillars and sandstone bas-reliefs. My Son was initially constructed in the late 4th century, built by King Bhadravarman for the god Shiva (the creator, destroyer and preserver). From then on the temples were continuously developed until the 13th century.
My Son sanctuary became known to the western world in 1885, when French architect, archaeologist and art historian Henri Parmentier (1870-1949) and his colleagues began excavating and documenting the site. They found 72 monuments within a semi-circular, two-kilometre wide valley. Though what you see today are groups of towers simply dotted throughout the forest, the construction of a temple was based on precise holy ritual and imbued with meaning.
A good guide or a visit to the on-site museum is highly recommended before you scamper about the ruins. The museum will help you identify and understand the Hindu symbolism and mythology shown in the architectural designs and motifs. One of the most important representations that you will see in Champa culture is the god Shiva, visible in both anthropomorphic (human) form and symbolically as a linga, a cylindrical block (male, phallus), usually paired with yoni, representing the goddess Shakti (female, womb). Together they symbolise the axis of the universe and creation.
Day tours are very cheap and they are the most economical way to see My Son. Book anywhere in town and it costs US$5-7, not including admission. The trip starts at 08:00, with one and half hours spent at the site, returning to town at 13:00. The Sinh Tourist offers a bus and boat combination, plus lunch for 139,000 dong. Join the sunrise departure at 05:00 for an extra $1, which returns to town at 10:00. You'll definitely want to take this option during the summer months, when temperatures soar and it can be unbearably hot by 09:00. Get there early.
You can tackle My Son independently, too. Most tours are in the morning so unless it's hot, to avoid the crowds, go in the afternoon; it's open daily from 06:00 to 17:00.
Motorbike parking is 10,000 dong (double what it should be). Then there is the admission fee, which will probably be the most expensive entrance ticket you'll pay during your travels in Vietnam. The 150,000 dong admission does include clean, modern toilets at the entrance and the informative museum. Past the museum is where you get the buggy that shuttles passengers two kilometres to the foot of the site. At the drop-off there's an office where it's possible to hire a guide for 100,000 dong.
Visitors need at least an hour to walk around all the building groups. Bombings during the war caused serious damage to most of the monuments and bomb craters are still visible throughout the grounds. And the best stonework and statues have been taken and placed in museums (one of the best in the country is the Cham Museum in Da Nang ).
My Son is worth the visit. When it isn't scorching hot, the setting is spectacular, especially when combined with a boat ride or a sunrise visit. But you'll have to muster up some enthusiasm as an amateur archaeologist to get more out of your visit.
How to get there
My Son sanctuary is located west-southwest of Hoi An. Head out of town west on Hung Vuong and where the road splits, fork left which says to Da Nang. Continue on this road for five kilometres to the town of Vinh Dien where you'll find Highway 1A. Go left/south for six kilometres to a major junction in the town of Duy Xuyen, there should be a sign pointing in the direction of My Son. Take a right at this junction. It's straightforward from this point: 19 kilometres to a big sign close to a petrol station; turn left and it is nine kilometres to the entrance.
If for any crazy reason you get stuck for the night in My Son, a small guesthouse lies about five kilometres from the entrance.
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 19th September, 2016.