The My Son temple complex, the spiritual center of the Champa Kingdom, contains buildings constructed over a span of 1,000 years. Ranging from the 4th to the 14th century, this is one of the longest-occupied archaeological sites the world has ever seen. To put this into perspective, the temples of the Khmer Empire at Angkor go back to the 9th century until they stopped building new temples in the 13th.
Despite being inhabited for an incredibly long time, however, what remains of My Son covers a much smaller area than other archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. In fact, the whole temple complex can be visited in just a couple of hours, making it an easy day trip from either Hoi An or Da Nang. While group tours are popular and easy, we recommend doing a self-guided My Son tour of your own to escape the large crowds. As shown in the guide below, getting around the different groups of ruins can be easily done on foot.
But first, just who were the Chams that built this place?
The Champa Kingdom: A Brief History
The Cham’s descendants may have first arrived in Vietnam from the island of Borneo. The country that played a major role in both their early history and mythological origin story, though, was China.
The Chams trace their roots to a mysterious woman named Po Nagar, who once drifted on a piece of sandalwood all the way to China. She ended up marrying the crown prince and had two children with him. Homesick, Po Nagar insisted on visiting her parents in Vietnam despite her husband’s protests. She then used the same piece of sandalwood to ride with her children across the ocean.
The Chinese tried to follow her back, but she grew furious and turned them all into stone! Interestingly, Champa’s early relationship with China can also be found in historical accounts. Chinese references to the kingdom go back to 192 AD, when Lin Yi, the precursor to the Champa Kingdom, rebelled against the Han Dynasty.
Cham culture is believed to have really started thriving from the 4th century, which coincides with the establishment of My Son by king Bhadravarman.
The Chams were greatly influenced by their neighbors to the west, the kingdom of Funan (precursor to the Khmer Empire), from whom they adopted the Hindu religion and many aspects of their art and architecture.
Nowhere is this as evident as at My Son, the spiritual center of Champa for over 1,000 years. Overshadowed by the holy mountain of Mount Mahaparvata, the Chams built over 70 structures at My Son, though only 20 or so now remain.
Meanwhile, the political capital would shift a number of times across central and south Vietnam. The port of Hoi An was also one of their main economic centers.
Over the course of their history, the Champa would fight the Chinese and the Dai Viet to the north and the Khmer to the west. They even famously sacked Angkor in the year 1177, though it wasn’t too long before the Khmer had their revenge. The eventual demise of the Champa Kingdom, though, would come at the hands of Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang in the year 1832.
A Self-Guided My Son Tour
As mentioned above, My Son (pronounced something like meh sohn) once contained around 70 structures, though that number has been reduced to roughly 20 or so. The archaeological site experienced great devastation during the Vietnam War, when it was used as a hiding spot by Viet Cong forces. Subsequently, the Americans heavily bombed the area with little regard for its significance to world history. Thankfully, the French had carried out extensive research in the 19th and 20th centuries, giving us a better idea of how things used to look.
Today, the temples at the site are divided into groups arranged by letters, making My Son an easy place to explore solo. Some of the groups, such as Group L, are still under excavation and off the (literal) tourist trail. Other newer groups, like K & H, are easy to get to, but only have one dilapidated structure each. The main highlight of My Son is the cluster of groups B, C & D, but it’s worth walking along the entire trail to see everything.
All in all, the site can be fully explored in a couple of hours. Entering the ruins cost 100,000 dong. While there are no shortage of tour groups visiting the temples, you’ll only have about an hour or so at the ruins surrounded by at least a dozen other people. The other part of the tour will likely consist of visiting souvenir shops and the like. With the ruins conveniently located in between Hoi An (40km) and Da Nang (50km), doing your own My Son tour is ideal. You can either ride there yourself or hire a driver (more info below).
One positive of visiting independently is that the suggested route on the signboards is actually the opposite route taken by the tour groups. That means that you just have to wait a few minutes for a tour group to leave and then you won’t cross paths again. This is much better than having to either rush ahead or wait an extra long time to ditch the crowds!
Now beginning the adventure, you’ll first find yourself at what’s now known as ‘Group K.’
Group K dates back to the 11thcentury. Even though it’s mostly in ruins today, the complex was never very big to begin with. This is evident by the rectangular brick outline next to the lone standing building. The main sanctuary faces east, a common characteristic of Shiva structures throughout Southeast Asia. A relief of a three-faced goddess originally found here can now be found in the gallery of D1.
Group K may not be the most exciting first impression of My Son, but the isolated nature trail before and after is gorgeous.
GroupS E & F
Groups E is among the oldest in the entire complex, dating back to My Son’s founding in the 4thcentury. The temples in the E group are said by experts to resemble the general shape and layout of wooden temples. Supposedly, wooden temples were also present in the area, though they mysteriously all burnt down in a fire somewhat early on in My Son’s history.
While many of the structures here are badly damaged, one tower remains in seemingly perfect condition. As evidenced by the different colored bricks, it was fairly recently restored. Consisting of just a single room, it appears to have housed a Shiva linga that was used in ceremonies by priests.
Around the area you can also find a yoni, a symbol of divine female energy that’s often paired together with a (masculine) Shiva linga, as well as statue of a bull. This is Nandi, considered to be Shiva’s mythological vehicle, though it’s sometimes also used as a symbol for the god himself.
One of the significant findings in this group was a relief of Brahma being born out of Vishnu’s navel, a popular Hindu origin story. To see it in person, though, you’ll need to visit the Cham Sculpture Museum in Da Nang. If you’ve been to Angkor before, this same mythological scene is incredibly common, though the two neighboring cultures used noticeably different artistic approaches to depict it.
Just nearby is Group F, dating back to the 8th– 9thcenturies. F1, the main sanctuary of the group, was another Shiva temple. It was built with a special hole to discharge holy watered being poured over the Shiva linga inside during religious ceremonies. Now at risk of collapse, F1 is currently being repaired and can only be appreciated from the bottom.
As it stands today, Group G is the most impressive part of My Son after the B, C, & D joint complex. This is largely thanks to restoration efforts that have been taking place over the last couple of decades.
Group G’s restoration efforts are a promising sign of things to come. While the temple is by no means whole, visitors can easily get a sense of its size and basic look. It’s clearly one of the larger temples in all of My Son.
Those scary-looking faces around the base of the tower are of Kala, the god of time. Traditionally associated with death, Kala is not necessarily an evil entity. He’s often associated with regeneration. Kala is also a symbol of our earthly realm, in contrast to the heavens, which are considered to be beyond time in Hinduism. You may have seen Kala before above temple entrances in places like Cambodia and Bali, as well as at many modern-day Buddhist temples.
Group A is unusual in the sense that it’s now among the worst off temples in the entire complex, yet the temple which once stood here was supposedly the most beautiful and most significant in all of My Son.
The once-splendid temple was built by 7th century king Sambhuvarman in dedication to Shiva and possibly to the spirits of former kings as well. What was unique about this temple was that it had two doors facing both east and west, as opposed to only east. This indicates that it may have played a role in important death rituals. In any case, it was likely the main spiritual center of Champa royalty for hundreds of years.
Carvings of rishis and deities still adorn part of what remains of Group A
Thanks to drawings by French archaeologists who saw the main temple before its destruction in the Vietnam War, we at least have a pretty good idea of A1’s former splendor. At the Cham Sculpture Museum in Da Nang you can find a small model of how it would’ve looked. Also on display are a group of seven linga found in the Group A area.
Groups B, C & D
This cluster of three groups is the most impressive and the best-preserved area of the entire complex. If for whatever reason you have limited time at My Son, make sure to save most of it for here. Though you might need to wait awhile before the tour groups finally disperse!
If you’ve been walking along the path detailed so far, you’ll arrive first at the main causeway. On either side you’ll find some of the largest, though not the tallest, structures at My Son, D1 and D2.
Originally used as performance and dance halls for the ancient kings and priests, the two structures now both function as mini-museums. They house sculptures and reliefs found at various ruins all over My Son. While not nearly as extensive as the Cham Sculpture Museum in Da Nang, it’s a very nice touch to have the sculptures so close to the ruins themselves.
Inside the galleries of structures D1 and D2. What were formerly ritual dance halls for royalty are now small rooms containing objects found throughout the ruins.
Heading onto the B group, you’ll pass the tower of B5, a former treasury house. Accordingly, carvings of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity and Kubera, god of fortune, were carved into its sides. You can also find intact relief carvings of elephants. This structure is also of special interest to archaeologists, as it was made in a similar style to the lost A1.
B1, located in the center of the group, features a complete Shiva lingam on top of a yoni. The symbolism can be interpreted in a number of ways. While it’s often described as a sexual symbol, which is not technically incorrect, it’s perhaps more accurately described as the equivalent to the Taoist yin yang. Holy water was poured over these sculptures as a way to not only praise Shiva, but as an attempt to balance the primordial male and female energies of nature.
At the edge of the group you’ll find B4. This structure is unique because it was built in a style representative of another major Cham city, Dong Duong.
C1, the tallest of group C, dates back to the 10thand 11thcenturies and once housed a large Shiva statue. The statue can now be seen at the museum in Da Nang. This structure is also said to have been influenced by the Javanese style.
According to some records, the Champa and Javanese were in communication sometime in the 9th century, perhaps exchanging both religious and architectural ideas. Notably, this would’ve been around the time when the sites of Borobudur and Prambanan were still thriving.
Other portions of the C group, like C7, are even older, dating back to the 8thcentury. It’s interesting to observe how even different temples within the same small cluster could sometimes span periods of hundreds of years. Though given the state that many of these structures are in, the subtle differences can easily get lost on visitors.
As you would expect, this is the part of My Son with the highest concentration of tourists at any moment. While it’s obviously possible to get some shots without dozens of people in the way, it requires a lot of patience, luck and willpower to wait it out under the blistering sun. But if you want to have this portion of the ruins all to yourself, if even for a few moments, you’ll need to do an independent My Son tour as opposed to an organized tour group.
Heading back toward the exit is Group H, which seemingly only opened up fairly recently and doesn’t even appear on older maps. It’s also among the most recent at My Son, having been originally built in the 13th century.
Group H is just more or less one remaining wall of a single structure, similar to what you witnessed back at Group K. What sets it apart from the others is the little dirt path you need to walk down to get there. Don’t get too adventurous with your explorations, though – the forested parts of My Son may not have been completely de-mined!
While an afternoon My Son tour is certainly no replacement for a visit to Angkor, or even Thai sites like Ayutthaya, the ruins make for a rewarding visit for anyone spending time in central Vietnam. With My Son gradually expanding and more and more ruined temples being successfully rebuilt, there may even be more of this UNESCO World Heritage Site to appreciate in the future.
Group tours can easily be arranged at your hotel or any tourist agency throughout Hoi An and Da Nang. These are extremely cheap (sometimes as low as $5) but often so for a reason. In addition to being brought to souvenir shops on the way, your time at the ruins will be limited and you won’t have any freedom to explore on your own.
Fortunately, doing an independent My Son tour is easy. You can rent your own motorbike, though that may not be wise for a first-timer in Vietnamese traffic. As all locals know My Son (but not my son), it should be easy to hire a private driver.
I happened to come across a private motorbike driver soliciting his services near my hotel one evening, and we agreed on a deal for transport to My Son the next day. For round trip transport I’d pay 300,000 VND (roughly $13 USD). I also emphasized a number of times that I would probably be very slow compared to most tourists (to take photos), and wanted to make sure that he had no problem with waiting up to 3 hours. He said OK.
I finished up in around 2.5 hours, which is longer than most tourists would need, but still under our agreed-upon time. (Getting the seemingly empty shots above of groups B,C, & D was no easy task!) The driver, though, started going off at me, complaining abou thow long I took while pointing to his watch. I brought up our agreement of 3 hours which he seemed to forget, despite me having reminded him yet again when he dropped me off at the ruins.
As you can probably guess, when we arrived back in Hoi An, he demanded extra payment for the “extra” time. I refused, and luckily had exact change. If you ever agree on a price with a driver in advance in Vietnam, always be sure to prepare the right amount of money to give to them, as it’s not uncommon for drivers to backtrack on the agreement and not give you change. That’s not the case every time, of course, and I had other positive experiences.
If this driver would’ve simply fulfilled his end of the agreement, not complained and not demanded more money, I would’ve tipped him on my own, On top of that, I needed a driver for another day trip I was planning and would’ve hired him again. Instead, I went and found someone else. It’s just a shame that certain people in the transport industry don’t realize that by being honest and building trust with their customers, they’ll get more work and more tips in the long run.
With all that said, good luck finding a reliable driver and count your money in advance.
Most people visiting the My Son ruins base themselves in Hoi An.
Within Hoi An, the closer you are to Hoi An Ancient Town, the better. The Ancient Town is the specially designated zone where no cars are allowed and where all except a few locations mentioned in this list are located. The rest of Hoi An doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than a few beaches. As mentioned above, I didn’t make it to any beaches due to the cold weather, but some people may prefer to stay closer to the coast.
I stayed at a hotel called Kiman Old Town Hotel, which was right in between the Ancient Town and the bus station. At just around a 10-minute walk from either, it was perfect for exploring Hoi An’s attractions as well as taking day trips to the Marble Mountains and Da Nang.