Another day on our trip, another exploration of a UNESCO World Heritage site! This time, we visited Mỹ Sơn (pronounced Me Son), a group of Hindu temple ruins a little over an hour drive from Hoi An.
The temples were built over a period of many hundreds of years, between the 4th and the 14th century, by the Champa people. The complex was a cultural center for the nearby villages as well as the site of religious ceremonies of Champa kings and burial grounds for some noble families.
The temples and surrounding structures are now in various states of restoration. Work on the ancient ruins began with the French in the 1930s, but setbacks occurred when the site took heavy damage from American bombing raids during the Vietnamese-American War. Tourists currently have access to a few sections of the complex that are in the best shape, and we spent the morning exploring the ruins and learning their history. Our tour guide, Ly, filled us in on a lot of the symbology.
Above, Ly is standing with a headless representation of the Hindu god Shiva, to whom most of the temples were dedicated, along with a few for Vishnu and Brahma. (Apparently the French took many of the statue heads from Mỹ Sơn and they now reside in the Louvre. I wish I had known to look for them when we were there!) The alter upon which Shiva sits is in the shape called a yuni, representing the female form. Shiva is taking on the male role of the linga in the center of the yuni. The two symbols of male and female repeat frequently throughout the complex.
From a structural standpoint, the construction of the temples is quite interesting. All but one of the buildings were made of red brick of mysterious technical origin.
To date, the process used to make these bricks, and the glue-like substance used in place of mortar, remain the subject of debate. However they were made, these bricks weathered the centuries better than those of the restoration process only a few decades ago. Even the carvings, etched directly into the brick, have amazingly retained their shape over time.
A few of the former tower structures were converted into storage areas for artifacts from the site, including more statues and some old tablets engraved with Sanskrit writing!
We wandered through the restored temples in the intense heat and humidity for a couple of hours, pondering the importance of these ruins to a people long past.
The curiosities of Mỹ Sơn were not limited to ancient buildings. Being situated in the middle of the jungle, critters abound. We saw countless butterflies, intimidating funnel spiders, all kinds of birds, and this colorful little lizard, who reminded me of our beloved chameleon Clamps. Hopefully he is doing OK with our friend Dave back home! (Thanks Dave!!)
And what’s a jungle without crazy bugs?! This guy was about the size of US quarter.
Creepy, but colorfully pretty too!
After our time at the ruins, we took part of our journey back to Hoi An on a boat on the Ban River. The fresh air and open breeze felt fantastic after the oppressive heat of the jungle! We ate a lunch of rice, chicken, and veggies while motoring down this wide river, past small fishing huts and fields of rice and other crops. We saw fisherman and farmers harvesting their products and loading them into boats for transport to the market.
We took a brief pit stop in the carpentry village of Kim Bong. We visited one woodworker shop, home of an award winning carver. We wandered around the shop, amazed at the intricate carvings of dragons, Hindu gods, and the required chop sticks and turtle statues present in every souvenir shop. We got to peek behind the shop and watch some of the artists at work, starting to carve the pieces of the next work to go on sale in the showroom.
We returned to Hoi An in mid afternoon and crashed in our cool air conditioned room to recover from the draining heat of the day. Before arriving in Vietnam, I had never heard of Mỹ Sơn. But it was quite an experience, and I’m glad we had the chance to visit the mysterious and beautiful construction of this ancient site.