Travelers to southeast Asia in search of ancient ruins usually head to Siem Reap, the home of world-famous temple complex Angkor Wat. And although the majesty of this incredible site is hard to match, Vietnam holds its own secrets along its stretching coastline and within its lush forests.
Once a part of the ancient Kingdom of Champa — which stretched from Vietnam’s coast and into modern day Cambodia and Laos — Vietnam’s central region is home to ancient temple ruins that remain silent and crumbling relics to the country’s past. From the well-traveled historic town of Hoi An to the charmingly remote Phan Rang, these ancient ruins remain largely off of the tourist trail, and are some of Vietnam’s most intriguing cultural destinations of undiscovered allure.
My Son Temple Complex
Just 10 kilometers from historic Tra Kieu and an hour and a half drive from Hoi An ancient town stands one of Vietnam’s largest collections of Cham ruins. Built between the 4th and 14th centuries by the ancient kings of Champa, these temples were constructed in dedication to the Hindu god Shiva, known locally as Bhadresvara. They are located within a valley that spans 2 kilometers, and its temples are flanked by the burial grounds of ancient Cham royalty and national heroes. What used to be an area of over 70 temples suffered some of the worst destruction during the war, with many of its structures destroyed by carpet bombing during a single week.
Regardless of its destruction, My Son complex remains one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in southeast Asia, and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Given the lengthy span of time over which structures were constructed and renovated by Champa kings, My Son boasts an incredible diversity among its temples, and is evidence of nearly ten centuries of Champa architecture. Of the 7 artistic styles that Champa ruins have been classified, 6 are represented in My Son, and the central most structure known as “A1” is considered by art historians to be a masterpiece of Cham architecture.
Po Klong Garai Temple
Located on a hill overlooking modern day Phan Rang – Thap Cham, the Po Klong Garai temple is a collection of three Cham structures built in honor of Cham monarch King Po Klaung Garai. The legend of the god king is one of the most enduring tales in Cham culture, and follows the legend of the king who rose from poverty to eventually defend the Cham Kingdom from invading Khmer forces. After his reign as a king of astounding wisdom and power, King Po Klaung Garai is believed to have ascended to godhood as a protector of the people.
Constructed toward the end of the 13th century, the Po Klong Garai temples are still in relatively good structural shape in comparison to many Cham ruins, and continue to be an important religious centre for locals. Since its surrounding city of Phan Rang has one of the densest populations of Cham descendants — many of which still speak Cham as well as Vietnamese — Po Klong Garai temple hosts a yearly Cham religious ceremony called Kate Festival in November, when those who still follow ancient Cham traditions descend upon the hilltop temple to honor the king.
Po Nagar Temple
Just over the bridge from beach paradise Nha Trang, the Po Nagar temple is the religious heart of the coastal city. Perched high atop Cu Lao Mountain that overlooks the surrounding waters and fishing vessels, Po Nagar temple is in stunning condition, and continues to be a popular destination beyond the sand in Nha Trang. The temple is dedicated to its namesake goddess, Yan Po Nagar — or Thiên Y Thánh Mâu in Vietnamese — who is considered the goddess of the country and a fierce protector of the people. The central structure of the temple is the 1.2 meter tall statue of the goddess herself, holding with ten hands a variety of symbolic items.
Now an important site for prayer and religious observance for many faiths, Po Nagar Temple is still routinely visited by Buddhists and Hindus alike. The sweet smell of burning incense still wafts between the temple structures, and although a small market flanks the structure, most that travel here do so to take in the breathtaking beauty of these three towering historical monuments.
Po Shanu Temple
Located about 5 kilometers outside of Mui Ne, the Po Shanu Temples are one of the smallest collections, and have seen more destruction than many of their architectural cousins. Although the structure itself is not as arresting as its counterparts, the journey to Po Shanu Temple is worth it for the panoramic views of Phan Thiet and the East Sea. The temple itself dates back to the 9th century, and is dedicated to the princess Po Shanu, daughter of King Para Chanh and famous for her talent and virtue.
It was only in the late 90s that this temple structure was excavated, and had spent centuries buried and hidden away. The locale continues to be an important spot for prayer for many of the surrounding locals that observe ancient Cham traditions, and even continues to be a place where fisherman in surrounding towns come to pray for good passage. During Lunar New Year, this temple hosts two festivals, Rija Nuga Festival and Poh Mbang Yang Festival, which ask for good luck in the coming months.
Cham Po Dam (Po Tam) Temple Complex
Located at the foot of Ong Xiem Mountain and within the Phu Lac Commune, Cham Po Dam Temple complex used to have six standing structures. Now, three of these structures have collapsed, leaving three still standing that are an important relic to local history. Cham Po Dam temple complex was built in the 8th and 9th centuries in dedication to King Po Dam, who ruled over ancient Champa from 1433 to 1460 and built the famous irrigation systems that surround the city. Even today his legacy remains, as many of these irrigation systems are still used in modern day Tuy Phong and Bac Binh.
The temples at Po Dam complex are smaller and squatter than other Cham temples, and while most Cham temple doors face to the east, all six of the temples at Po Dam complex face the south. The design of the temples are also distinct not just from other temples, but also from each other, with the south three structures built with distinct artistic style from those located in the north part of the complex. The design differences draw from their religious groundings — the two sets of temples on either end of the complex are built with inspiration from different deities. The northern-most temples preserve a stunning blue stone altar that symbolizes Shiva.
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