Vietnam’s Quang Nam province punches far above its weight when it comes to historical sites. In fact, it boasts two of the country’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One is the well-known, heavily-trafficked Hoi An. The other is the far less well known but much older ruins of My Son Sanctuary, just inland and southwest of Hoi An.
Located in a valley only a few dozen kilometers from Hoi An and a little over an hour’s drive from Da Nang, My Son makes for an excellent day trip. Those traveling through the area will likely appreciate the difference in pace between bustling Da Nang or Hoi An compared to the quieter mountainous regions just outside of the cities.
While My Son Sanctuary plays an understated role in many central Vietnam motorbike tours, we believe the visit is well worth a stop — especially if you’re a history buff, or are interested in comparing these structures to other, similar structures. Whatever your interest, My Son is one of the most fascinating historical sites the region has to offer and makes a fine addition to any travel itinerary.
History of My Son Sanctuary
The ruins of My Son represent a thousand-year legacy left by the Hindu Cham people, who ruled much of coastal central Vietnam. The kingdom of Champa was eventually absorbed into what would become Vietnam in 1832, long past their greatest heights. My Son, however, was largely constructed in the thousand years between the 4th century and 14th century AD.
The kingdom of Champa was reminiscent in many ways of the nearby Khmer empire. The most notable similarity is their shared religion: Hinduism. Both kingdoms were Indianized kingdoms of local peoples, with Hinduism as their cultural center, though the Khmer later became Buddhist.
The temples at My Son Sanctuary are largely dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva (the destroyer), represented in various incarnations and under different names. The temples were largely built out of brick, with reliefs carved into them describing a number of different sacred stories. Historians argue over just how these structures were created, especially the nature of how the bricks were carved and pieced together. Inscriptions in both Sanskrit and Cham give details of the buildings and their history where possible, though many of these have fallen into disrepair.
Kings generally would construct new temples to commemorate their ascent to the throne. Between the 4th and 8th centuries, the kingdom’s capital was at nearby Tra Kieu. Although the capital later moved, the temples retained their importance and were in use until the absorption of Champa by Dai Viet.
The site was largely forgotten and reclaimed by the jungle until its rediscovery towards the end of the 19th century by a french explorer named M.C. Paris. The temples were later catalogued by Henri Parmentier, who created the system still used to describe the buildings.
My Son Sanctuary ranks alongside Angkor Wat, Ayyuthaya, and Bagan as one of the most important religious sites in mainland Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the temples fell prey to the misfortune of war. The complex and the surrounding mountains were used as a shelter by the Viet Cong to attack nearby An Hoa airbase. In retaliation, the US Air Force launched a carpet-bombing campaign in the region. Many structures of the My Son temple complex were destroyed in one week of bombing in August 1969.
Some of the structures still stand, though the majority were damaged or even destroyed during these bombings. Consequently, My Son Sanctuary is not nearly as grandiose or awe-inspiring as the ruins of Angkor Wat, for example, though such a comparison is perhaps unfair, as few places are as magnificent.
The Park at My Son Sanctuary
The park is in a valley ringed by jungle-clad mountains. It’s likely this location was chosen because of its highly defensible nature as well as its accessibility.
Upon entering the park, you’ll need to pay a 150,000 VND (~$7) entrance fee. There’s secure parking for vehicles as well. You’ll need to pay for parking, though the fee is quite small and depends on the type of vehicle.
At the entrance is a museum with some relics from the temple site and explanations of the history and the buildings. It’s worth a stop before entering to orient yourself and gets some more context.
Once you’ve entered, you’ll want to get in one of the electric trolleys to get to the temple site near the top of the hill. There are facilities nearby for snacks, restrooms, etc. You can also hire a tour guide if you so choose.
The temples are divided into groups A-L, though only A-G are restored and readily accessible. Groups A-G are all walking accessible and trails are sufficiently maintained. Groups H, K, and L are further away and are less accessible as well as not yet restored. Those with an adventurous spirit, curiosity, and time to spare can find these by hiking through some jungle growth on dirt trails to find them.
Keep your eyes open for war scars on the site: you’ll be able to see bomb craters, bullet holes, and more if you keep alert. These serve as a reminder for the not-so-distant past, and how different things are today.
If you arrive at the right time, you may be treated to traditional dancing. The times for these dances can vary by season, but there’s often one time in the morning and one in the afternoon. The dances reflect traditional Cham dancing styles that would have been used in ceremonies celebrated at My Son.
How to Get to My Son Sanctuary
There are a few transportation options to get to My Son, though all of them involve driving in one way or another. Of course, you could walk — everywhere is walking distance, if you have the time, but we say this in jest and do not actually recommend it.
Our preferred way to get there, of course, is by motorcycle — that’s what we love after all. If you don’t want to drive yourself, a pillion tour is a fantastic option. Not only do you get to ride on one of our beautiful Royal Enfield Himalayan bikes, but you’ll also get the pleasure of having our ultra-knowledgeable guides with you on the trip who can answer just about any question you have, and many you didn’t know you had. We’d be happy to arrange a custom pillion tour for you — just contact us and we’d love to help.
If you’re more interested in traveling by car, private cars can easily be hired in Da Nang or Hoi An. If you’re staying in a hotel, guesthouse, homestay, or any other kind of lodging, simply ask the front desk staff and they’ll certainly know someone.
Another option if you’re staying in Hoi An is a combination bus and boat tour. These run around 199,000 VND (~$8.50) for a round trip ticket. You’ll leave Hoi An on a bus, hop on a boat, and then back to a bus; returning will be the opposite. Note that the price of this tour does not include the entrance fees to My Son.
Routes to My Son Sanctuary
If you’re choosing to drive, there are plenty of route options. Most visitors to My Son Sanctuary come from Hoi An or Da Nang, though some may venture from as far as Hue. There’s only one way in and one way out: the DL 610. This simplifies your route of ingress and egress, though there are many ways to approach the complex.
From Hoi An
If you’re leaving from Hoi An, allow about an hour for travel time. You have essentially two choices: leave town on Huong Vuong street and continue north of the river, or cross the river near town and drive along a smaller branch of the Thu Bon river. We prefer the smaller road to the south since it’s a more beautiful and less busy drive, but either one will get you there.
If you’re coming from Hoi An, keep an eye open for a mountain that looks like a bird. To the Cham, this mountain represented the bird god Garuda and may have been a determining reason for choosing the site of My Son.
Southern Route from Hoi An to My Son Sanctuary
Along the southern route you’ll pass through the town of Tra Kieu, the old capital of the kingdom of Champa. There are a few sites that are worth visiting. One of them is a bizarre and fascinating Catholic church built on top of the hill that used to be home to the Cham king’s palace. For Catholics, this can be an interesting religious site, but the site is interesting in its own right in terms of architecture and history.
The town of Tra Kieu also features a small Cham museum, though since you’re on your way to My Son Sanctuary it may lead to Cham overkill.
Interestingly, Tra Kieu is right at the midpoint between the Cham islands and My Son — a direct line that some say was intentional.
Northern Route from Hoi An to My Son Sanctuary
If you choose to take the northern route from Hoi An, there’s one site that stands out in particular: Thap Bang An (Bang An tower), a Cham site that is in remarkably good condition. At this tower, it’s plain to see the architectural influence of Cham building. Many Cham monuments are in the form of linga, a phallic architectural style designed to represent the god Shiva. They’re built on yoni, Hindu structures designed to represent female reproductive organs and the goddess Shakti.
My Son Sanctuary From Da Nang
Although there are plenty of options to drive to My Son Sanctuary from Da Nang, we prefer to take the 14B highway. Since it’s a much less major thoroughfare than the 1A, for example, you’ll experience less traffic and will have a much more enjoyable ride than taking one of the larger roads. On top of that, the route is fairly direct and will only take roughly an hour once you’re on the highway.
If you’re coming from Da Nang or following the northern route from Hoi An, you’ll cross the Giao Thuy bridge. During the war, this was known by Americans as the ‘Freedom Bridge’ and for several years was the longest wooden bridge in the world, and was the main supply route for the nearby An Hoa air base.
When to Go to My Son Sanctuary
Deciding when to go can really make or break your experience at My Son. In the hot season (May-August) the afternoons can be unbearably hot — the valley traps hot air and there’s little to no sea breeze. You’d be diving for shade at any opportunity and sweating through all your clothes.
However, tour groups come in the morning and can overwhelm the place as it’s not particularly large. Tour groups usually arrive around 9 AM. Consequently, your best bet may be to go as early as possible to beat the heat and the crowds. It opens at 6:30 AM when the air is much cooler. If you can drag yourself out of bed that early, it may be worth it.
If you decide to go that early, it may be worth staying near the park. There are a handful of lodging options near the entrance, including some guesthouses and the relatively new My Son Heritage Resort and Spa. Being so close will make getting to the park early a cinch, so you can see what you need early in the day and get out before noon.
In the rainy season or cooler seasons (September-April) going during the afternoon may be a better bet, however. Tour groups will largely have checked out by then so you’ll have more of the place to yourself. Do note that rain from September-December can be frequent and unpredictable, but such is life in a monsoon-climate country.
If you’d like to see more about Cham culture and history, the Cham museum in Da Nang is an excellent place to spend a few hours and learn more. An additional, often-overlooked bonus, especially in hot weather, is the fact that the museum is air-conditioned — a welcome relief from summer heat.
The museum is larger than it first appears and is excellently maintained. Numerous sculptures and relics were moved to the museum for preservation from My Son as well as other nearby Cham sites. The museum is the largest collection of Cham relics anywhere on the planet, so get your fill while you can.
What to Eat and Drink
There’s a restaurant right towards the entrance of the complex that’s passable, but not particularly interesting. However, countless small eateries along the way will advertise their wares with local food. My Quang is a particularly popular local dish with rice noodles, vegetables, meat of your choice — usually pork, chicken, or shrimp — and a small amount of broth.
For more on this topic check out our article on what to eat and drink while on tour.
Onyabike Adventures’ Thoughts
Central Vietnam boasts a long and fascinating history, and My Son Sanctuary is one of the crown jewels of that history. While few people would fly in from around the world to see the site as they would Angkor Wat, it’s certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially for history buffs.
We’re always pleased to get another opportunity to visit My Son. We’d be thrilled to take you there on a tour, whether you’re driving yourself or riding pillion with one of our guides.
My Son Sanctuary makes for a great addition to a larger central Vietnam motorbike tour, and can really give you a taste of the grand scope and flavor of the region’s history and legacy. It’s just another reason we choose to call Da Nang our home — because we get geeked out on exploring, and love to spend time with others who do too.