On our second day in Hoi An, we decided to take a bike tour through the countryside, which included a journey to Mỹ Sơn sanctuary, a series of ruins of Hindu temples in the jungle that are sacred to the Champa people (still alive today, although now predominantly Muslim). The sites were (re)discovered and excavated by Europeans throughout the 1900s, and the story of these excavations and differing approaches have had a significant result on the temples today.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We started the day in Hoi An, and at the tour office met Lola, the spunky, kind and often hilarious woman who we would spend the day with. Truly, she was a gem and one of our fondest memories and days of Vietnam was this day, spent with her. We learned a lot from her.
At Mỹ Sơn, Lola told us about the history and competing excavations (French, Italians, Polish) that each left their mark on the ruins. For example, one group tried to re-build the temples with modern bricks, but today those modern bricks are breaking down whereas the original bricks (from a thousand years ago!) are still holding strong. Each grouping of temples was beautiful in its own way. We got to go inside of some too, admiring the pyramidal complex shape of the roof and the water fonts contained within. The local people still come to Mỹ Sơn and burn incense to honor the ancestors and local gods. Remarkable too was the written Sanskrit on the temples, which is mostly indecipherable today.
I think the most impactful part of our visit to Mỹ Sơn was learning about what we could have been seeing here. A majority of the temples of Mỹ Sơn were completely destroyed by a U.S. bombing campaign on the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War in one week in August 1969. Over 70 temples used to stand here, including the massive “A1” temple that stood taller than the rest. But, they were almost all completely destroyed. The bomb craters still sit next to temples that are in ruins, and the surrounding areas are still unsafe to explore due to unexploded ordinance (UXO).
I can only imagine what used to be, and it is a reminder of the permanent costs of war.
After Mỹ Sơn, we all got on our bikes and we followed Lola through the Vietnamese countryside, past rice fields, water buffalos, and friendly neighbors that she greeted as we passed. We got lunch at a small restaurant, where I found a lizard on a tree and, much to the amusement of the restaurant owner, took lots of pictures. One of our last parts of the ride was through another cemetery in the rice field.
Rice tastes better when it’s grown close to your ancestors.