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An ancient Hindu legacy in Central Vietnam

The ruins of red brick temples are all that remain of the Champa dynasty that was in power for centuries

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The moment Vietnam Airlines flight VN 772 took off from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City, a sense of excitement engulfed me. This was not because I was once again travelling to Vietnam, a favoured destination which has never failed to intrigue me, but because I would be digging into the past to trace the legacies of a lost Hindu kingdom.

The Indo-Chinese kingdom known as the Champa or the Cham, ruled with glory the seaside region of Central Vietnam between 2nd and the 19th centuries. It followed Hinduism as the state religion at a time when Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam were practised in the surrounding regions. The Cham kings built a series of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva during their reign. Some still exist to testify to the artistic talent of the time, comparable to the builders of Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the Borobudur or Prambanan Temples in Indonesia.

For a history and art aficionado like me, there was a quantum of visual feast awaiting.

Vietnam today is one of the most tourist-infected destinations in Asia, particularly from Down Under, because of its diverse range of attractions that stretch from antiquity to modernity, progressive infrastructure in big cities, and lively atmosphere. Add to this, reasonable cost structure for five-star facilities and availability of direct flights from three Aussie cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Perth) offered by Vietnam Airlines.

At the turn of this millennium, when Vietnam opened its doors for international tourism, the itinerary generally included the capital Hanoi, World Heritage listed Ha Long Bay in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the south. While nature thrives in Ha Long Bay, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are a treasure trove of history, mainly around French colonisation, Ho Chi Minh’s life, and the Vietnam War.

Central Vietnam on the other hand, is often overlooked, even though it is steeped in history and natural beauty. Perhaps this has been due to lack of tourism infrastructure. With time, infrastructure development has progressed immensely in the region, resulting in significant growth in visitor numbers. Hue the former capital, Hoi An the ancient river port, Qui Nhon the seaside retreat and Da Nang the ultramodern hub of the region are the hotspots.

Qui Nhon city (Source: Supplied)

Occupying a large seafront area of Central Vietnam, the Cham dynasty came into command in the 2nd century AD achieving its zenith between the 4th and 13th centuries as naval power. Located near their first capital, modern-day Hoi An was their most significant maritime hub because of its strategic setting on the fabled Silk Route.

Built on the banks of the Thu Bon River, this river port settlement hosted merchants from China, India, Persia, Japan, and Europe, who in large numbers sailed there to buy and sell spices, silk, jewellery and other merchandise. Some of the traders never went back to their country of origin; their permanent stay made Hoi An cosmopolitan. The beauty of Hoi An is that it has preserved much of its architectural setting and old-time character from the 15th century onwards. The magic there is to soak oneself in the bygone ambience, and adore the loveliness of those centuries-old timber houses lining the original street layout.

The Cham rulers followed Hindu consciousness introduced to them by visiting traders from India. They built a series of red-brick temples dedicated to Lord Shiva at My Son, located 40 km from Hoi An. Over time, most of them were lost to natural disasters, and only a handful existed when the Cham era declined in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, the unattended edifices got hidden by the thick bushland, and the world lost them for almost a century until a French scholar discovered them in 1898 and unveiled to the modern generation the architectural glories of a lost kingdom.

My Son temple ruins (Source: Supplied)

Each of them was a visual feast to me. The bas-reliefs on the temple exteriors, depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, are very interesting. They appealed to me like poetry in stone. While browsing I noticed in a few temples a change in the colour of the bricks. A local guide told me they were bombed during the Vietnam War but have been now restored to their original form with assistance from the Indian Government, obviously using new bricks, matching size-wise but of different tints.

I saw another cluster of Hindu temples built by the later Cham Kings when around 10th century they moved their seat of power 300 km south of Hoi An to another seafront location, that of the modern city of Qui Nhon. Blessed with 150km of sun kissed shoreline, this is Vietnam’s hottest new holiday destination.

Though the Cham Kingdom is now confined to history, many Cham people still live in Vietnam.  Officially enrolled as a minority ethnic group, some of them are Hindus and followers of Shiva, but the majority adopted Islam which was introduced to the rulers in the 17th century by the Arab traders.

A highly rewarding experience from this trip was my six-hour travel from Hoi An to Qui Nhon in the ‘The Vietage by Anantara’, a specially designed rail carriage which connects to the famous Reunification Express train at nearby Da Nang, and disconnects at Qui Nhon. Accommodating only twelve guests in six cosy cabins with a common bar area, the journey brings alive the romance of classy rail travel. In addition to the rural views of Central Vietnam, the indulgences include nonstop serving of best quality hot, cold and alcoholic beverages, snacks, a three-course gourmet lunch with choices and a fifteen-minute body massage. A product of the well-known hospitality brand Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas, this pricy romance on wheels is becoming popular worldwide among rail aficionados.

TRAVEL NOTEBOOK

Getting There: Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) has regular flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi with connecting flights to several domestic location.

Stay: Try Anantara Hoi An Resorts and Anantara Qui Nhon Villas

Train Journey:  Check www.thevietagetrain.com

READ ALSO: One flight away from Australia: Top 5 holiday spots

 

Sandip Hor
Sandip Hor
Writing is a passion for this culturally enthused and historically minded globe trotting freelancer

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