It feels like the jungle wants to overtake the sanctuaries and tombs of My Son. Here, in the midst of an area of rice paddy near the Vietnamese town of Hoi An, there is only one toothless old man making gentle attempts to scythe away the long grasses.
This very peaceful ruin that is both a testament to the historical religious patchwork of Vietnam and to the more recent violent past.
Today’s Vietnamese celebrate a rich history of culture and religion and Vietnam’s spiritual world includes Buddhism, Confucian and Taoist philosophical teachings from China, all interwoven with ancestor worship and ancient animistic practices.
My Son was built by the Champa people, who rose up against the dominant Han Chinese in the Second Century. An intelligent and war-like race, they established a kingdom and ruled for many centuries.
Scattered around the broken Hindu temples to Shiva are stelae leaning every which way in the grass. They are inscribed with Sanskrit, a language borrowed from visiting Indian traders before the Cham went on to develop their own language.
There are delicate friezes, polished lignams and sculptures of elephant-headed lions, with red sandstone temples added over the centuries. The expert skills of the masons who constructed My Son is apparent – the bricks have been ground smooth for a tight fit.
Royal burials and religious ceremonies were once conducted here but eventually the Champa kingdom declined, the Viet conquered and My Son was forgotten by the outside world until a Frenchman reminded us by ‘discovering’ the site at the end of the 19th century.
My Son has been around for a long time but the worst damage was inflicted during the ‘American War’. Bullet holes and the craters of carpet bombing are the legacy of the US invasion. It doesn’t pay to wander away from the red-earth paths as there is still danger from unexploded ordnance.
Archaeological work and ham fisted restoration has also taken its toll over the years, despite Unesco World Heritage Site status. A wall rebuilt 20 years ago by French archaeologists looks significantly older than the untouched 1,000-year-old wall adjacent.
When I visited My Son it was rice harvesting time in Vietnam and everywhere women in conical straw hats were scything and gathering the green soggy stalks into armfuls to be spread out for drying. I watched people carrying offerings to a Buddhist temple. Religion and history mix together at My Son.
By Natasha von Geldern