The ancient Kingdom of Champa began in this region in the 2nd century and flourished for more than 1,000 years. The Cham temple complex at My Son, which was constructed between the 4th and 12th centuries AD, is the most famous Cham site. The Vietnamese defeated Champa in the 15th century, and in the following centuries Chinese, Japanese, and French traders established a foothold in Hoi An, which still houses structures dating to the 16th century.
In 1802, Vietnam’s last royal dynasty, the Nguyens, set up court at Hue, which became the center of intellectual excellence and spiritual guidance, exemplified by the Citadel and Royal Tombs. Not far north of Hue, Vietnam was partitioned into North and South in 1954, to form a Demilitarized Zone, which witnessed some of the bloodiest battles during the Vietnam War, and stands as a grim reminder of the vicious struggle of that era. Battle sites such as Khe Sanh and Vinh Moc have become poignant places of pilgrimage and mourning for both the Vietnamese and Americans.
Located on the north bank of the Thu Bon River, the picturesque, historic town of Hoi An was an important trading port from the 16th to the 18th century. Attracting traders from China, Japan, and Europe, the town acquired a rich cultural heritage, rivaled by few other places in Vietnam. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hoi An’ s Old Quarter reflects both indigenous and foreign influences and has a wide array of restaurants and shops.
House of Phung Hung
Built-in 1780 and home to eight generations of the same family, this house shows a Chinese influence in the galleries and window shutters, and Japanese influence in the glass skylights. The general layout and design are Vietnamese in style.
Japanese Covered Bridge
One of the Hoi An’s most prominent landmarks, this rust-colored bridge was constructed in 1593 by the prosperous Japanese trading community, who were based on the west side of the town, in order to link it with the Chinese quarter farther to the east. However, in 1663, the Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu issued edicts forbidding the Japanese from trading abroad, thus bringing the community to an abrupt end. In 1719, a Vietnamese temple was built into the northern section of the structure. Although a new name for the bridge, Lai Vien Kieu or Bridge from Afar, was carved over the temple door, locals continue to call it the Japanese Bridge. Roofed in grey tiles, the bridge combines grace and strength in its short span across a tiny tributary of the Thu Bon River. It is a convenient pedestrian link between the art galleries of Tran Phu Street to those in the western part of town.
Cantonese (Quang Dong) Assembly Hall
Quang Dong is the Vietnamese name for the Chinese province of Guangdong, which was formerly known as Canton by Western countries. Built by seafaring merchants in 1786, the Assembly Hall is enlivened by bas-reliefs and colorful hangings. The main altar is dedicated to the great warrior Quan Cong, identifiable by his red face – emblematic of loyalty in Chinese society. Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea, is also revered here. Look out for the mosaic dragon statue by the entrance hall and an even bigger dragon statue in the garden.
Museum of Sa Huynh Culture
The small port of Sa Huynh, 99 miles (160 km) south of Hoi An, was the site of an eponymous prehistoric culture dating to 1000 BC-AD 200. In 1909, more than 200 burial jars filled with bronze tools, ornaments, ceramics, and the remains of the dead, were unearthed at Sa Huynh. These fascinating artifacts, characterized by a very distinctive style of bronze work, can be admired in this small museum, which is housed in a fine Franco-Vietnamese building.
House of Tan Ky
Perhaps the most celebrated of Hoi An’s many traditional abodes, the House of Tan Ky is an excellent representation of an authentic 18th-century Sino-Vietnamese shophouse style of construction. Built around a small courtyard, this two-story structure, as is often the case in Hoi An, is an architectural hybrid. It carries fine Chinese crab-shell motifs on the ceiling, while its roof is supported by typically Japanese triple-beam joists. The floor is made with bricks imported from Bat Trang in the Red River Delta. Exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay Chinese poems hang from the columns that support the roof.
House of Quan Thang
This one-story shophouse is a fine example of craftsmanship typical of Hoi An’s traditional dwellings. Dating from the 18th century, the house was built by a seafaring trader from Fujian in China, whose family have lived and prospered here for the last six generations. The house has a dark teak facade and is roofed in curved Chinese-style tiles. It can be accessed via the shop front, which leads into an interior courtyard whose walls are adorned with stucco basreliefs of flowers and trees. Beyond this beautiful courtyard is a narrow terrace used for cooking purposes. The wooden windows and shutters are finely carved.
Tran Family Chapel
This ancestral shrine was established more than two centuries ago to honor the forefathers of the Tran family. These venerable ancestors moved to Vietnam from China in the early 18th century and settled in Hoi An. The current descendants claim that they are the 13th generation since the migration from China. Over time, members of the family intermarried with local Vietnamese natives, and the chapel is appropriately hybrid. Artifacts belonging to the ancestors and memorial tablets decorate the main altar. A forefather who achieved the rank of mandarin is honored in a portrait in the reception hall of the chapel.
Museum of Trading Ceramics
Housed in a traditional timber shophouse, with balconies and wood paneling, this museum is dedicated to Hoi An’s historic ceramic trade, which flourished from the 16th to 18th centuries. Many pieces on display were recovered from shipwrecks, some near Cham Island off the mouth of Thu Bon River, and include items from China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
Phuc Kien Assembly Hall
A flamboyant building with a lovely garden in front, this assembly hall was founded by merchants who had fled from the Chinese province of Fujian after the downfall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644. The temple complex is dedicated to Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea, who is regarded as the savior of sailors. She presides over the main altar in the first chamber and is flanked by attendants who are said to alert her whenever there is a shipwreck. To the right of the altar is a detailed model of a sailing junk, while in a chamber at the back, an altar honors the founding fathers, represented by six seated figures.
Quan Cong Pagoda
Also known as Chua Ong, this pagoda was founded in 1653, and is dedicated to the 3rdcentury Chinese general, Quan Cong, a member of the Taoist pantheon. An impressive gilded statue of him presides over the main altar, accompanied by two fierce-looking guardians, and a white horse, Quan Cong’s traditional mount.
Hainan Chinese Assembly Hall
This assembly hall was built in 1875 by Hoi An’s immigrant community from Hainan Island in China. It is dedicated to the memory of 108 Hainanese seafarers killed by a renegade Vietnamese pirate-general in 1851. A lacquered board in the entry hall recounts their story in Chinese characters.
Best visited in the morning when the pace is not frantic, this lively market occupies two narrow streets that run south from Tran Phu to the banks of the Thu Bon River. There are stalls selling all kinds of fresh produce, kitchen utensils, and other equipment. To the east of the wharf is the market specializing in fresh seafood and meat. The main draws, though, are Hoi An’s popular fabric and clothing stores, which specialize in exquisite and inexpensive silks. Custom-made outfits can be ordered in several days.
Hoi An Artcraft Manufacturing Workshop
This handicrafts workshop specializes in the production of elegant lanterns, a specialty of Hoi An. The lanterns are handmade, using silk mounted on bamboo frames. Visitors can watch artisans at work, or make their own lanterns under expert supervision. Traditional recitals featuring the dan bau, a Vietnamese stringed musical instrument, are also staged in the workshop (at 10:15 am and 3:15 pm daily), and refreshments are available for visitors in the courtyard.
Cua Dai Beach
Cua Dai Beach is most easily reached by cycling down Cua Dai Road. The white sands look out onto the islands of the Cham archipelago, making it a much-visited destination. Attractive hotels line the route and front of the beach.
The unique Champa culture owed its spiritual origins to the Hinduism of the Indian subcontinent. Many of the temples were built to Hindu divinities, such as Shiva, Krishna, and Vishnu. The site of My Son became known to the world when French archaeologists rediscovered it in the late 1890s. Traces of around 70 temples remain, though only about 20 are in good condition. Today, My Son is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Evocative as the complex is, the monuments are rather unimaginatively named after letters of the alphabet; the temples are divided into 11 groups by archaeologists, the most important of which are Groups B, C, and D. Group A was almost completely destroyed by US bombing during the Vietnam War. The most striking edifices are the famous Cham towers, which are divided into three parts: the base represents the earth, the center is the spiritual world, and the top is the realm between earth and heaven.
EXPLORING MY SON
Although centuries of pillage and more recent bombings have taken their toll, the ruins at My Son provide a glimpse into a fascinating Indianized culture. Today, with aid from UNESCO, archaeologists are still struggling to piece together what remains of the site. Although the French left detailed architectural drawings, the task remains all but impossible, and much of My Son has disappeared forever.
Groups A and A1
Said to be among My Son’s most impressive edifices, Groups A and A1 were almost completely destroyed by USAF bombing in 1969. Little remains beyond rubble, but there are plans for restoration. Records show that Group A once featured a striking tower, A1, said to have been the most important kalan (sanctuary) here. Unlike most Cham temples, which only face east, A1 also had a door to the west, usually associated with death. This may have served as a link to the Cham kings said to be interred in Groups B, C, and D. Also noteworthy is A9, with its winding patterns.
Groups B, C, and D
Situated at the center of the complex, Group B is remarkable for exhibiting elements of both Indian and Javanese art. The main sanctuary, built in the 11th century, was dedicated to King Bhadravarman, who built the first temple at My Son in the 4th century, and to Shiva. The lingam in B1 is particularly well preserved. A phallic symbol associated with Shiva, the lingam is shown within or above the yoni, a symbol of the goddess. Water was poured over the lingam and flowed through a spout on the yoni to symbolize creation. Built in the architectural style of structures at Dong Duong, another Cham city, the ruins at B4 feature religious images carved on stone pilasters and elaborately embellished false doors. Finely carved stone pillars dating from the 8th century distinguish the ruins of B5. The 10th-century tower was used as a repository for temple treasures. It shows traces of the architectural marvel it was, with a boat-shaped roof, carved pilasters, and fine reliefs of Gajalakshmi, Goddess of Prosperity.
Group C forms a contiguous complex with Group B, separated only by a brick wall. Its central tower, C1, combines many elements from the older structures, including the tympanum and lintel. The 8th-century celestial figures on C1 show distinct Javanese influence. The low wide belts worn by the figures are thought to be of Indian origin, and it is believed that the style came to Cham via Indonesia. Built in the late 8th century, C7 is a squat tower with a stone altar and is an architectural link between the styles of the Cham cities of Hoa Lai and Dong Duong. Toward the east of Groups B and C, the mandapa or meditation halls of Group D are galleries for sculpture. Shiva lingam, as well as statues of Shiva and Nandi, are housed in D1, while D2 contains a stone Garuda, a Dancing Shiva, and apsaras.
Groups E, F, G, and H
Although the monuments in the northernmost reaches of the complex are the most damaged, they still offer fragments of beautiful craftsmanship. Built between the 8th and 11th centuries, Group E differs from the usual design of Cham temples. The main kalan has no vestibule, and only one temple faces eastward. Adjoining it, Group F has a finely carved lingam in the altar. The 11thcentury Group G has been restored. Its tower’s base features bas-reliefs of Kala, God of Time. Not much remains of Group H, but a carved stone tympanum of a Dancing Shiva that once adorned the temple is in the nearby Museum of Cham Sculpture.
CHAM ART AND SCULPTURE
The Cham Empire existed in Vietnam for around 1,600 years, from the 2nd century AD to 1832. Today, a thriving Cham community survives, but all that remains of their ancient kingdom is its artistic legacy, which reached its zenith in the 8th to 10th centuries. Part of this heritage is architectural, visible in the redbrick temples scattered across Central Vietnam. Other elements are sculptural, carved chiefly in sandstone and marble or, more rarely, in bronze, at sites such as Tra Kieu, My Son, and Dong Duong. Religious in inspiration, Cham art derives from the Indic tradition and represents Hindu deities with celestial mounts, dancing girls, and demons.
Built between 1805 and 1832, the vast Hue Citadel formed the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty until 1945. At its very heart lies the once-magnificent Imperial City – a royal fortress and palace, adjoining which was the Forbidden Purple City, with a theater and library.
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1993, the Citadel was established by Emperor Gia Long (r.1802–20). The huge fortress comprises three concentric enclosures – the Civic, Imperial, and Forbidden Purple cities. The Citadel was designed using the rules of Chinese geomancy, along with the military principles favored by French architect Sebastien de Vauban. The result is an unusual yet elegant complex, where beautiful palaces and temples coexist with massive ramparts, bastions, and moats. Despite the horrific damage caused by the Indochina Wars, restoration work has reimagined some of the Citadel’s lost architectural grandeur.
The Imperial City, also known as Dai Noi or the Great Enclosure, epitomizes the days of royal glory. This historic and particularly evocative part of the Citadel has undergone extensive restoration, allowing more than just a glimmer of its former glory and grandeur to shine through. Entrance to the Imperial City is via the imposing Ngo Mon Gate, beyond which a bridge leads between lotus-filled ponds to the splendid Thai Hoa Palace. Behind this is an open courtyard that overlooks a stretch of land, once home to the Forbidden Purple City.
Ngo Mon Gate
The majestic main entrance to the Citadel, Ngo Mon is a superb example of Nguyen architecture. Massive stone slabs form the foundation, upon which rests the elaborate Five Phoenix Watchtower.
Cot Co or Flag Tower
Looming over the Citadel, the Flag Tower or Cot Co has dominated Hue’s skyline since 1809, when Emperor Gia Long erected it over a big 59-ft (18-m) brick redoubt. On January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, Cot Co achieved international recognition when the Communist forces seized the Citadel, hoisting the National Liberation Front’s yellow-starred banner on the Flag Tower’s mast.
Nine Deities’ Cannons
Cast by Emperor Gia Long in 1803 as symbolic protection for his new capital, these colossal cannons were made out of bronze. Each weapon is said to represent one of the four seasons and five elements – earth, metal, wood, water, and fire. The cannons can be seen flanking the Ngan and Quang Duc Gates on either side of Cot Co.
Five Phoenix Watchtower
This ornate pavilion was where the emperor sat enthroned on state occasions. Viewed from above, it is said to resemble a group of five phoenixes. The middle section of the roof is covered with yellow glazed tiles and is decorated with dragons, banyan leaves, and bats, while the panels along the eaves are embellished with ceramic orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo mosaics. Above the pavilion, a concealed staircase leads up to a room where women of the court could see through finely carved grills.
Thai Hoa Palace
Originally built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805, the splendid Thai Hoa or Hall of Supreme Harmony housed the throne room of the Nguyen emperors. The most impressive of Hue’s remaining palaces, it has been beautifully restored. All of its 80 red lacquered wooden columns are sumptuously decorated with swirling golden dragons. You can easily envisage the hall as the venue for coronations, royal anniversaries, and the reception of foreign ambassadors. The emperor would sit on the resplendent throne, wearing a crown with nine dragons, a gold robe, jade belt, and other attire. Only the most senior mandarins were allowed to stand in the hall, while others waited outside.
Halls of the Mandarins
On either side of a paved courtyard, just behind Thai Hoa Palace, are the Cot Co (Flag Tower), Hue Citadel’s most distinctive landmark Dragon relief, a key decorative motif in the imperial enclosure Halls of the Mandarins. One hall was for the military, while the other was for civil mandarins. In keeping with their ranks, the mandarins would gather at their pavilions to dress in ceremonial robes for imperial functions. Some of these gorgeous, colorfully embroidered vestments and hats with dragon designs are kept on display here.
Forbidden Purple City
No man except the emperor was permitted to set foot in the 25-acre (10-ha) city within-a-city known as Tu Cam Thanh or Forbidden Purple City – any male who crossed its threshold was condemned to death. Only the queen, nine separate ranks of concubines, female servants, and court eunuchs were allowed to enter. Built between 1802 and 1833, the Forbidden City once comprised more than 60 buildings arranged around numerous courtyards, but unfortunately, it was damaged extensively by heavy bombing during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Originally built in 1825, the Duyet Thi Duong or Royal Theater is once again a leading venue for traditional entertainment, offering performances of Nha Nhac or court music. Declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, Nha Nhac features bamboo lutes, zithers, and fiddles, accompanied by drums. The beautiful building has a pagoda-style curved roof, and a colorful interior, with lacquered columns, etched with the ubiquitous golden dragon motif.
Constructed by Emperor Minh Mang in 1821, the Royal Library in the northeastern quarter of the Forbidden City served as a retreat where he read in solitude. The building stands before a pond, with a rock garden to its west. Small bridges crossing other lakes and ponds connect various galleries, creating a tranquil atmosphere. The library is sometimes used to stage performances of Hue music, as well as theatrical events.
Dien Tho Palace
Once the exclusive preserve of the Queen Mothers, Dien Tho or the Residence of Everlasting Longevity was built in 1803 during the reign Hung Mieu The Mieu Nine Dynastic Urns of Emperor Gia Long. Inside, the furniture is carefully inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl, and carved lanterns hang from the ceiling, which is ornamented with fans made from feathers.
Emperor Minh Mang built Hung Mieu in 1821 to honor his grandparents. The temple was seriously damaged by fire EXPERIENCE Central Vietnam Hien Lam Pavilion, with a finely crafted wooden facade145 One of the bronze dynastic urns Must See in 1947, but has been restored. It is renowned for its refined design and fine roof carvings. Particularly noteworthy are the large gargoyle-like stone dragons keeping vigil over the spacious paved courtyard.
Dedicated to the Nguyen Dynasty, the Mieu or the Temple of Generations contains altars honoring emperors, from Gia Long to Khai Dinh. The building has a roof of yellow glazed tiles. The altars were once stacked high with gold ingots, which today have been replaced with guilt and lacquer ornamentation.
Nine Dynastic Urns
Cast between 1835 and 1837 on the orders of Emperor Minh Mang, these massive bronze funerary urns weigh up to 2.75 tons each. Decorated with traditional patterns, and rich in symbolic detail, they represent the might of the Nguyen emperors and play a big role in the cult of imperial ancestor veneration.
Hien Lam Pavilion
The pyramid-shaped pavilion was built in 1824 by Emperor Minh Mang to honor those who gave the great Nguyen Dynasty its formidable status. As a mark of respect, it was declared that no other building in the Citadel could rise higher than the Hien Lam.