It fascinates me the way that some parts of history are ‘lost’ in the popular narrative. There are a variety of reasons of course, but even those reasons are constantly changing and evolving, reshaping what greater society pays attention to, and what we collectively ignore.
“Fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard.” —Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
Champa is one such example. Once, Champa was one of the prominent kingdoms of Southeast Asia. They were well known for their skill in ship building. They had great connections with kingdoms worldwide, so much so that even Shakespeare referenced them. Despite the famous art and inscriptions all over Cambodia’s Angkor depicting the various clashes with the Cham, most tourists leave the Khmer temples and monuments with several photographs of a battle scene and no memory of who was fighting whom.
The Cham occupied most of what is now southern Vietnam. After decades of being sandwiched between the Viet and Khmer kingdoms, they were eventually overtaken by the Vietnamese. However, there are still many Cham structures in Vietnam. Pictured above are the towers near Phan Thiet. Interestingly, right next to these towers, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery has been built. It was a noticeable irony when we visited these towers, the chanting of the monks ringing out across the site where the old Hindu monuments were crumbling away.
The best display of Cham buildings are those at My Son, just outside of Hoi An. The average traveller doesn’t even know that they are there, just twenty minutes away by car. These structures were severely damaged by US bombing raids during the war, but are still considered the best remaining examples of Cham architecture.
Feature image taken in Phan Thiet province, just outside of Mui Ne, images directlly above taken at My Son temple complex.
There’s a strange confluence of the information that we have access to and that which we are exposed to. In this day and age, we have no excuse but the sheer overwhelming wealth of knowledge at our fingertips; ignorance seems almost lazy once it’s put in perspective. And yet, if you did not know to take a taxi ride for just twenty minutes outside of the tourist hub Hoi An, the average traveller could easily spend their given three days shopping at the famous tailors, or relaxing on a riverboat ride that doesn’t go quite far enough south to reach the My Son sanctuary. As archaeology in Vietnam and the wider Southeast Asian area has boomed in the last century, the access to information about lesser known sites has certainly increased and become available in several languages, but it has taken a lot more time for this to filter down into the tourism industry. Even now, when the Northeast of Vietnam is famed for it’s hilltribe trekking experiences with ethnic minorities – as are northern Thailand, Burma and Laos – people (travellers included) do not associate these nations with being multicultural on a day to day basis. Our ideas of modern geography are so entrenched that it has perhaps allowed us to forget that states rise and fall, and that borders can shift between battles.
I often wonder in these changing times of globalisation if the general narrative of history is widening or closing. With more and more visitors travelling to Vietnam each year, are these lesser known sites becoming more exposed, and their cultural heritages coming fully out into the open? Will the trends on Facebook and hashtags on Instagram lead more people to seek out these monuments, or just cement them in the ‘exotic other’ category where only seasoned travellers avoiding tourist hot spots will visit? Or will they be appreciated visually and not historically, as more and more visitors travel by photo?