Before long, I had learned a valuable motto for travel here: "Things rarely go as planned, but everything usually turns out just fine."
Little is known of the Cham, but their land was one of the more exotic places visited by Marco Polo on his legendary journeys in the late 13th century. Champa no longer exists by that name, but with a little imagination, it can still be seen along the central coast of Vietnam. A few temples, sensuous art and sculptures of Cham gods survive as testimony to this highly developed civilization. As a bonus, visitors can discover some of the finest scenery and beaches the country has.
I got hooked on the Cham culture a few years ago while visiting Nha Trang, a beach resort along the central coast that's becoming popular with tourists.
I thought I knew Vietnam pretty well, having lived here for several years before the war, but Nha Trang startled me with its temples, which bore a strong resemblance to those at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
So when I returned last March, I decided to add an excursion along the coast. Hiring a car and driver was inexpensive: I paid $75 a day, which included car, gas, driver and the driver's lodging.
Though I had made arrangements with one of the better-known tour groups in Vietnam, no one showed up on the day of departure. After placing a few phone calls, the company hurriedly sent driver Doan Duc Hung from Hanoi in an Asian-model SUV.
Our starting point was the ancient town of Hoi An, now a popular stop for Western tourists. It was an important port in the time of the Cham, receiving Chinese emissaries and traders from faraway lands. After the Viet lords vanquished the Cham and began to move into the region in the 17th century, they used the town for their dealings with Japanese, Chinese and Western traders.
These days most visitors come by land rather than by sea, and they find their tastes catered to with dozens of handicraft shops and many restaurants, including one called Champa.
Our first stop was the Cham Museum in the nearby city of Da Nang, where an open-air building contains a large collection of sculptures recovered from the temples. I recognized old familiars from the Hindu pantheon, including Ganesh, the elephant-head god, Siva, Vishnu and Uma, as well as fanciful sea monsters and lion-elephants (gajasimha) unique to the Cham.
Much of it was exquisite; it was especially fascinating when compared to the Khmer sculptures from Angkor and other sites in Cambodia. The Khmer and the Cham took turns capturing each other's capitals, evidently exchanging culture in the process.
Thirty miles south of Da Nang, we found the sanctuary of My Son, the oldest and most famous of the Cham sites. The Cham built it in a remote valley far out of harm's way, and its complex of temples, begun long before Angkor in Cambodia, survived well into the 20th century. Then came the Vietnam War and B-52 bombers that had no trouble visiting remote valleys. My Son had become a hideout for Viet Cong, and in 1969, the central temples in each group — including most of the masterworks of the Cham culture — were destroyed.
However, the remaining buildings and the setting are still worth a trip and were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 1990s.
The roads to My Son are narrow but paved, finally ending near a small stream that curls around the temples. The footpath from the visitors' center makes a circuit, which I walked in the reverse direction. This had the advantage of taking me through the most damaged areas first, and I was able to finish on a high note with the temples that are still standing.
Two of the buildings house a collection of sculptures and other temple ornaments, including a wonderful dancing Siva.
Green fields, royal courts
Traveling south from My Son on Highway 1 — the nation's main north-south artery — we saw a fresh palette of colors: green fields dotted with white egrets and bordered by groves of palm trees. In the distance to our right was the range of mountains that make up the Central Highlands. On the road in front of us was an endless parade of bicycles and mopeds carrying a range of produce and merchandise. Golden rice was spread out along the roadside to dry or was mounded for collection.