68. Culture and History on Vietnam’s Central Coast

A 1,200-year-old Hindu shrine complex, a legacy of the ancient Champa empire, is just one highlight of the heritage of Nha Trang.

Cham dancers pose at Nha Trang’s ancient Po Nagar Towers shrine complex, where a Hindu goddess is the central image. (JGA photo)

Some say that piracy is inherent to Vietnam’s Central Coast region, dating back more than 1,200 years to the era of the ancient Champa empire. This maritime realm, at its peak between the 7th and 10th centuries, once dominated the trade routes of the South China (East) Sea — and its high-seas pirates were feared far and wide by neighboring nations.

The original pirate, and the mythical founder of the Cham state, was a woman.  Lady Po Nagar came from a peasant family in the area of modern Nha Trang. After she drifted to China on an enchanted piece of sandalwood, she was married to a crown prince and declared the Queen of Champa. Her husband tried to block her from returning home with their two children for a visit, but the magic sandalwood allowed her to escape back to Nha Trang. When the prince sent a fleet to retrieve her, she got really, really mad: She turned him and his navy to stone.

Today the Po Nagar Towers (Tháp Bà Po Nagar) are one of the great surviving ruins of the Champa civilization, which once extended about 850 kilometers (530 miles) from Phan Thiêt to Hue. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Cai River on the north side of Nha Trang, the brick-and-stone shrine is a stunning sight.

The pyramidal North Tower dwarfs other structures in the Po Nagar complex. (JGA photo)

Shiva rising

What makes Po Nagar all the more remarkable is that it was built as a place of pilgrimage for the Hindu religion. The Cham race, still a visible minority in modern Vietnam, never embraced the Buddhist-Taoist religion nor the Confucianist ethic that spread south from China into northern Vietnam. Their greater cultural influences came from India, via the Khmer civilizations to their south and west.

In Nha Trang, the 28-meter (92-foot) high North Tower (Thap Chinh) is an unmistakable landmark, rising high above a lush green forest and a flotilla of sky-blue fishing boats. The red-ocher tower dominated my view as my motorbike driver-guide, Minh, carried me across the Xom Bong bridge to the spiritual site.

The original entrance to the imposing Po Nagar Towers was through a meditation hall on íts east-facing side. (JGA photo)

At the entrance gate, I paid a modest admission fee, then climbed a ramp and gentle steps to the top of the hill. To my right was the original entrance, facing east and framed by 10 pillars that once enclosed a meditation hall. A colorful altar, bearing offerings of flowers and incense, stood beneath a steep staircase that was once the primary access to the towers of worship.

Relics suggest this granite bluff was used for worship as early as the 2nd Century A.D. By about 784, the first of its eight original stone towers had been built (four remain), with a lingam (a carved phallus) honoring the Hindu god Shiva at íts heart. Linga are integral to any worship of Shiva, whose divinity at once embraces destruction and new creation; today the South Tower (Mieu Dong Nam) still shelters a carefully tended lingam.

A lingam, or carved phallus honoring the Hindu god Shiva, is worshipped in Po Nagar’s South Tower. (JGA photo)

The group also includes a Northwest Tower (Thap Tay Bac), dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, and a Central Tower (Thap Nam), a late addition, built of recycled bricks in the 12th Century.

With its terraced, pyramid-shaped roof and the masonry of its vaulted interior, the North Tower, built in 817, is the highlight of the complex. Its central image is that of Po Nagar herself, now conferred a divine status like that of the fierce Hindu goddess Durga. Her black-stone icon is four feet tall, sitting cross-legged in only a skirt, holding symbolic items in each of her 10 hands.

Cham dancers, balancing pottery on their heads, perform with traditional musicians outside the North Tower. (JGA photo)

In an open courtyard behind the North Tower, traditional Cham cultural music and dance programs are often performed. The setting for the show is perfect, as above the tower’s entrance are carvings of two musicians on either side of a dancing, four-armed image of Shiva.

There are a few other nods to tourism here, but not overtly so. Souvenirs such as intricate Cham weavings are sold from the same stalls as mass-produced handicrafts. A small museum exhibits some fine examples of traditional ceramics, while memorable pottery mimics temple carvings in an outdoor sculpture garden.

The Long Son Pagoda has survived wartime bombings to be a Buddhist spiritual center in Nha Trang. (JGA photo)

Buddhist monuments

Down the hill and around the corner from Nha Trang’s Po Nagar Towers is another notable spiritual site, albeit honoring a different faith — Buddhism.

The Long Son Pagoda was built in 1900. Steep steps climb from a garden courtyard area to the main sanctuary entrance, protected by glass-and-ceramic dragon mosaics. Heavily damaged by bombing during the American War in 1968, the red-tile roof was completely rebuilt in 1971.

Behind the pagoda, 152 stone steps climb to the Hai Duc Buddha — a huge white Buddha statue, seated on a lotus blossom, visible from all over Nha Trang. Placed here in 1965, it honors seven Buddhist monks who died in 1963 after setting themselves aflame to protest the repression of their faith by the pro-Catholic government of South Vietnam.

Part way up the steps between the pagoda and the giant Buddha, not as widely publicized, is a handsome reclining Buddha image, his feet etched with symbolic swastikas.

A young family shadows a reclining Buddha at Nha Trang’s Long Son Pagoda. (JGA photo)

Beachside diversions

I suspect the typical beach-hungry Nha Trang tourist has little interest in these cultural sights. Most visitors to the city of half a million people come to enjoy its 6-kilometer (3.8-mile) crescent of sand, framed by a necklace of islands that reach into the East Sea.

In particular, Vietnamese families of moderate means love the offshore VinPearl Nha Trang resort and adjoining VinWonders theme park, a Disneyesque monstrosity on Hon Tre island that holds minimal interest for foreign visitors. Swelling investment in new beachfront hotels by Russian, Chinese and Korean financiers has resulted in massive growth in tourism numbers from those countries — pre-pandemic, at least.

A hub of beachfront activity is the Lotus Tower, located on the seaside promenade just south of the large Sheraton and Inter-Continental hotels. Like a stylized flower with pale pink petals, it is an art gallery that displays the work of artists from throughout Khanh Hoa province.

My favorite Nha Trang restaurants are all south of here. The Sailing Club and the Louisiane Brewhouse are a couple of hundred meters apart on the shoreline. The former is slightly more upscale; it features a cocktail menu and a DJ who creates a nightclub mood most evenings. The brewpub, which welcomes diners to enjoy its swimming pool, specializes in pizza, burgers and outstanding craft beer from Australian brewmaster Sean Symons. (Try the seasonal red ale if it’s available.)  On smaller avenues a couple of blocks west, I enjoyed an excellent German wienerschnitzel at Haus Bremen and a delicious moussaka at MIX, a Greek restaurant.

The Lotus Tower, on Nha Trang’s beachfront, is a gallery designed to resemble a flower with pale pink petals. (JGA photo)
Modern pottery mimics ancient Cham temple carvings at the Po Nagar Towers. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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