How to become a modern day Indiana Jones
As a child, I always wanted to be like Indiana Jones. Only when I came to Vietnam as an adult did I realize that I actually could discover ancient ruins buried in the jungle, minus the fedora and bullwhip. As someone who is out of shape and overweight, who doesn't have a PhD nor Spielberg or Lucas at my back, I can say with confidence anyone with determination and a sense of adventure can as well.
I began hunting for lost Cham temples in my free time, between writing tourism guidebooks for Vietnam. I currently live in Binh Thuan Province, which, together with Ninh Thuan to the north, comprises the modern homeland of Vietnam’s Cham minority. The ancestors of my friendly Hindu neighbors founded the ancient Champa Empire (7th-19th Centuries,) a former rival of the Kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia.
I accidentally discovered my own set of ruins, partly buried and overgrown with vines and fig trees, while searching for another recently-discovered temple I’d read about in the local newspaper. While my own discovery was unexpected, I strongly believe that more ruins can be found by looking in the right sorts of places. In fact, I’ve found other ruins and tombs since, and there's no reason why you can't as well.
Indy amateur hour
So what should you look for? Champa Empire ruins are a good bet. Traditionally, it is believed that the Champa Empire extended from just north of the city of Hue, all the way south to Phan Thiet City in Binh Thuan Province. The Cham’s red-brick temple-towers, typically held together by resin rather than mortar, are found throughout this territory. From north to south, the coastal cities of Danang, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, Phan Rang and Phan Thiet make the best bases to hunt for Cham ruins.
Cham temple ruins are most commonly found on hills and rises in the landscape, and usually in view of running water. A search by motorbike or bicycle is best, stopping periodically to scour mountain foothills, overgrown mounds in the middle of farmland and capes along the coast. Look for tell-tale signs of weathered red bricks scattered on the ground, and abandoned linga (large stone phallus) and yoni (a square-shaped female counterpart.)
Know the dangers
As with any worthy quest, there are dangers involved. When I discovered my first temple and climbed down inside, pulling the vines away, I was wary of vipers and scorpions. Thankfully I only found one enormous, though harmless, whip-scorpion and a magnificently green, albeit slightly venomous, long-nosed whip snake that accommodatingly slithered away.
Slightly more explosive dangers should be a consideration for the amateur Indy as well. Though much of the country has already been cleared, war-era landmines and discarded bombs are still a hazard when exploring out of bounds areas. I’ve found however, that when cow patties and goat droppings are present, the land is usually safe, as livestock have a tendency to clear away mines through an exhaustive process of trial and error.
Unlike Dr Jones, the goal of amateur temple hunters should never be unearthing relics. In fact, excavations without government permission or removing antiquities of any kind are good ways to end up in prison. Take photos, relish the moment, but take care not to disturb the site. It's a good idea to notify an organization like École Française d’Extrême-Orient (5A Xom Ha Noi, Ha Noi; +84 4 822-0623) afterwords so that scholars can investigate the ruins and take steps to protect them. When a discovery is handled properly, the discoverer may find their names in history books.
Plan the hunt
Temple-hunters should plan on a full week or more of exploring the countryside. Expect to pay per person, per day: US$15-25 for three meals at tourist restaurants; US$50-100 off-season for a basic room at a three to four star hotel; US$5/$15/$60-75 for rental of a bicycle/motorbike/jeep (jeep includes a driver.)
Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort & Spa
Everything an adventurer could want on a secluded stretch of mixed rock and sand beach.
Km 9, Phu Hai, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet, tel: + 84 (0)62 381 3000
Starting around US$207
Ho Phong Hotel
A basic but pleasant hotel in one of the most unexplored provinces within the old Champa kingdom.
363 Ngo Gia Tu Street, Phan Rang, tel: + 84 (0)68 392 0333
Starting around US$15
Novotel Nha Trang
A new family-friendly hotel with exceptional security and safety features.
50 Tran Phu Street , Nha Trang
tel: + 84 (0)58 625 6928
Starting around US$88
Life Wellness Resort
Beautifully designed with Cham-influenced architecture, set on a secluded section of beach, south of the city.
Quy Nhon, Ghenh Rang, Bai Dai Beach, Quy Nhon, tel: + 84 (0)56 384 0132
Starting around $128
Furama Resort Danang
Vietnam’s premier luxury resort, located right on the beach.
68 Ho Xuan Huong Street , Danang, tel: + 84 (0)511 384 7333
Starting around $193