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Archaeological travel guide to Tháp Bằng An, a lone 900-year-old Cham tower located outside of the popular Vietnamese tourist town of Hội An.

For centuries between the mid-1st Millennium and early 2nd Millennium CE, the coasts of Vietnam were ruled by the Cham people and their maritime trading network. The ancient kingdom set up its towns and temples along Vietnam’s coastline, building cultural centers and a unique brand of Hindu monuments near them. The Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower is one such monument.

The Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower is a minor 11th-Century CE Cham Temple located near the tourist town of Hội An and the ancient Cham sanctuary of My Son. It was built over an earlier temple site and although small, the temple has a unique architectural style with 8 sides and an extended entrance vestibule.

This article will guide you through the history and architecture of the ancient monument and provide all the information you’ll need to visit the Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower for yourself.

The Story of Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower

The main entrance to Tháp Bằng An guarded by 2 elephant-lion "gajasimha" statues
The main entrance to Tháp Bằng An guarded by 2 elephant-lion “gajasimha” statues

The area surrounding modern Quảng Nam Province in Central Vietnam was one of the earliest cultural centers of the maritime traders of ancient Champa. At least two Cham citadels are known to have existed in the area, one at Tra Kieu and another at Duong Dong. Additionally, the religious sanctuary at My Son is one of the longest-inhabited Cham sites in their ancient domain. The early Chams even made use of the small chain of islands off the coast of Hoi An that now bear their name. 

Archaeology and Architecture of the Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower

The 10th-Century gajasimha (left) and the 12th-Century gajasimha (right) statues guard the entrance to Bang An Tower
The 10th-Century gajasimha (left) and the 12th-Century gajasimha (right) statues guard the entrance to Bang An Tower

The earliest traces of a monument on the site of Tháp Bằng An date from the 9th-10th Century CE. This date is determined primarily from the style of one of the Gajasimha (“elephant-lion”) statues that stand guard at the entrance to Tháp Bằng An today. Of the two, the earlier statue has a thicker mane, while the latter style has a layered mane.

Despite this earlier style of sculpture found at the site, the tower now standing there bears features of a later style. One of these is the kalan (tower body) and rounded roof features similar to those found at Tháp Dương Long near Quy Nhon, Binh Dinh. Additionally, Tháp Bằng An has an extended entrance vestibule similar to one of the later temples at My Son Sanctuary, Monument G-1.

Monument G-1 at My Son has a similar style of extended entryway to Tháp Bằng An
Monument G-1 at My Son has a similar style of extended entryway to Tháp Bằng An

The most unique feature of the Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower is the octagonal shape of its tower body. Of all the Cham towers found, only 2 have ever had this feature, Tháp Bằng An and Tháp Chánh Lộ in Quảng Ngãi Province, about 130 kilometers to the southeast. However, the Chanh Lo Cham Tower had been destroyed long ago. At the time it was excavated in 1903-4, only its foundations remained.

Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower in the Modern Era

An onsite diagram display Bang An Tower in relation to the older two bases that were found
An onsite diagram display Bang An Tower in relation to the older two bases that were found

Excavations at Tháp Bằng An in the early 20th Century found the first evidence of the bases of 2 other towers at the site that had been entirely destroyed. Both of these towers were square-based and likely to have been from Bang An Tower’s earlier period. Diagrams of these 2 additional towers in relation to the main Bang An tower can be seen on a sign at the site, but nothing of them remains for a visitor to see.

Restoration work was done at the Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower in 1940. This effort was supervised by French engineers stationed in the nearby city of Danang. Some of this work is still evident by looking at the brickwork of the monument today, which features a significant amount of mortar, which the original Cham structure would not have had. Additionally, this restoration work built up the bases of the north and south doors to the entryway, effectively changing them into windows.

The brickwork from the 1940 restoration uses noticeable modern mortar. The original Cham builders did not use mortar, but instead an organic resin
The brickwork from the 1940 restoration uses noticeable modern mortar. The original Cham builders did not use mortar, but instead an organic resin

Since this period, there is no further record of any significant work done at Tháp Bằng An. It survived much more intact than the grander ruins at nearby My Son and remains open as a small roadside attraction to this day.

What Is a Cham Tower?

Main article: Architecture Profile: Cham Towers, the Hindu Temples of Ancient Vietnam

The Cham people built numerous religious towers (known in Vietnamese as Tháp Chàm and in the Cham language as Kalan) for Hindu worship, most often of Shiva. These towers share a common origin and function with the better-known Khmer prang, both stemming from the religious towers built by the Funan people. Like these other structures, there is commonly a shiva lingam shrine found inside.

The Chams’ Tháp Chiên Đàn (top) and the Khmers’ Prasat Prang Ku (bottom) may appear similar but are from different cultures.
The Chams’ Tháp Chiên Đàn (top) and the Khmers’ Prasat Prang Ku (bottom) may appear similar but are from different cultures.

The evolution of Cham towers stems from Indian religious architecture and adapts many of their stylistic motifs, with the parts of the tower and designs found upon it representing different worldly and supernatural elements. Like Buddhist stupas and their Khmer prang counterparts, Cham towers were a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain representing the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Cham towers are built of an iconic red brick that, once put into place, was able to hold the structures together entirely without mortar for centuries. Many towers are adorned with intricate carvings along their exteriors. These carvings are etched into the individual bricks themselves before they are placed onto the structures instead of carved from. 

Visiting Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower

The riverfront in Hoi An, the closest town most visitors will begin from
The riverfront in Hoi An, the closest town most visitors will begin from

I was halfway through Vietnam before I had even heard of any ruins of the Cham people, and only had first learned of the ancient Champa civilization a few days before in Nha Trang. While spending a few days in the iconic coastal trading town of Hoi An, I rented a motorbike to go see the nearby Cham ruins at My Son.

I soon found out that on the way to My Son was another smaller Cham temple to see. It would only require a small detour off the main highway of about 10-20 minutes.

Unfortunately, one of the more difficult parts of driving in Vietnam is the lack of signs. Even though it’s one of the few countries in Southeast Asia where foreign tourists can adequately make out the road signs, few of them are available to point to the way to destinations. 

Arriving at Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower

The very erect ruins of Tháp Bằng An
The very erect ruins of Tháp Bằng An

Once past the main highway, it is a short trip down a quiet dirt road, the tower occasionally peeking through the treetops in the distance. A small pull-off to park the motorbike and I was off down a short paved path to the Cham tower.

While it’s commonly known that Cham and Khmer Hindu temples are built with the symbolic Shiva lingam (a phallic symbol representing the god) in mind, Tháp Bằng An was a bit too on-the-nose. Its rounded top and extended entryway are a little more realistic than symbolic. 

Bang An Tower view from the west
Bang An Tower viewed from the west

There isn’t too much to see at the site itself besides the big brick phallus. The pathway leading to the ruin first passes by the two guardian statues taking the form of a mythical elephant-lion hybrid. 

A couple of signs on the property very briefly explain the symbolism of the tower and its role in Cham religion. Opposite the courtyard from the main entrance is a small brick altar. While this may have been how it had appeared during the temple’s heyday, this altar was cemented together with modern mortar, likely from the 1940s restoration or later. 

The southern door-turned-window is a result of the 1940 restoration
The southern door-turned-window is a result of the 1940 restoration
The reconstructed exterior altar  is directly east of the main entrance
The reconstructed exterior altar is directly east of the main entrance
A metal altar has been placed in front of the temple's ruined lingam shrine
A metal altar has been placed in front of the temple’s ruined lingam shrine

Heading inside the Bang An Tower first brings you through the east-facing entryway and, perhaps symbolically, through the lower part of the male anatomy. On either side (north and south) of this entryway are open windows meeting in the same pointed design at the top of the main door. 

Within the tower itself, little remains of the original shrine. Only a broken portion of the original lingam-yoni sits at the far end of the chamber. In front of it was a 2-leveled aluminum table set up for candles, incense, and offerings. While this was my first time ever seeing this in a Cham Hindu tower, it was very common in the ancient Khmer Hindu prang towers strewn throughout northeastern Thailand.

How to Get to Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower

GPS Coordinates: 15.88471, 108.23352

Bang An Tower make a nice stop on a day trip to My Son Sanctuary from Hoi An
Bang An Tower make a nice stop on a day trip to My Son Sanctuary from Hoi An

Bang An Tower is located just off the main north-south coastal highway between Danang and Tam Ky. It is also just over 12km from the popular tourist town of Hoi An. The best option for reaching Bang An Tower is with private transportation from Hoi An, such as a motorbike or even a bicycle.

While it might be possible to exit a bus from the highway, there is not likely to be any local transportation to take you to the ruined Cham tower, however private transit will guarantee you a way back to Hoi An or Danang. This tower is also an easy stopover on any trip from Hoi An or Danang to the larger and more impressive Cham ruins at the My Son Sanctuary.

There is no entrance fee or ticket booth at the Tháp Bằng An Cham Tower. Instead, you’ll find only a small fenced-off area with a peaceful, forested path leading the short distance back to the ancient temple. 

Fast Facts



Fast Facts
Name: Tháp Bằng An | Bang An Cham Tower
Where: Điện Bàn, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
Location: 15.88471, 108.23352
Description: The Bang An Cham Tower is a lone, brick tower near. It is unique among Cham towers for its octagonal frame, extended entryway, and rounded rooftop.
Getting there: While it may be possible to stop via bus on the way to Hội An, private transportation (bicycle or motorbike) from Hoi An is a better option.
Cost: Free

Glossary

Cham
Austronesian ethnic group native to Southeast Asia that once controlled the Hindu Champa civilization in the region of modern Vietnam. Today, the Cham people are a minority in Vietnam and largely practice Islam.

Champa
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.

Cham Tower
Hindu monument built by the Cham people of ancient Vietnam.

Indianization
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.

Khmer
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Mount Kailash
A mountain in southwestern Tibet considered the dwelling place of Shiva and associated with Mt. Meru in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Mount Meru
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

prang
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.

stupa
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Sources 

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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