Archaeological travel guide to Tháp Phú Diên, a 1000-year-old Cham tower lost to the sands located outside of Vietnam’s ancient capital of Huế.
Name: Tháp Phú Diên | Phu Dien Cham Tower
Where: Phú Diên, Thua Thien Huế, Vietnam
Location: 16.495846, 107.746095
Description: Tháp Phú Diên a little-known ancient Cham temple uncovered from the sands in one of Vietnam’s remote beachside small towns.
Getting there: Private transportation or taxi is needed.
Imagine the thrill of digging at the beach and finding not only shells or buried treasure, but an entire ancient temple from lost to the literal sands of time. This is, in essence, the story of Tháp Phú Diên, a ruined Cham tower lost to the sand dunes of the Vietnam coast.
Tháp Phú Diên, also called Phu Dien Cham Tower in English, is an ancient brick Hindu tower that was made by the Cham people and buried for nearly a thousand years. It was not until as recently as 2001 that these Champa ruins were unearthed from the sand dunes bordering the historic Vietnamese capital of Huế.
Continue reading to learn about the history of this buried Cham tower and how you can visit the Phu Dien Cham Tower for yourself.
The Story of Tháp Phú Diên Cham Tower
Although the Indianization of Indochina began in the Mekong Delta, it would, over the centuries, spread outward, eventually becoming the Funan and Khmer (Chenla and Angkor) civilizations in modern-day Cambodia and the Champa civilization in what is now Vietnam. Many structures built by these cultures appear superficially to be almost the same. However, the Chams and Khmers are actually distinct ethnic and linguistic groups who maintained influence over separate states and even warred with each other at several points throughout their history.
The Champa (the collective name of the Chams’ political states) territory extended from the edges of the Mekong Delta to the area that is now Huế, coincidentally the final historical capital of the Vietnamese kingdom prior to its colonization by the French. There are two Cham tower sites located near modern Huế, Tháp Liễu Cốc and Tháp Phú Diên.
These two towers are the northernmost Cham structures known to archaeologists, and likely represented the northernmost boundary of their influence, given the mountainous choke point at Hải Vân Pass slightly to the south that has historically divided Vietnam. It also served as the centuries-long de facto border between the Chams and the Vietnamese during their constant struggle back and forth for the land.
Unfortunately, very little is known about the history of Tháp Phú Diên, given that it was only rediscovered in 2001 buried in the coastal sands. It’s highly unlikely even the Vietnamese knew of the tower after they moved into the area. Since its rediscovery, Tháp Phú Diên has been absorbed by a local Buddhist temple complex named Chùa Mỹ Khánh, also earning the tower the local name of Tháp Mỹ Khánh or My Khanh Cham Tower.
What Is a Cham Tower?
Throughout their territory, 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 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 Phú Diên Cham Tower
The Road to Hue’s Beach Resort
Roads in Vietnam are seldom well-marked, and the way out of Huế toward the coast was no exception. I ended up lost in small towns several times before finally making my way through the lagoon fisheries to what could vaguely be called a coastal resort town named Thuận An.
While passing through Thuận An, I witnessed something I never had on my previous trips to Vietnam: kilometers of Vietnamese cemeteries. Granted, I had seen Vietnamese cemeteries before – they are commonly derivative of Chinese grave markers – and some of the areas I had seen them were notably large. However, the road from Thuận An passes through several kilometers of Vietnamese cemeteries dominating the sand dunes and only occasionally interspersed with small towns before it finally approaches Phú Diên.
Turning toward the ocean, the road goes over steep dunes and past a yellow hotel and karaoke building before the beach comes into view. This is where you can park to walk to the Phu Dien Cham Tower.
Arriving at Tháp Phú Diên Cham Tower
Despite the temple being unmarked, there is a paved path leading to the Cham tower ruins. This path leads to a squared ditch dug out from the dunes. The walls of the ditch are reinforced to protect the excavated tower and prevent it from once more being reclaimed by several meters of sand from the surrounding dunes.
As I walked down the stairs toward Phu Dien’s protective enclosure, the ancient structure itself proved quite hard to see. The glass making up the enclosure is entirely transparent, but heavily tinted with a bluish hue that distorts any clear view or photography. Additionally, the surface is lacking upkeep, resulting in scratches, cloudiness, and just generally dirty glass which further obstructs any attempt at clear photography.
Even the doors, which were secured with sturdy padlocks, had heavily rusted through both their locks and hinges. The south doors were off their hinges enough that I was able to get my camera lens through for a small photo of the real structure.
What remains of the Tháp Phú Diên structure is the base of a small temple that seems to have been a lone-standing tower. This would, of course, make sense being on the northern fringes of Cham territory. While the towers were often built in groups, Tháp Phú Diên’s remote nature likely led to it consisting of a smaller shrine – a trait also visible in the neighboring Khmer empire in their remote temples such as Prasat Prang Ku.
This distance from the main centers of Cham influence may also be a contributing factor to its position only steps from the ocean, whereby seagoing Champa sailors could easily find the structure. This is speculation on my part, but it’s something I’ve seen before at Southeast Asian Hindu temples such as the Khao Ka Hindu temple on a small coastal mountain in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand.
A curious note about Cham towers is that they are built of bricks entirely without mortar. The intricate carvings often adorning the towers’ exteriors are etched into the bricks themselves before they are placed onto the structures. While these carvings can be seen at many of the more than 20 Cham towers located further south in Vietnam, they were sadly absent from most of Tháp Phú Diên’s base.
Circling around Tháp Phú Diên’s enclosure will quickly give you a full picture of the structure. It’s unfortunate that it was locked up, as I have seen occasional photos of it opened and the interior accessible. The several faces of the temple have shifted or tilted over the many centuries, most likely due to the weight of the sands. This is most evident on the two sides of the entryway, with the right side looking as if on the verge of falling over.
The entry to the temple is on the north side, facing the direction most visitors will come from. Standing before the entryway and outside the enclosure is an excavated altar accompanying the temple. During my visit, Tháp Phú Diên’s exterior altar had several offerings, including fruit, flowers, incense, and water. These are all typical offerings to find in a Buddhist temple as well, and may have been dedicated as such.
Moving toward the entryway, I could see the main interior altar of Tháp Phú Diên. From the exterior, it wasn’t possible to tell if this was the original altar or a recent renovation. However, my assumption is the latter, considering most of the Cham towers I have visited contain yoni and lingam, typical Shiva iconography. The temple’s current altar is instead a flat surface, and remarkably flat at that, given the condition of the rest of the temple. Instead of a traditional yoni, this altar also had several offerings, including flowers and several jars and bottles. It’s most likely that Tháp Phú Diên’s current altar is an addition from the local Buddhist temple that has seemingly adopted the ancient structure.
Being unable to enter the enclosure and personally see the interior of the temple was disappointing, but likely best for its preservation in the long run. In its current state, Tháp Phú Diên is in a very isolated and vulnerable position. That isn’t to say every Cham tower in Vietnam must be under constant supervision. Many of them, especially those around Quy Nhơn, Bình Định are just standing alone out in countryside fields. And admittedly, this does add to their charm when you come upon them in quiet solitude.
As I drove down to the beach for a momentary glance of the rough April coastline, I hoped to hear news in the near future of what might happen to Tháp Phú Diên. It’s obviously quite far off the path for most visitors to Vietnam, and even those who frequent Huế. But perhaps this has the potential to change as the Champa ruins of Vietnam become more well known like their Angkor counterparts.
How to Get to Tháp Phú Diên Cham Tower
GPS Coordinates: 16.495861, 107.746083
As the historic capital, Huế is a very popular and accessible tourist city in Vietnam. And while it is well connected to nearby cities by buses, local transportation is limited to Grab taxis or driving yourself. And while it’s certainly possible that a Grab will take you to Tháp Phú Diên, it would be unlikely and relatively expensive.
The most convenient option is to drive yourself. However, this is not advisable if you are not a capable and confident driver in Vietnamese traffic.
From Huế, you first have to get to road QL49B, which is not clearly marked or led to by any direct road from the city itself. Once you are on QL49B, you will be headed directly to the coast, crossing a bridge onto a barrier island over many fishing ships.
Although several small streets branch off, QL49B will curve south and lead all the way to Phú Diên. You will ride through several kilometers of Vietnamese cemeteries interspersed with the occasional temple. On the main road, QL49B, these will be broken up by small towns here and there.
Like the roads, the temple is not clearly marked, and the best way to find it is using the GPS coordinates (16.495846, 107.746095). The area leading to Tháp Phú Diên is also surrounded by Vietnamese graves. The first obvious sign you have arrived is a hotel-karaoke establishment called “Golden”. From here, you’re a few meters from the beach and can park anywhere to walk to Tháp Phú Diên. You’ll only need to walk down a few reinforced stairs to find the tower’s remnant’s in its protective shelter.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
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.
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.
Hindu monument built by the Cham people of ancient Vietnam.
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.
Early mainland Southeast Asian culture (1st-6th Centuries CE) which grew along the Mekong Delta coast with influence from the China-India maritime trades routes. Funan was among the first regional cultures to adopt an Indianized society.
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
A mountain in southwestern Tibet considered the dwelling place of Shiva and associated with Mt. Meru in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
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.
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.
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- “Province Unveils Plans To Restore Cham Tower”. 2012. Vietnamnews.Vn. https://vietnamnews.vn/life-style/222421/province-unveils-plans-to-restore-cham-tower.html.
- “Tháp Chăm Phú Diên”. 2013. Khachsanhue.Com.Vn. http://khachsanhue.com.vn/dia-diem-du-lich-hue/thap-cham-phu-dien_587.html. (English translation)
- Trân Kỳ Phuóńg. Cham Ruins: Journey in Search of an Ancient Civilization. GIOI Publ., 1993.