Archaeological travel guide to Tháp Phú Hài, Vietnam’s southernmost Cham tower ruins excavated and restored into a coastal historical park.
Name: Tháp Phú Hài / Po Sah Inư Cham Towers
Where: Phan Thiết, Bình Thuận, Vietnam
Location: 10.93501, 108.14663
Description: The Po Shanu Cham Towers (Tháp Phú Hài in Vietnamese) date from the 700s-800s CE and are among Vietnam’s oldest remaining Cham monuments.
Getting there: A taxi, bicycle, or motorbike from anywhere in the city.
Cost: 17000 VND / 0.70 USD
Looking out over the dense fishing harbor at the mouth of the Phu Hai River, several towers poked through the trees on the hilltop opposite me. These ancient towers from the Champa Kingdom were what I’d come to see. So, after a quick check over the motorbike, I was looping through the Vietnamese coastal town toward the Po Shanu Towers.
The Po Shanu Cham Towers (Tháp Phú Hài in Vietnamese) date from the 700s-800s CE and are among Vietnam’s oldest remaining Cham monuments. The three kalan monuments represent a period when Cham art began incorporating Khmer styles into their architecture.
This article will guide you through the history and architecture of the ancient monuments and provide all the information you’ll need to visit the Po Shanu Cham Towers of Phan Thiet for yourself.
The Story of Po Shanu Cham Towers
The modern town of Phan Thiet is built atop an ancient Cham settlement dating back over 1000 years. This area roughly marked the southern edge of both the Cham polity of Panduranga and the Champa territory as a whole. Here, three rivers flow into the Pacific Ocean, creating two natural harbors that are still used today by the local fishing community.
Located on a coastal hill immediately north of the northern harbor, the Po Shanu Cham Towers overlook the fishing area of Phan Thiết. They would have likewise done so during the ancient period of Cham settlement, where they would have stood out as the largest buildings in the area and as a notable landmark to sailors along the coast.
The name of the Po Shanu tower group comes from the Cham princess Po Sah Inư, and this transliteration of the temple’s name (Tháp Po Sah Inư) is still commonly seen today in addition to the names Po Shanu and Phu Hai.
The Art and Archaeology of the Po Shanu Cham Towers
The Po Shanu Tower Group (Phu Hai in Vietnamese) are some of the earliest Cham monuments still standing. The towers represent a period of heavy Khmer influence in Cham art in the 8th Century CE known as the Hoa Lai style (named after Thap Hoa Lai, Cham temple complex in modern Phan Rang-Thap Cham, approximately 120 km to the northeast).
However, the style and influence of the towers have been a matter of debate over the past century. The first survey of the Po Shanu Towers took place in 1909 by Henri Parmentier, who originally attributed them to the Khmer of the Chenla Period, not to the Cham people.
During another study in 1942, Stern concluded they represent a blending of Cham and Khmer styles. Much more recently in 2001, the art historian Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h related it to the Wat Kaeo Srivijaya Buddhist temple located in Chaiya, a city in Southern Thailand.
Despite all this, the consensus opinion on the Po Shanu towers remains that they are an early Cham design that incorporated some Khmer elements, placing it well within the Hoa Lai Style.
Tower A (South Tower)
Tower A is the main monument of the Po Shanu tower group. Its bricks were lightly baked and retain much of their original color. The 15-meter (50-foot) tower lacks much of the decorative features and ornamentation found along the angles and corners of other Cham towers.
One such feature not seen on Tower A (or Tower C) is the small, decorative corner towers found on each roof level of most Cham temples. Today, only 2 levels of Tower A’s original roof survive. If such corner towers ever existed, they may have been destroyed with other parts of Tower A’s roof.
Dubbed the Principal Tower by Parmentier in 1909, Tower A is built for the worship of Shiva. The inner sanctuary of the tower contains a yoni-lingam carved from a single stone with a black-greenish color. One account by Trân Kỳ Phuóńg also says the temple is dedicated to Po San Anaih, the child of the goddess Po Yang Inu Nagar.
Tower B (North Tower)
Tower B is located 30 meters (100 feet) to the north of Tower A and bears much of the same decoration, but on a slightly smaller scale at 12 meters (40 feet) . The temple is used for the worship of Nandi, the bull who serves as the divine mount of the God Shiva.
One account I read stated there is a carving of Nandi in Tower B. However, when I was inside, no such Nandi carving was to be seen. There was a polished grey stone wrapped in cloth and positioned upright, so it resembled a lingam. However, it is possible this was the carving of Nandi with the bull features either broken or covered.
Tower C (Fire Tower)
Tower C, the smallest of the three Po Shanu monuments is a reliquary or kosagrha (literally “fire house”) that was dedicated to the fire deity Agni. This building would be used to keep valuables and offerings to the temple complex.
This tower was originally 5 m (16 feet) tall Most of the original features are no longer visible on this kosagrha. Researcher Trân Kỳ Phuóńg also says that Tower C is associated with Po Bia Tikul, the Rat queen
Ruined Cham Temples
In addition to the three remaining tower structures, there are remnants of several accompanying temple buildings in front of the tower entrances. Excavations on these auxiliary buildings took place from 1992-1995, revealing the foundations of 5 additional structures surrounding Tower A and a boundary wall.
These buildings were dated to the 15th Century, making them several centuries younger than the main towers.
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 with a local organic resin, 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 onto the building after completion.
Additional Monuments on Bà Nài Hill
Further up the hill, past the Cham tower group are several later monuments. Though not associated with the ancient towers, they are worth exploring for a small glimpse into the early history of Vietnam in the 20th Century.
The Prince’s Castle (Lầu Ông Hoàng)
The Prince’s Castle (Lầu Ông Hoàng) is a ruined villa-turned-fortification located at the top of Bà Nài Hill approximately 200 m (712 feet) from the Cham tower group. Today, the villa is a lone, undecorated tower and the ruined foundations of the fortification, which was destroyed in 1947.
The structures originate from the French of Montpensier, who came to French Indochina in 1910-11, bringing his own car with him, to visit the Angkor ruins in Cambodia. During this trip, the Duke made a visit to Phan Thiet and thought Bà Nài Hill to be very picturesque, opting to build a 536-square-meter (5770-square-foot) residence at the site. The name “Lầu Ông Hoàng” or “Prince’s Castle” was given by locals and is sometimes used to refer to the entire hill.
In 1946, rising tensions between the Vietnamese and French prompted the French to fortify the villa, building bunkers and a watchtower on the hilltop. The following year, Vietnamese forces attacked and captured the fort following the outbreak of the First Indochina War.
Victory Monument (Tượng đài Chiến Thắng)
The Victory Monument (Tượng đài Chiến Thắng) is the first significant monument on the uphill trail past the Cham Towers. This statue memorializes a battle on 12 June 1947 when Vietnamese forces took the fort at the top of the hill during their war against the French (known variously as the First Indochina War, the Indochina War, and the French War) for independence.
In this battle, the Vietnamese forces captured the fort by killing or capturing the 35 French soldiers stationed there. In doing so, the Vietnamese also seized all the fort’s equipment and weaponry (including a Vickers heavy machine gun, which was a significant acquisition to them).
The Cham People’s Kate Festival (Mbang Kate)
Every year, the Po Shanu towers are host to several Cham traditional festivals, the most significant being the Kate Festival. This 3-day celebration takes place (according to the Cham calendar) beginning the first few days of the seventh month, placing it in late September to early October most years.
The Kate Festival is meant to honor the dead and historical heroes of the Cham people, including several figures that Cham tower groups are named after. These celebrations also take place in temples farther north, namely Tháp Pô Rômê and Tháp Pô Klông Garai in Phan Rang-Thap Cham and Tháp Po Nagar in Nha Trang.
My Visit to the Po Shanu Cham Towers
The view of the first Cham towers poking into the horizon was a welcome sight after fleeing north from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City. This was my first trip through Vietnam in 4 years, and was meant to learn more about the Champa civilization. I’d only learned about this Indianized kingdom from ancient Vietnam halfway through my first trip, and apparently had missed most of their ruins.
This time, moving north as in my first trip, I’d be visiting several of the southern Cham archaeology sites along the coast – namely Po Shanu, Phan Rang-Thap Cham (Panduranga), Po Nagar (Kauthura), and Quy Nhon (Vijaya).
Leaving in the late morning on a motorbike rented from my guesthouse in Phan Thiet, the first of the Cham towers I’d see were visible just over the local river. The town was undergoing a large construction project to convert the main road into a divided, 4-lane highway, but motorbikes were able to skate through quite easily.
Arriving at Thap Phu Hai
Even with the construction, I made it to the entrance of the archaeological park in around 10 minutes. Parking the bike in the designated area, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here. My experience with Cham archaeological sites was limited to only 2 at this point:
1) My Son Sanctuary: the most famous Cham site in the country and operated as a fully organized, high-profile, and protected tourist attraction.
2) Thap Bang An: a single Cham tower on an obscure road outside of Hoi An that was left open for anyone to visit.
I’ve since found that most Cham archaeological sites fall somewhere between these two extremes, usually some level of barricade or protection around them and occasionally a ticket or entrance fee. The Po Shanu Towers fell into this as well, with a ticket booth selling entrance for 17,000 VND (about US$ 0.70.)
From the ticket booth, a paved and well-maintained walkway leads up the hill toward the towers.
First noticing the structure at the very top of the hill and mistaking it for an ancient tower, I headed toward that first. However, after learning it was only from the 1900s and not related to the Cham ruins, I quickly lost interest and headed back down to the ancient tower group.
While Tower A had already undergone a large amount of restoration, it was still being worked on during my visit. Along the southern side of the east-facing tower, several men were using power saws to cut bricks in order to place them along the tower’s base. These fresh bricks are smooth with a bright orange color, making them easy to identify in the overall structure.
Surrounding the front (east) of Tower A was a large assortment of auxiliary temple bases and altars. However, further information on these and their specific purposes was not available onsite, only that they were excavated between 1992-94.
There is also the mostly complete temple structure of Tower C immediately to the northeast of Tower A. Inside this 5-meter-tall (16-foot) temple was an altar along the roughly preserved western brick wall.
Atop the altar were several ceramic containers for flowers, offerings, and incense – items commonly found in similar active Hindu and Buddhist shrines in Southeast Asia. One curiosity was a rug on the floor, which had (what appeared to be) Khmer writing.
Moving from Tower C to Tower A, the main sanctuary of the temple group, the most striking features of the entryway are the rounded mock-columns made of carving bricks on each side.
Inside was a niche in the western wall containing a Shiva image overlooking a yoni-lingam contained inside a protective glass cube. Also inside this case are what appeared to be ceremonial clothes, which makes sense considering that the Po Shanu temples are still used to celebrate traditional Cham festivals.
Just slightly downhill from Tower A, about 35 meters (115 feet) to the northeast and separated by a wall of young trees, is Tower B. Tower B has much the same design as Tower A, but most of it was obscured by repair scaffolding at the time of my visit.
Through the scaffolding, it was clear to see that the outer walls of Tower B were in much worse shape than those of Tower A. The bricks were very heavily eroded; however the better shape of Tower A may be mostly due to the restoration work already done on the monument.
Otherwise, the outer design elements mostly mirrored what could be seen on Tower A.
My first attempt to go inside Tower B proved impossible due to a European woman blocking the door. Behind her was a man, presumably with her, filming a video of himself meditating in lotus position with his phone set up on a 4-foot tripod. The whole thing reminded me of tourists doing the same pose with Buddha statues I’d seen far too often in Thailand.
After waiting well over 10 minutes for him to wrap up his video, multiple people outside were indirectly urging him and his partner to get out of the temple.
Inside Tower B was a setup very similar to Tower C: a rug underneath an altar with ceramic and incense. One addition was the presence of a stone lingam wrapped in a cloth. It was smaller than and less ornate than the lingam in Tower A, and I wasn’t able to tell if there was a yoni beneath the cloth wrapping or not.
Getting back to the guest house around noon, I spent the next hour or so waiting outside and taking in the view over the fishing harbor. Around 1pm, the van arrived to take me north to Phan Rang-Thap Cham, the last historical stronghold of the Champa nation in their wars against the Vietnamese of Dai Viet.
How to Get to Po Shanu Cham Towers
GPS Coordinates: 10.93607, 108.14618
The Po Shanu (Thap Phú Hài) Cham Towers are located north of Phan Thiết and south of the tourist beach town of Mui Ne. Public transportation (buses, etc.) is not common in the area, although taxis and motorcycle taxis are available.
Several private guest houses will rent bicycles and motorbikes. However, rentals like this will be easier to find in Mui Ne, which is a resort town more developed for tourism than Phan Thiet.
Both towns are connected by a road named Đường Võ Nguyên Giáp, which runs along the contours of the coast. The turnoff to the Po Shanu towers is also along this road, just 3km to the northeast of Phan Thiet. 500 more meters (⅓ mile) down this small, paved road is the parking lot and ticket booth the the Po Shanu towers and other attractions on Bà Nài Hill.
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.
Cham word for their brick tower sanctuaries that housed shrines to various deities, chiefly Shiva. The structure of the kalan represents a microcosm of the Hindu metaphysical realm, with the base of the tower representing the physical world, the tower’s body representing the heavenly realm, and the pyramidal design at the top representing Mount Meru
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.
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
A bull associated with the Hindu god Shiva as his divine mount or vehicle
A domed pillar made of stone and representing a phallus, crafted to worship and symbolize the Hindu god, Shiva
A French researcher who documented many of the first excavations and surveys of ancient Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in the early 1900s (then French Indochina)
Hindu destroyer god and member of the Trimurti
- “Kate Festival.” Inside Vietnam Travel, https://www.insidevietnamtravel.com/travel-guide/kate-festival.html.
- “Po Shanu Cham Towers in Phan Thiet.” Guide Vietnam, 17 Apr. 2021, https://www.guidevietnam.org/po-shanu-cham-towers-phan-thiet.html.
- “THE CHAMPA TEMPLE – TOWERS GROUP PO SAH INU” informational sign. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Bình Thuận, Vietnam.
- “THE PRINCE’S CASTLE (BANAI’S HILL)” informational sign. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Bình Thuận, Vietnam.
- “The Prince’s Castle in Phan Thiet.” Guide Vietnam, 17 Apr. 2021, https://www.guidevietnam.org/princes-castle-phan-thiet.html.
- Trân, Kỳ Phuóńg. Cham Ruins: Journey in Search of an Ancient Civilization. GIOI Publ., 1993.
- Trân, Kỳ Phuóńg. “10. On the Chronological Interrelationship between Newly Found Inscriptions and the Temple Architecture of Campā: The Hòa Lai and Po Dam Sites.” The Creative South, 12 Apr. 2022, pp. 334–358., https://doi.org/10.1355/9789814951494-010.
- “VICTORY MONUMENT” informational sign. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Bình Thuận, Vietnam.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Architecture Profile: Cham Towers, the Hindu Temples of Ancient Vietnam”. Paths Unwritten, 24 Mar. 2021, https://pathsunwritten.com/vietnam-cham-towers/.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Cultural Profile: Champa, Indianized Sea Traders of Ancient Vietnam”. Paths Unwritten, 28 Sep. 2020, https://pathsunwritten.com/vietnam-champa-culture/.