Bearing the Weight of History: A Young Chăm Woman’s Story

At diaCRITICS, we center a cross-ethnic and transnational approach, as fifty-four ethnicities live within present-day Vietnam and as the Vietnamese diaspora has resettled on five continents. Yet the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, and their communities abroad, are often forgotten. By featuring those in the Vietnamese diaspora whose identities and histories are less well known, we highlight the importance of de-centering Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) assumptions about what is “Vietnamese.” Here’s an in-depth, courageous, and self-reflexive discussion about Chăm culture and history, centering a Vietnamese Muslim Chăm woman. This was originally published by the Cultural Quest Foundation and reprinted with permission.

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“I am a Chăm” 

We met a young woman in San Jose, California, who wore a scarf over her head, which identified her as a person of Islamic faith. But she spoke perfect Vietnamese. A Vietnamese Muslim – Wow – what a rare site! We asked her more questions and were curious about her background. “I am a Chăm,” she said, looking keenly at us for our response. She wasn’t sure if we knew what a Chăm is. 

Viet’s Twin Civilization

Probably all Vietnamese with basic formal education in Vietnam would know about “người Chăm,” the native people of Central Vietnam. The Chăm people were said to have a glorious culture built on Hindu and Islamic faiths. Tháp Chăm (Chăm temple ruins) are famous historical relics, the largest of which at Mỹ Sơn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Chăms were brave sea-faring people. They traded with cultures all over Southeast Asia. Their language belongs to the great language family of Malayo-Polynesian, whose origin stretched from East-African Madagascar to the Pacific Islands.

In terms of cultural development, the Việts and the Chăms started out on a parallel course that mirrored each other like hands of the same person. Coming out of the stone age, the Chăms developed a sophisticated iron-based technology, called the Sa Huỳnh culture, while the Việts in north cultivated the bronze-based Đồng Sơn culture. The Chăms were a sea-faring people while the Việts, coming from the Austro-Asiatic language family (cousin to Khmer language), thrived on agriculture. The Việts imported Han-Chinese intellectualism for their societal development, while the Chăm society was built on Hindu intellectualism. The Việt’s family was patriarchal and male-centered, favored by labor-intensive agriculture, while the Chăm’s family—with the women being the community’s pillars and the men spending long months at sea—was matrilineal and women-centered.

Even the Việt’s myth of creation holds vague references to the Chăms as well. The myth talked about the angel Princess marrying a dragon Prince to create the first one hundred children who became the peoples of Southeast Asia. The angel princess, whose name was Âu Cơ, was the descendant of Thần Nông (the God of Agriculture) who supposedly lived somewhere in the Yangtze River region. The Dragon Prince, whose name was Lạc Long Quân, came from the sea. After the children were born, the couple split up, with half going with their mother back to the inland region and other half followed their father to live by the sea. The myth said that modern Việts came from the stock that went with mother Âu Cơ. That explained the Việt proclivity toward agriculture. But what modern people came from the group that lived with father Lạc Long Quân? Who else but the sea-faring Chăms, of course!

Brothers no more

Hardly anyone outside of Southeast Asia knows about the Chăms today, because the Việts had wiped their nation, Champa (“Chiêm Thành” in Vietnamese) off the world’s map since the fourteenth century. There is a deep conflict within the Vietnamese cultural consciousness about what they had done to the Chăms. On one hand, they railed against the Chinese for trying to take over their homeland, originally in the Red River delta in today North Vietnam. On other hand, they did the very same thing to the Chăm by taking away the Chăm way of life and country.

This conflict is especially strong among the South Vietnamese who lost their country to North Vietnam in 1975. The Vietnamese refugees often say among themselves that the brutal Vietnam War and the subsequent loss of South Vietnam is a karmic retribution for their ancestor’s unjust actions. It was also ironic that the Việts’ new home, America, the land of dream and opportunity, was also built upon a bloody legacy at the expense of the native peoples. Human civilization seems to be full of savagery, and the Việts contributed their own dark chapter in their relations with the Chăms. 

“Don’t call me Chàm”

Our first meeting with Vân Anh did not get off so great. Off the bat, Vân-Anh, she politely stopped us from calling her “Chàm,” a sound with a falling tone. “We are Chăm” she said. “Chàm is derogatory to us.” Chăm sounds a bit like ‘chum.’ For those thinking that fussing over a tiny diacritical mark is bordering on insanity, we want to remind them that in the tonal Vietnamese language tone is everything. “Má” (rising tone) means mother, but “Ma” (flat tone) means a ghost. “Tướng Không Quân” means an Air Force general, but “Tướng Không Quần” means a general without pants. Getting the wrong tone can get you into a lot of trouble.

That was how we got into trouble with Vân-Anh for calling her a “Chàm”. Honesty, we never heard of the word “Chăm” before. All historical texts we learned used the word “Chàm.” We were a bit irked by Vân-Anh’s demand for different term. We never meant any disrespect and didn’t like someone telling us to stop using a historically honored word. But when we checked the internet on the proper term to call the Chăm people, sure enough, “Chăm” was indeed the term that Chăm people call themselves. The early score: Vân-Anh 1, CQF 0.

Opening a big can of worms

The discovery of a thriving Chăm community on the internet pleased us. We were taught that the Chăm culture had been totally destroyed. So we organized a talk on January 9th, 2011, for Vân-Anh to tell us more about her family and culture. We didn’t have a great turn out, as many of our Việt friends admittedly were uncomfortable with the cross-cultural discussion that we attempted. “You are opening a very big can of worms,” professor Trương Bổn Tài, a supporter of Chăm culture, reminded the group.

Honestly, most Việts don’t want to talk about this issue. “Why stir up the past?” one friend said. But Vân Anh reminded us that the legacy of maltreatment of the Chăms is not of the past but the present. Even today, some Vietnamese still refer to the Chăms as “mọi” (savages), cow and pig worshipers, and cast them as an inferior race.

Other Việt friends are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking ill of our own forbearers. In the Confucian tradition, doing such thing amounts to being ungrateful if not a sin. But the fact of the matter is Vân-Anh is a Việt, Chăm culture is a part of Việts’ greater cultural landscape, and most if not all South Vietnamese have some trace of Chăm ancestry in their blood due to generations of intermarriages. So it is only right and necessary to hear what Vân-Anh has to say and what her Chăm community has experienced. Furthermore, as children of the same Mother Earth, we all have the power and the responsibility to ease any the historical burden and make it better for the future generations, just by understanding. So with this intent, talking about the difficult past legacy may turn out to be of much greater service for our ancestors than looking the other way.

Another worry we had was that the heavy historical topic would result in more bad feelings. Good intentions often beget disasters. Even Vân-Anh was nervous and she insisted on a low-key invitation-only crowd. Academic discussions on Chăm-Việt relations in the past have been known to end up in fiery debates or cold resentments. At the outset, we looked naive for doing this program. If scholars could not enlighten Chăm-Việt relation, how could a group of rag-tag non-experts like us do any good to a far-gone tragedy?

But we weren’t interested in scholarly truth. We were interested in Vân Anh’s personal truth. A part of our motivation to form Cultural Quest Foundation comes from the belief that every person holds an important truth about his or her own culture and history, worthy to be told and shared. The most valuable source of history is the eyewitnesses, not the books. We become truly ignorant of our history when we don’t listen to our elders and neighbors, not when we don’t get enough history units. So when Vân-Anh accepted our invite to tell her story, we were delighted to give her the center stage and used scholarly information only as backdrops. That was exactly what we did and we weren’t disappointed. At the end of the program, all attendees felt satisfied, hopeful and appreciative of her sharing.

14th century map of Đại Việt (Vietnam) and Champa

Strategic Cultural Misunderstanding

The golden age of Champa took place in the early centuries of the modern era along side with the rise of other great Hinduist worshiping centers such as Angkor in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia. The Chăm temples were adorn with curvaceous Apsara dancers conjuring a time of elegance, grace and transcendence. Important Chăm cities and towns were named after Hindu Gods, such as Indrapura (Đà Nẵng) and Vijaya (Quy Nhơn), as professor Arti Nigam, an Indian psychologist, pointed out during the forum.

The Khmer and Chăm Hindus had one of history’s most interesting love-hate relationships. While the Chăms worshiped God Shiva, the Khmer honored God Vishnu. Like a classic sibling rivalry, they fought each other like enemies and then helped each other like best friends. After the Việt invasion in the fourteenth century, Chăm Hinduism declined and gave way to Islamic intellectualism. Some Chăms became Buddhists much like the Khmer. Chăm society became culturally fragmented, by which some people hung on to the Hindu faith, while others followed the newer Islamic trend.

The most famous story between the Chăm and Việt during this time was that of Princess Huyền Trân, the daughter of Viet King Trần Anh Tông. After decades of conflict, King Trần Anh Tông and the Chăm King Chế Mân signed a historic land-for-peace deal. In this agreement, the Chăms would cede to the Việts two provinces and the Chăm King would marry the beautiful Việt Princess, thus joining two kingdoms into one family.

But the Việts did not keep their side of the deal. After King Chế Mân died, the Việt king ordered an attack on the Chăms to retrieve his daughter, because he feared that Princess Huyền Trân would be burned alive in the Chăm king’s funeral pyre as dictated by Chăm custom. That attack turned out to be the first shot in the Việt campaign of Nam Tiến (southward expansion) that eventually annexed all of Champa and part of Khmer Kingdom into Vietnam’s territory.

The story of Princess Huyền Trân captured Việt imagination for the ages. It has a dramatic cast of characters including a powerful Việt king also a loving father, a courageous and lovely princess, and a barbaric enemy who would sacrifice an innocent woman, not to mention the man who would lead the Princess’s rescue was rumored to be her own former lover.

But unbeknown to most Việts today, there is another side to this story. Apparently, Princess Huyền Trân was never in any danger of being sacrificed. According to Chăm custom of the time, only the Queen could choose to sacrifice herself in order to empower the throne for her descendants. To do so, she would have needed approval from a ruling council, in case she was needed to rule the country. Sacrifice one’s life for a greater cause was nothing new nor undesirable in either Việt or Chăm culture at the time. It was the queen’s choice to sacrifice herself. But Princess Huyền Trân was not the queen, but the King’s concubine, albeit an important one. There was no way she could die from Chăm custom.

Cultural Survival at Stake

The West never got to know Champa, except for what little Marco Polo had wrote about this fabled kingdom during his brief visit to the Chăm seaport Singapura (Hội An). By the time Western countries arrived in large numbers in the latter centuries, Champa was already relegated to archeological and historical curiosities. French colonization that stopped Việt expansionism came too late for the Chăms, as it could only help to save the Khmer kingdom instead. As the Việts pushed southward, the once seafaring Chăm people moved farther south and then into Cambodia with the largest number living in a land-locked community called Kampong Cham.

Once both Hindus, the Khmer (now Buddhists) and the Chăms (now Muslims) lived peacefully side by side, guided by each of their own gentle religion. But then the Vietnam War came and followed with the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Untold number of Chăm were killed in the seventies for the crime of being non-indigenous. Ironically this time, it was the Vietnamese communists that went into Cambodia to get rid of their fellow communists, the Khmer Rouge, and saved the whole country from total annihilation.

In the twenty-first century, the threat of physical persecution has lifted, but the struggle for cultural survival is more fierce than ever. Like all indigenous cultures, the Chăm culture faces a direct assault from the pop culture which sways young people away from traditional values. Vân Anh’s generation must deal with the difficult task of redefining what it means to be a Chăm in today’s complex globalized world.

Khmer Chăm women visit the site where large number of Chăms were killed during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror (1975-1979)

Indifference toward being different

In central Vietnam today, small Chăm villages still remained. Vân Anh grew up in one of those villages near Phan Rang (formerly Panduranga). She spoke fluent Chăm and Vietnamese. Her community was Islamic. They prayed and worshipped Allah and carried on a proud culture, personified in traditional dances, rituals and family’s heirlooms and relics. Invisibility seemed to have been a good thing for Vân Anh, until she came to America in the post 9/11 era. Islam is viewed with deep suspicion here. Yet, she could not part from her head scarf that stands for her faith and integrity. Many people wanted her to take off her scarf, including some family members, for her own good in order to blend in with the hair-obsessed culture of America. But refusing to conform to societal norm may be an easier way for Vân Anh to cope. It may give her a tough day at work, but offers her better sleep at night.

Flanked by international visitors, Chăm villagers stand next to their makeshift mosque in Kampong Cham, Cambodia

To be able to dream is a success

It does not take much to realize that Vân Anh carries a heavy burden of history on her shoulders. Yet we never heard Vân Anh talking about violence and revenge against the Việt or anyone else. On a practical level that’s a good thing because she’s got too many identities to afford to let any of them be at war with each other. She is a Chăm, a Việt, a Muslim and an American—a quad-cultural identity. Her cultural interest is in neither Chăm nor Việt or American alone, but in how much all cultures have in common and bring richness to her spirit. Her interest in Islam is very intense.

She started a non-profit group, Moonlight Humanity, to help the poor in Southeast Asia. Given that her Chăm people in Cambodia and Vietnam live in abject poverty and in much isolation from the world, she dreams of an ambitious plan to build schools, dig wells, finance new businesses, and construct mosques and community centers. So please visit her group’s website to learn or contribute.

Starting an ambitious charitable organization at a time of global economic downturn may seem unwise, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her vision. We need to be reminded of who Vân-Anh is and where she came from. She is a Chăm, the people with a glorious history and persistent sense of survival. As a Chăm, she is still here, growing and thriving, rather than succumbing to hatred and despair. For any human being who could come out of a genocidal history and still be able to dream big, not for one but for many, that is a success—a big success.

Ultimately, as human beings, each of us are only responsible for our own dreams. The reality is often created by the collective dreams of many. There is nothing wrong with Vân Anh dreaming of a better life for her people. But her dream could only come true there if other Việts, Muslims, Americans, and people in the world also share her dream for the Chăm people to get what they’ve deserved all along—dignity, security and respect.

Cultural productions

“Why are old Vietnamese songs so sad?” a listener once asked. Many old Chăm and Việt songs tend to be very sad because they were not written for the mere entertainment value. They are more like spiritual doors onto the sacredness of life, love and relationship. Losses and heartbreaks have the power to help us appreciate life more deeply than pleasantries. These songs are like fish sauce for the soul. Salty, yes, but they’re supposed to bring out the full flavor of your own humanity. Watch our video the Shame of Đồ Bàn (Hận Đồ Bàn) – Đồ Bàn being the former Cham capital near present day Quy Nhơn. It’s a very touching song! By the way, Quy Nhơn (the modern name for Đồ Bàn) means “returning to humanity”. See if this song does that for you.

Now listen to a part of the song Hòn Vọng Phu II (the Rock of the Waiting Wife II). The song is about a Chăm-inspired Vietnamese legend that celebrated the woman’s love for her husband. She waited for her husband, who was at war for so long that the weather washed away her flesh to leave behind her internal will in a form of a rock statue. Even mountains and rivers had to change their paths to yield to her desire and persistence. This song is spliced together with Chăm language in the first part and Việt in the latter. English subtitles are included. Enjoy!

Now listen to one of Vân Anh’s favorite songs. Làng Chăm Quê Em (My Chăm Village) is a song Vân Anh knew from her childhood. It’s about two young lovers of two different socioeconomic classes and religions looking to build a life together. The song, sung both in Vietnamese and Chăm, is performed by a famous Chăm-Việt singer, Chế Linh. Performers wear authentic Chăm costumes of white garb and red ear-tassels. The setting is in Cambodia’s Angkor Thom, which was built in 10th century for Hindu worship. During that time, the Chăms were also Hindus and had vast temples similar to the Khmer. Today, Cambodia is home to the largest population of Chăm people in the world. Enjoy this video from Vân Sơn Entertainment!

— Cultural Quest Foundation, the author, was formed in California in late 2008 as a non-profit, public benefit organization. The board of organizers consists of Tâm M. Đặng, Thái P. Nguyễn, Tuấn M. Nguyễn, and Brandon H. Nguyễn.

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  1. I’ve just got back from a tour from My Son in Vietnam and was googling the web to find out some more information. I came across your post and found it very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dear Julie,

    This is a long-overdue response/comment to this informative, honest & quite thought-provoking piece. I’ve read & re-read it a few times. Thank you for writing it.

    I’ve been fascinated, well, obsessed, with this subject since I was about 5. I was born & grew up near Chau Giang in the Mekong Delta, which has about 20 masjids or mosques out of the 40 total in all of Vietnam. I passed by these Islamic houses of worship all my life, yet knew next to nothing about Islam. Most Vietnamese knew of Vietnamese Muslims thanks to singer Chế Linh (in the 3rd video above), a Chăm, through that one particular song, Hận Đồ Bàn (the 1st video above.) Other than these, we knew nothing about the Champa people & their/our history, and Islam.

    Hận Đồ Bàn was written by a classically-trained musicologist-composer Xuân Tiên in 1962 after seeing the Champa ruins in Phan Rang. He was shocked by both the destruction & the scales of what these monuments might have been. This song, Hận Đồ Bàn, is the Chăm people’s version of the ballad of “Wounded Knee.”

    Hận Đồ Bàn, coincidentally, was made famous by a very unlike singer by the name of Việt Ấn (born Sheilabal Kanasitabura to Vietnamese mother & Indian father) around 1964-65. Việt Ấn, tragically, was stabbed right in front of one of Saigon’s night clubs where he had performed. He died as this song began to make him & composer Xuân Tiên household names in South Vietnam.

    Again, thanks for writing this piece. I hope more Vietnamese, younger generations of Vietnamese, begin to learn & appreciate our history & culture more honestly than what has been presented to us.

    Sonny Le

    • thanks for the informative comment, Sonny. I did not know Chế Linh was Muslim and Cham, and hadn’t heard of Việt Ấn. Viet Nam has a fascinating history of minorities and multiculturalism that isn’t written about often enough.

      • Hi Sonny,

        Thanks for your wonderful and thoughtful comments. I actually didn’t write the piece, I just posted it. It was originally written by the Cultural Quest Foundation. However, I did write a piece on the Cham in Cambodia which talks briefly about the conquest of Champa but focuses more upon the Islamic Cham community’s experiences under the Khmer Rouge:

        I am very interested in the history of the song “Hận Đồ Bàn” and so these details you’ve given are very valuable to me.

        I knew Chế Linh was Cham but I’d thought he was Hindu Cham. Another Cham person told me this. Was he well-known for being Muslim in particular? The Cham in Viet Nam is comprised of both Muslim and Hindu communities.

        I am very grateful that music helped to teach a new generation of Vietnamese about the Cham. It reminds me of the great possibilities inherent in cultural productions, how art “travels” farther than scholarship, in many cases. I appreciate how music, in particular, has a way of bringing people together.

        Thanks again for your contribution to this discussion!

  3. Hey, terrific work. I love the literature search and ethnographic technique, ie hitting the library and making friends. The only issue I am left wondering about is that of how the Cham in the US joined the ummah, learning general Muslim procedures, which up the 90s anyways when I last asked were poorly understood among Cham in VN due to VCP interference. Does anyone make the haj? What is the relationship to Nation of Islam here?

    • Hi Dan Duffy,
      Thanks for your comment. As a Cham Muslim in America with great library resources, Internet, muslim from all over the world and by joining the MSA club, Muslim Club when i was a student in college and seeking the truth teaching of a peaceful Islam i have been learning a great deal about the beauty of Islam and its peaceful teaching of all the prophet from Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad. The 5 pillar of islam which say it here
      and much more…
      I do know many Cham in VietNam and USA do make Haj whenever we can..I also hope to go to hajj one day..
      Cham in VietNam still have alot to learn about the truth religiion of Islam..i feel fortunate to be in USA because of many resource and scholars from all over the world…all Cham are known as very moderate muslim. salam alaikum may.. peace be to you and all…


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