The Marble Mountains, located about halfway in between Da Nang and Hoi An, hold true to their name. They’re a group of five marble rock formations, each one having been named after a natural element of Taoism. Most people, though, only explore one of them: Thuy Son, the water mountain. Thuy Son is home to tranquil pagodas, panoramic viewpoints, majestic cave temples and even the infamous “hell cave,” Am Phu. Whether you’re an avid hiker or a dedicated temple hopper, the Marble Mountains should not be missed.
Ascending Thuy Son
The area had long been considered holy by the Cham, who built a number of Hindu shrines inside the caves. Later, Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang, who ruled Vietnam from 1820 – 1841, came up with the idea to name each small mountain after a natural element. Now statues, of Buddha, Toaist deities and even some demons inhabit the caves.
Exiting the bus, I was surprised to see just how many statues there are outside the caves. For what seems to be an entire block, shops selling marble sculptures to visitors are everywhere. (Rumor has it that they’re now using marble from China.) Most of the items on display, though, seem to be more targeted toward local temple managers than the average foreign backpacker.
Approaching the entrance, I paid the fee of 40,000 VND and bought a paper map. For only 15,000 VND, it was a worthy investment. The main landmarks of Thuy Son are not situated along a straight path, and the signs around the mountain are not incredibly helpful.
The route I took went something like this: Climbing the staircase of around 150 steps, I began my mountain tour at an old pagoda called Tam Thai. I then proceeded to see all the caves and pagodas at the western half of the mountain before heading to the eastern portion. I finished at Linh Ung Pagoda, before walking down the mountain and entering a large parking lot. Finally, I entered Am Phu Cave, which requires its own separate entrance ticket.
Tam Thai & Tam Ton Pagodas
The Tam Thai Pagoda dates all the way back to the 17th century. Like many historical sites in Vietnam, it had to be rebuilt more than a couple of times over the years. After being reconstructed once during the reign of Minh Mang, the pagoda was badly damaged during the Vietnam War. It currently looks pretty new, probably having been fixed up once again in recent times. As far as Vietnamese pagodas go, Tam Thai is fairly standard fare, but the setting which surrounds it is gorgeous.
Nearby is a smaller pagoda called Tam Ton. The real highlight here is not the pagoda itself, but the view which looks out over the nearby mountains and the ocean. But if you’re in a rush, don’t fret too much if you miss it. This is only one of several scenic viewing spots placed all over the mountain, which more or less cover the same angles.
Huyen Khong Cave
The mystical Huyen Khong Cave seems like something straight out of a fantasy novel, and it’s easily one of the highlights of the entire mountain.
Stepping inside the massive cavern, you’ll encounter a Buddhist temple set up within the cave itself. The site is stunning, and is one of those things that even the most jaded of travelers is bound to be impressed by. This temple cave was established all the way back in the 17th century as a joint effort by the Japanese and Chinese merchant communities of Hoi An. Both of, course, were Mahayana Buddhist.
One of the larger statues in the large grotto, however, is much more recent. The Buddha at the far end was carved out of the cave itself in the year 1960.
Another feature of Huyen Khong Cave is the natural opening in its rooftop. If you time your visit just right, you might get to see beams of sunlight shining down on the cave floor from above. I wasn’t quite so lucky, as it was a fairly cloudy day. While the openings appear to be natural, one of them was actually the result of a bomb!
Exploring The Smaller Caves
Hoa Nghiem Cave
Just outside of Huyen Khong is the much smaller Hoa Nghiem Cave, which is notable for its stunning carving of Guan Yin. Like the Buddha inside of Huyen Khong, she was carved out of the rock face itself, though she’s said to be even hundreds of years older.
Linh Namh Cave
Backtracking to Tam Thai pagoda and heading north, I reached Linh Nham Cave. This is another small grotto that contains a statue of a standing Buddha. While the cave itself isn’t much to write home about, a lot of the fun of Marble Mountains is simply being out in nature and enjoying the trail on the way to each landmark.
Van Thong Cave
Van Thong Cave is not like the others. In fact, it’s the closest thing to a rock climbing experience you’ll find at Thuy Son Mountain, albeit only briefly. You’ll need both hands to crawl through (and up) a steep and narrow passageway. As I inched my way to the exit, I had no idea what was awaiting me on the other side, but the hard work would pay off.
The Viewpoint: Dinh Thuong Thai
Coming out the other end, I arrived at Thuy Son’s most stunning, not to mention highest, viewpoint: Dinh Thuong Thai. In one direction I could see some of the other Marble Mountains towering over the landscape. And in the other direction, the ocean. And I also wasn’t expecting to find cacti growing at the very top, either. Peaking through the plants, I even spotted a Cao Dai temple amongst the suburban landscape.
Just a word of warning: this section contains some slippery rocks, even when dry. You’ll probably want to wear close-toed shoes if you brought them on your trip. I didn’t, and managed to survive with flip-flops, but the rocks in this section deserve your careful attention.
Tang Chon Cave
While Huyen Khong may be the prettiest cave in the area, there’s something uniquely special about the cave called Tang Chon on Thuy Son’s eastern end. A lot of it has to do with the fact that for whatever reason, not many people venture inside. I even noticed a few people take several steps inside before turning around, completely missing the large standing Buddha in the middle of one of the grottos.
One of the more peculiar sites of the cave is the pair of marble statues sitting on the ground and playing chess with each other. According to legend, these were a couple of chess-enthusiast fairies who took on the guise of wise old men to disguise their true form.
Perhaps stories about mythical beings playing chess is fairly common in Chinese, and by extension Vietnamese, lore. I recalled a story about Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou, China, involving deities getting lost in the cavernous labyrinth. Giving up on trying to find a way out, they sat down for a friendly game of chess instead. Apparently, even Emperor Minh Mang himself enjoyed playing chess in the caves during his numerous visits to the mountain.
Some parts of this cave are very dark, so bring your own torch or headlamp if you have one.
Linh Ung Pagoda
Linh Ung Pagoda dates back to the time of the first Nguyen Emperor, Gia Long‘s reign in the early 1800’s. This colorful pagoda features various shrines and Buddha statues and it’s the perfect place to rest your legs after a couple hours of hiking. As it’s situated near the elevator, this is actually where many visitors begin their journey.
Nearby Linh Ung is a tall pagoda tower called Xa Loi. Standing at 15 meters high, the tower is one of the more recent additions to the “water mountain,” having been built in 1997. Don’t forget to turn around, as the area provides yet another viewpoint of the town and distant ocean. I walked around the pagoda looking for some kind of entrance, but sadly, the tower cannot be climbed.
Am Phu Cave
Descending back down to the bottom of Thuy Son, I headed west around the base of the mountain. On one side of a large parking lot is the entrance to yet another cave, Am Phu. This cave, it turns out, has its own separate admission system, though tickets only cost 20,000 dong and it’s well worth it. For some, this is the highlight of their entire trip.
Am Phu is by far the most outlandish part of the Marble Mountains. Dubbed as the “hell cave,” the bottom part represents the depths of the underworld. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. As you gradually climb higher and higher, you ascend up into the heavenly realms. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Before I got too far, I encountered a series of bearded men who appeared to be some type of divine judges. A scale sat in the center of the chamber, while all the marble statues had stern looks on their faces, as if contemplating each visitor’s fate. After I moved on and entered the next passageway, it was clear which fate they’d chosen for me.
Depictions of hellish landscapes are fairly common in the Buddhist world, one recent famous example being the White Temple of Chiang Rai, Thailand. But some of the sculptures at Am Phu ranged from humorous to bizarre to downright disturbing. I get the guys with scary masks and the serpents devouring humans. Those were pretty cool.
But did they really need to have statues of children getting their throats slit? What kind of sicko took the time to carve this stuff? After walking through the narrow and dark caverns of hell for several minutes, I was ready to move on to the next section.
But the hell section wasn’t quite over yet, as I had a couple hundred Northeast Asian tourists to walk through before I could reach the staircase. It was definitely a struggle, but as I climbed higher and higher, the crowds began to diminish. And the scenery switched from gory demons to Buddhas and saintly bodhisattvas. This was a much better place to be, a sentiment I guess the cave was designed to evoke in the first place.
All in all, visiting the entirety of Thuy Son took me around 2 and a half hours. It’s worth noting, though, that I didn’t stop for lunch and didn’t sit down to rest for more than a few minutes. Even if you’re on the slower side, it’s best to think of this as a half-day trip, so you may want to make other evening plans in Hoi An or Da Nang afterward.
The Marble Mountains, or more specifically, Thuy Son, has enough variety to appeal to most types of travelers. It was easily one of the highlights of my time in central Vietnam. As touristy as it may be, it’s absolutely essential if you’re passing through the region.
The route to a few of the other mountains was included in the map I bought. Since I finished Thuy Son sooner than I expected, I decided to go check them out. The closest ones are Quan Am and Linh Son, both across the street from each other, and about a 10 minute walk from the water mountain. But as I got closer, I saw a man in the distance trying to get my attention, and could immediately tell that something was up.
He told me that Quan Am across the street was closed, and he tried to get me to go into Linh Son. He was not wearing a uniform and looked like a sketchy character. I was also surprised to see absolutely no other staff at all, considering this was supposed to be an official tourist site.
He then told me to pay him 110,000 VND to enter the cave! I showed him my ticket and he said it was no good. This cave was part of an active temple, and I then saw a monk walk by only to snicker. Clearly he was in on it, or at least aware of the scam.
I went across the street to the other cave and there was another guy trying to run the exact same scam. It seemed that they were rivals, as he also claimed the other cave was closed. I could’ve just ignored either of them and walked right in the cave, but I decided I had better things to do (like lunch) than wander around a dark cavern with a couple of local criminals on my trail.
The thing that’s most baffling is how this could even happen at such a famous landmark like the Marble Mountains. I thought about mentioning it to the ticket staff at Thuy Son, but somehow doubted they would really even care. It was a shame to end the day trip on a sour note, but I still had a great time at the mountains overall.
The Marble Mountains are easily accessible from either Hoi An or central Da Nang by taking the #1 public bus. It’s a yellow color, and it’s the same bus that goes all the way in between both cities. When you get on, just mention that you’re going to the Marble Mountains and the bus driver will stop at the right place for you.
The price is only 20,000 VND. However, bus staff can sometimes try to cheat foreigners by lying about the price.
I rode the #1 bus a number of times during my stay. There were no issues most of the time. In fact, I encountered nothing but friendly and helpful staff on most of my rides.
But on one ride, after I put a 20,000 VND note in the money collector’s hand, and she continued to hold it out as if I hadn’t given her enough. I just smiled and shook my head. She shrugged it off as if to say “Well, I had to try” before walking away.
From what I’ve read elsewhere about this route online, scams are fairly common, so be sure to have exact change before you get on.
During my time in Hoi An, I stayed at a hotel called Kiman Old Town Hotel, which was right in between the Ancient Town and the bus station. At just around a 10-minute walk from either, it was perfect for exploring Hoi An’s attractions as well as taking day trips to the Marble Mountains and Da Nang city.