Danang

Marble Mountain – Danang’s Ancient Mystery Caves

One of the coolest things about Vietnam is its caves. The largest, the longest, and the most beautiful caves in the world can be found here – especially Phong Nha and Ninh Binh provinces. Many caves have only been discovered fairly recently and attract adventure sightseers. But Marble Mountain Caves in Danang, like other sacred temple caves in Vietnam, belong to a more traditional timeline. 

The Legend of the Marble Mountain

Dragon Legends at Marble Mountain
Dragon Legends at Marble Mountain
[ by Rowan Heuvel from Unsplash ]

There’s a popular legend that a giant sea dragon came to this area to lay her egg. Of course, the egg was pretty huge to say the very least. Not only that, it took a thousand days and nights to hatch, and when it did, the broken pieces formed the five mountain outcrops. Some say a beautiful woman stepped out the egg, which makes the legend sound a lot more credible. 

What to See and Do at Marble Mountain

What to See and Do at Marble Mountain
[ image from podrozebezosci ] 

The name Marble Mountain generally refers to the biggest mountain, Thuy Son (Thuỷ Sơn) or Water Mountain. The mountains are actually named after the five Taoist elements. There are two separate cave experiences on different tickets. 

If you want to go up the mountain and explore all the caves such as Huyen Khong Cave (động Huyền Không) with the giant seated Buddha, and the 400-year-old Linh Ung Pagoda (Chùa Linh Ứng), that ticket can also include the elevator ride. There are five caves and four pagodas in total and two viewing points of the plain below.

  • Entrance Fee: 40 000 VND 
  • Elevator Fee: 15 000 VND One Way
  • Map: 15 000 VND
  • Times: 7:00 to 17:30

The other entrance ticket, from the same ticket office, is for Am Phu Cave (động Âm Phủ) or Hell Cave, famous for it’s two level depiction of heaven and hell. The entrance is at the bottom of the mountain halfway between the ticket office and the elevator going up the mountain. 

  • Entrance Fee: 20 000 VND
  • Times: 7:00 to 17:00

Things to Know about Visiting Marble Mountain 

Make sure you have a good pair of shoes because the stone steps can be mossy and slippery, especially after rain. Caves can also be damp and wet, so tread carefully and a light windbreaker is a good idea. 

There are washrooms at the base of the mountain and two on the top of the mountain. One in the recreational rest area and one near Linh Ung Pagoda. You may have to pay a small upkeep fee, and bring some paper tissues just in case. 

There are vendors on the mountain selling drinks, water, snacks and some trinkets. If they hassle you, just politely wave them by. 

You may want to offer incense at the many altars you visit. Often there are joss sticks available, but sometimes not. You can buy them at the bottom from vendors, and make sure to have a lighter as well. 

Incense Offered to a Champa God
Incense Offered to a Champa God
[ image by Roger ]

How to Get to Marble Mountain 

It’s easy to get to Marble Mountain by taxi or Grab Car (270 – 370 000 VND). Most people, however, visit this tourist attraction in an inclusive tour. Tours can go from Hue, Danang, or Hoi An and can include various other places such as the My Son Heritage Site

From Danang you can also take the public bus No.1 bound for Hoi An from downtown, and bus No.11 from the bus station. It costs 7 000 VND and make sure to have the exact change. 

From Hoi An, you can ride the same bus No.1 from the main bus station outside of town. The cost is 20 000 VND (regardless of what the bus driver says).  

The Caves on Marble Mountain 

If you want to enjoy the full experience, and if time is not a crucial factor, we recommend both the cave experiences. If you’re short on time, then just go to Am Phu Cave. You can also make a full day of it by visiting some of the other mountains as well— but not all of them have pagoda caves. 

Am Phu Cave 

Pudgy Bug-eyed demon in Hell’s Cave
Pudgy Bug-eyed demon in Hell’s Cave
[ by Joel Riedesel by from Flickr ]

To get to this cave, you cross over a bridge decorated with the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. This crossing means that you are traversing the earthly realms into the afterlife. 

Once inside, the stairs going up lead to the heavenly realms of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with many beautiful altars. The stairs going down lead to the hell realms. In total, the cave is about 302 meters long.

The stairs down are fairly long and there are twisting passageways with various chambers, atriums, or shrines depicting the torments and characters of the underworlds. Some are kind of gruesome, others kind of amusing, but nonetheless suitable for all ages.

In the middle of the cave you can stand before the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. He holds the scales used to measure one’s good and bad deeds. A little different to the king of hell, this Buddha is known as Jizō Bosatsu in Japanese or Jijang Bosal in Korean.

Hoa Nghiem and Huyen Khong Caves 

Walking up the mountain, the first cave you’ll come across is Hoa Nghiem Cave (động Hoa Nghiêm). The way there is through an ancient moss-covered gate. Inside you are greeted by a sublimely beautiful Quan Am or Lady Buddha. 

She’s some 400 years old and this grotto pagoda’s construction was sponsored by Japanese and Chinese traders from Hoi An. From the back of the cave, you’ll walk through a tunnel that takes you to Huyen Khong Cave. 

Entrance Guardian at Huyen Khong Cave
Entrance Guardian at Huyen Khong Cave
[ image by Roger ]

Huyen Khong Cave is the largest cave on the mountain, and the experience is quite sublime. As you approach the entrance, you’ll glimpse the amazing seated Buddha sculpted high up in the cave wall. The guardians at the staircase are almost hidden at this point and catch you by surprise. 

In this cave, you will also find an altar to Thiên Y A Na the goddess of the land. Beams of light piercing through the cave roof give the impression of celestial staircases, and depending when you visit, they conjure the interior in a different manner. 

Hoa Nghiem and Huyen Khong Caves
Shrine to Thiên Y A Na
[ image by Roger ]

If the time you go is busy with tour groups, just be patient, as the number of people fluctuates up and down very quickly. Don’t leave the cave without investigating thoroughly because you’ll often find gems hidden in the back and in little alcoves. 

Tang Chon Cave 

Tang Chon (động Tàng Chơn) is another spectacular cave not to miss. It captures the magic of stepping through a small doorway into a giant space. In this cave, you’ll come across a tall standing Amitabha Buddha whose compassion is as bold and reassuring as the rock it’s cut out of. 

And if you’re up for it, you could join a couple of sagey blokes for a game of checkers. 

Tang Chon Cave
Confucius Playing Checkers
[ image by Roger ]

Other Caves 

Other caves on the mountain are smaller, yet each has its own unique atmosphere and charm. Like Van Thong Cave (động Vân Tông) with its small rounded entrance and single standing Amida Buddha smiling in such a way that you feel you were expected.  

There are also some caves that don’t have anything inside except for rock rubble. If you don’t rush and spend some time in each cave, you’ll always find some interesting things, or as you change your position and angle, the light reveals different features. 

The Pagodas on Marble Mountain 

Usually, if people climb up the mountain, they go through Gate no.1 and the fist structure is the small Tam Thai Pagoda. Origins of this pagoda go back some 300 years. It was given national status in 1825 by Emperor Minh Mạng and was reconstructed in the early 1900s after a devastating typhoon. 

Tam Thai Pagoda: Marble Mountain
Tam Thai Pagoda: Marble Mountain
[ by Andrea Schaffer from Flickr ]

Directly behind Tam Thai Pagoda in Linh Nham Cave. It’s a narrow cave and the only thing inside is a statue of Ngoc Hoang, or the Jade Emperor of Heaven.

Walk to the west of Tam Thai and you’ll come to Tam Ton (Tam Tôn) and Tu Tam (Từ Tâm) pagodas. The former is more a residence for monks, and the latter, with its interesting and beautiful garden, is a peaceful place. 

To the east side of the mountain, with a fantastic viewpoint of the ocean and landway to Hoi An, is the principle Linh Ung Pagoda. You can also reach this pagoda from the elevator and Gate No.2. It has the same name as the large pagoda on the Son Tra Peninsula and the giant Lady Buddha overlooking Danang. 

Linh Ung Pagoda on Marble Mountain

Ling Ung Pagoda: Marble Mountain
Ling Ung Pagoda: Marble Mountain
[ by Paul Mannix from Flickr ]

This Linh Ung Pagoda has foundations going back to the early to mid 17th century. The original temple was improved upon by the emperor Gia Long, and then rebuilt by his son Minh Mang. 

The temple has borne various names. During a visit of the reigning monarch Thanh Thai in 1903, it was renamed Linh Ung Tu (Linh Ứng Tự), meaning the Temple of Inspiration.  

In the main area of worship you will see the three principle Buddhas: Amitabha (A Di Đà) or the Buddha of the past; the historic Buddha Siddhartha, Gautama, or Sakyamuni (Thích Ca Mầu Ni); and the coming Buddha Maitreya (Di Lặc). 

There is also an altar residing Samantabhadra the Buddha of laws and principles, Manjusri the Buddha of action and wisdom, Avalokitesvara the Buddha of compassion, and Kṣitigarbha the Buddha of the afterlife. 

Other Mountains to Visit 

Other Mountains to Visit

Fire Mountain – Hoả Sơn

To the south in the direction of Hoi an is Fire Mountain or Hoa Son (Hoả Sơn). It consists of two peaks connected by a path: Duong Hoa Son (Dương Hoả Sơn) or Yang Fire Mount, and Am Hoa Son (Âm Hoả Sơn) or Ying Fire Mount. On Duong Hoa Son is a cave called Pho Da Son (Phổ Đà Sơn).

 On the base of the northern side, is another cave named Huyen Vi (Huyền Vi). Here there are limestone formations resembling birds, fish, and Buddhist instruments of worship. The entrance to Huyen Vi cave is opposite Linh Son pagoda, and on the southern side of the mountain is Ong Chai temple (lăng Ông Chài).

Metal Mountain – Kim Sơn

Metal Mountain or Kim Son (Kim Sơn) is shaped like a bell and also known as Hòn Chông. It lies to the west along the Truong Giang river (sông Trường Giang). This cave was rediscovered in 1950 by a Buddhist monk. 

Outside the cave is a rare and beautiful 1.5 meter high statue of mother Quan Am which is actually a stalactite. Next to her is a 5 meter high round stalagmite pillar that resonates the sound of a bell when tapped.

The floor of the cave sounds a drum, and the walls a wooden rhythm tapper. At the back of the cave is a cool pond of sacred water called Cam Lộ. Opposite the entrance is a temple built by the monk Thích Pháp Nhãn who rediscovered the cave.

Earth (Thổ) and Wood (Mộc) Mountains

On Earth Mountain, or Tho Son (Thổ Sơn), there’s nothing much to see except an old narrow tunnel that was used during war times. On the north side though, is Long Hoa Pagoda. 

Wood Mountain or Moc Son (Mộc Sơn) similarly has a small disused cave, but there’s a marble rock that looks like a sitting person which is revered as an Avolktesvara. 

Souvenir Shopping at Marble Mountain 

There are a ton of marble and granite souvenir and statue shops all along the way of Thuy Son mountain. Many of these make huge statues for commercial and religious use, including Western style art and Christian statues. 

Shops sell an array of religious objects or ornaments, both eastern and western, including things like lamps, chess boards, and emerald trees. You will also find bracelets, necklaces, and various trinkets. 

Stores near the main road tend to be expensive and cater to large tour groups. Stores further inside are friendlier to deal with. Small stores run by local aunties are quite nice to go to and bargain for souvenirs. Most shops will send large items to your hotel or ship them internationally directly. 

History of the Marble Mountain Caves 

Huyen Khong Cave in 1930
Huyen Khong Cave in 1930
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

These mountains were initially sacred sites of worship established by the Cham peoples who occupied Central and South Vietnam dating back to even the 8th century. There are still Cham relics in the caves, and an ancient Shiva Lingam. 

As the power of the Cham declined, especially under the rise of Nguyen Dynasty, the Emperor Minh Mang, in 1825, renamed these mountains Ngũ Hành Sơn or the Mountains of the Five Sacred Elements.

The English name, Marble Mountain, was inherited from the French and it just means the mountain was also a marble quarry.

Each mountain is named after one of the traditional five elements of Taoist cosmology. So there’s Kim Son (metal mountain), Tho Son (earth), Moc Son (wood), Hoa Son (fire), and Thuy Son (water). 

From this time onward, the Ngu Hanh Son became a spiritual center for the practice of Mahayana Buddhism and also a retreat for members of the royal court in nearby Hue. Today, they remain as typical cave pagodas with a number of other pagodas that have been constructed as the religious community grew. 

Ngu Hanh Son During the French and American Wars

During the war against French occupation, one of the main caves, Huyen Khong, was used as a command post. During the American War, it functioned as a makeshift field hospital. 

Nearby the Americans had established the Marble Mountain Air Facility, pretty much within earshot of the caves. In the cave is a plaque to the PLAF Women’s Artillery Group that launched an attack on 27-28 October 1965 which destroyed 19 aircraft and damaged a further 35. 

Marble Mountain Air Facility with the Ngu Hanh Son in the Background
Marble Mountain Air Facility with the Ngu Hanh Son in the Background
[ by manhhai from Flickr ] 

After the war, these mountains also supplied building material for the iconic Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. To protect what remains of them, all quarry activity is ceased and the marble, or other stone, is brought in from nearby Quảng Nam Province or elsewhere.

Ngu Hanh Son were further recognized in 2019 receiving National Special Relic status by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

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