Travel Report: Marble Mountain, Danang.
Marble Mountain, Danang.
On the face of it Danang has just about everything for the curious traveller. First it’s a large, modern metropolis stuffed with markets, museums, temples and a vibrant river scene dominated by a fire-breathing bridge. Furthermore, it has one of Vietnam’s most popular stretches of coastline, home to glistening, golden beaches. More on that in my next article.
Danang also has a number of gorgeous mountains with viewpoints overlooking the city and beyond into the East Vietnam Sea. Of these, you can’t miss the handsome Marble Mountains, a cluster of five limestone and marble peaks positioned tightly together in the city’s Ngu Hanh Son District.
The hills are named after the five elements of Taoism, Kim (metal), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire), Tho (earth) and Thuy (water). An amusing and typically unlikely Vietnamese legend claims that their creation dates back to a mysterious dragon egg.
Apparently, Mr/Mrs/Ms Dragon emerged from the sea near Non Nuoc Beach one day and laid an egg right on the sand. Excited locals gathered and waited. And waited… and waited… and waited. Finally, after a thousand days, the egg hatched and out came a beautiful woman. It seems unclear what became of her. However, the broken egg shells that remained eventually grew into the five mystical mountains we see today in Danang. Sounds plausible.
Marble Mountain, Danang.
All five Marble Mountains offer visitors walking trails in addition to ancient pagodas, caves and tunnels. But if you actually want to embark on a proper hike that results in sweeping summit views, you’ll need to head to Thuy Son (Water Mountain). As the most prominent of the five mountains, people also refer to it as simply Marble Mountain.
From downtown Danang it’ll take you around two hours to walk to Water Mountain’s staircase entrance. That’s just fifteen minutes in a taxi. There are also public buses. But back then it was a real pain in the ass figuring out the where and when of everything. At the ticket counter I paid my dues (15.000VND / $0.65) and set off in what turned out to be mercifully mild temperatures.
I certainly appreciated the lack of humidity that day, as it was hard enough dragging myself up those staircases. Indeed I took several opportunities to stop and catch my breath at the various gates that pepper the route. Interestingly, a few still bear bullet holes from The Vietnam War.
Back in the early 1970s Water Mountain hosted a hidden Vietcong hospital. Somewhat cheekily, it sat on the doorstep of a US airfield on the beach below. “They were so certain of our ignorance they hid it in plain sight” drawled the US Marine William Broyles Jr. After his military career, Broyles became a successful Hollywood screenwriter, whose credits include Apollo 13, Jarhead and Saving Private Ryan.
There are a bunch of beautiful pagodas and caves to explore on Water Mountain. And they break up the climb nicely, rewarding visitors for their considerable efforts. My first stop came at Tam Ton Pagoda, a wonderfully maintained Buddhist garden complex. There is a distinct Chinese flavour throughout, including lion guardians, red lanterns and silent monks strolling between the potted plants.
It’s a nice warmup act for the mountain’s biggest and most historic compound, Tam Thai Pagoda. Built in 1630, this is one of the region’s most celebrated temples. You enter through the crumbly Three Passage Gate, a surviving part of the original complex.
The temple itself has undergone a number of renovations over the years. Following a devastating fire, the Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang oversaw a grand reconstruction project in 1825. He also elevated it to the status of National Pagoda. The king’s younger sister, Princess Ngoc Lan, even lived here for a year studying Buddhism.
But by 1901 Tam Thai Pagoda was in ruins again, this time because of a typhoon. The next reconstruction finished in 1907 and was carried out via the donations of Buddhist monks. As you approach the main three-story building, you’ll see one of their statues outside, a smiling sandstone Buddha.
It was silent inside when I entered, with just a handful of people praying. This included a resident monk, who scowled at me before returning his gaze to the main altar. Hence I hid myself away in a tight corner and watched proceedings from a respectful distance.
Marble Mountain, Danang.
A number of items belonging to King Minh Mang decorate the altar. A heart shaped bronze medal, for example, features an inscribed Buddhist text right from the king’s hand. No wonder Buddhists from all over Vietnam flock here to pay their respects.
Back on Water Mountain’s main trail, I climbed higher and higher up staircase after staircase. The views were fantastic, particularly over the other Marble Mountains.
And then I found myself branching off again on a rocky woodland path that leads to Huyen Khong Cave. I’d been looking forward to this all day, with a number of online articles claiming the cave is Water Mountain’s undisputed highlight.
Chinese and Japanese merchants established the cave in the 17th century in order to create a dramatic new Buddhist temple to rival all others in the region. They definitely succeeded in making it a special place of worship. As you descend the stairs into the large, cathedral-like chamber, it feels quite literally as if you have entered another planet.
Faded ancient inscriptions decorate the stone walls. A large wooden Buddha meanwhile sits perched on a carved platform high above ground level. Lit up by a heavenly beam from the cave’s skylight, caused by a falling bomb during The Vietnam War.
Huyen Khong Cave.
Elsewhere, there are stone tablets with Confucian texts added in the 19th century. And a number of candlelit altars where visitors from all over Asia stop to pray and add incense sticks.
It’s a magical fascinating place that, strangely, has a distinct lack of information both onsite and online. The only other thing I found out was that this was the 1970s Vietcong hospital I’d mentioned earlier. I guess the Americans did discover it in the end.
Another cave I checked out that day was the smaller and altogether cosier Linh Nham Cave. This one, dating back to the mid 18th century, has even less info on it. Nevertheless, it seemed every bit as popular, with dedicated worshippers at the altar and a line of patient onlookers waiting their turn.
After the caves there were trails leading to several wooden viewpoints nestled among the trees. But they looked horribly busy, so I decided to push on and hold out for the best views at the summit.
Marble Mountain, Danang.
It was worth the effort! At the top I gave a celebratory punch to the air and promptly collapsed on a wooden bench. After I’d caught my breath, I managed to convince an Indonesian tourist to grab a shot of me as king of the mountain.
The giant complex of buildings down below is The Vinh Pearl Resort, a luxurious five star hotel on Non Nuoc Beach. Look out for more on the hotel and beach in a later article. I was delighted to have conquered Marble Mountain. But in all my excitement it was a few minutes before I realised that, yes, I still had to walk back down. Ah, nuts.
For more on this unmissable Vietnamese city, take a look at my other articles on Danang.
Or maybe look further afield with my many more pieces from across Vietnam.
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