The Marble Mountains’ religious significance and amazing views make it one of Hoi An’s most famous and popular destinations. Below the surface, a complicated system of caves and tunnels interlaced with pagodas, shrines and gigantic statues make this an unforgettable experience. But go early to avoid unbearable heat during the summer months as well as the hordes of tourists all year round.
Only 20 minutes from Hoi An by bus, ‘Marble Mountain’ leaps out of the perfectly flat plain imposingly, like a roughly-hewn cake on a plate, but actually there are five limestone mountains on closer inspection. Named Ngu Hanh Son by the Vietnamese (5 elements mountain), each mountain represents one of the five elements: water, wood, fire, gold and earth.
During the Vietnam war these mountains played another role: a hideout and lookout for the North Vietnamese. Their panoramic views allowed a bird’s-eye view of China Beach and the US troops below. With the intricacies of hidden tunnels and caverns throughout, it is also reported that the Vietcong set up a hospital within earshot of the nearby US Air Facility although this more likely occurred during the French conflict. Another famous story tells of 17 Buddhist nuns shooting down two American planes from the mountains. There may be a stretch in some of these stories but whatever the case, it is certainly true that guerrilla fighters, military scouts and others have found sanctuary in ‘Marble Mountain’ and used it to advantage over the years.
Marble Mountain is also famous for sculpting marble, though in an effort to preserve the site, it is no longer quarried there but sourced elsewhere. As you approach, you see marble statues, magnificent and massive, in numerous showrooms dominating the roadside. They are worth a visit on their own. Aimed at wealthy Vietnamese and Chinese tourists, these statues are truly amazing and if you fancy a couple of 20-feet-tall lions in your backyard then here’s your chance. There’s jewelry on sale as well as beautifully carved, whopping marble chess sets. More ‘civilized’ smaller carvings may appeal but they’re hard to settle for once you’ve stared into the eyes of an 18-foot, laughing minotaur.
Marble Mountain now has a glass-walled lift so you don’t have to do the steep climb up the stairs. It’s pretty space-age to look at and not expensive but for this short distance you might still prefer the stairs to access the natural vegetation and fauna.
Which brings me to … wear good walking shoes and ones that don’t slip. Marble and limestone can be very slippery, especially when wet. Also, beware of being whisked into a cave by a Vietnamese tout (who will demand a fee later). We found ourselves half way up a tiny crevasse unable to get back down and the only way was up. With a tiny old Vietnamese lady pushing our Western fat arses up a hole that clearly wasn’t big enough this journey was at times scary, dangerous and ultimately, frustrating.
And on the touts: don’t let them literally push you around. Buy a map for 15,000 VND and be done with them! It’s easy to find your way.
Of the five mountains Thuy Son (Water) is not only the most accessible but also home to the most impressive sites including the majestic Dong Huyen Cong Cave, the centerpiece of the entire Marble Mountain marvel. Inside this vast natural cathedral is a gob-smacking, giant Buddha and a complex of Buddhist temples and statues across a hefty underground courtyard. Here, at certain times of day, commanding shafts of sunlight thrust downwards like intense searchlights from the top of the dome, amplifying the grandeur and spiritual power of the site in an extraordinary display that puts the initially interesting, but much smaller, Van Thong Cave firmly in its place.
Other points of interest include several pagodas of profound spiritual and historical significance; the Ling Ung Pagoda, established by the Nguyen Kings in the early 1800s as the National Pagoda, the standout.
Throughout your visit to Marble Mountain you’ll find myriad opportunities to soak up and photograph the surrounding plain below, the ocean and China Beach nearby, the other marble mountains and the large mountains on the western horizon, towards Laos. Look for little tracks that reveal special vantage points as well as the well-signposted lookouts.
It is this feature for me, more than any other that illustrates the significance of the site. Taking in the breathtaking panorama at Marble Mountain, one has a sense of being in command of all around, both inwardly and outwardly, and of sanctuary from any dangers that may approach if one can forget, even just for a moment, that there are hordes of fellow tourists around every corner.
Entrance ticket: 15,000VND
One-way elevator ticket: 15,000VND
Hours: 8am to 5pm