Finding heaven and hell – A Guide to the Marble Mountains

On a wet and windy day I headed out from Hoi An on the short one hour journey to Danang, stopping off on the way at the marble mountains which had been a recommendation by the owners of my hostel accomodation. I didn’t know much about the mountains before I got there but what I found within the limestone hills simply took my breath away. The Marble Mountains will take you on a half day journey through temples, pagodas, cave exploring, trecherous stair and through stories of Vietnamese heaven and hell.

IMG_4248Getting There: 18 KM north of Hoi an and 9 KM south of Da Nang, you can easily grab a taxi or rent a motorbike from either city.

Costs: entrance fee for Thuy Son mountain is 15,000 VND, Am Phu Cave: 15,000 VND.

Suggested Times: give yourself 3 or 4 hours to explore the mountains and caves, head there early if you can to try and get as much time there as possible.

The marble mountains are a series of 5 mountains named after the elements: water, fire, metal, earth, and wood. The term mountain is a fairly loose term as they are in fact no more than limestone hills, but nonetheless they are an absolute marvel to visit. The largest and most impressive, by a long way, is the water mountain Thuy Son so I’d recommend that you start with this one.

IMG_4259Once you pay the entrance fee you’ll ascend the stairs to start exploring the mountain, which consists of 5 caves, 3 pagodas and 2 viewpoints. You’ll climb over a hundred steps walking through 2 epic gates. The first cave you come to is Dong Thong, the cave isn’t particularly impressive but continue through and there is a slightly treacherous climb through the cave on the ‘stairway to heaven’. This stairway leads to a viewpoint with magnificent views over the coastline and the other 4 smaller mountains.

After enjoying the views, which on a clear day spread for miles, you follow the path down to continue exploring the mountain. Everything is well signposted and there are maps dotted all around the walkways so that you never get lost.

By far the most impressive of the caves Huyen Khong is illuminated by light beams bursting through holes in the ceiling of the cave. Here you’ll find various shrines to Buddha, including a large statue carved out of the cave itself. The cave is enormous, not IMG_4253the biggest you’ll find in Vietnam but impressive nonetheless. Having spent a couple of hours roaming the mountains on top of the water mountain we made the decision to head to the hellish part, Am Phu cave, located beneath the mountain.

Am Phu cave is the Buddhist depiction of Hell itself with recreations of sinners receiving punishment. Am Phu is literally the Vietnamese word for hell, being named by King Minh Mang as a juxtaposition for the mountains topside considered to be heaven.

Walking through Am Phu is like a walking through a freaky haunted house, there are statues of frightening figures lurking in every nook of the cave, some of which are sure to make you jump. The darkness and eery figurines all add to a slightly surreal experience. As you continue through the cave you’ll eventually reach a set of stairs leading to a beam of light, these are the stairs to salvation. The staircase is death defying, clearly getting to salvation isn’t meant to be easy, so watch your step when climbing the stairs as they are sharp and slippery.

The marble mountains and Am Phu cave are amazing, there are 4 more mountains to explore, I can’t tell you anything about them as after spending 4 hours exploring the water mountain and the cave I’d seen my fair share of caves! You could spend an entire day exploring all of the marble mountains, do the smaller ones first as if you start with the water mountain you will be thoroughly unimpressed by the other ones.

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