Inside the Marble Mountains of Central Vietnam

Huyen Khong Buddhist grotto with the sun filtering in from high above

Located near Da Nang, the Marble Mountains is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills named after the five elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). The mountains contain a number of Hindu and Buddhist grottoes scattered throughout the caves.

During the Vietnam War, the Marble Mountains contained a secret field hospital for the Vietcong, and was located just a short distance from the American air field near the beaches of Da Nang. Some might remember the late-1980s show China Beach, whose title references the American troops enjoying My Khe beach in the shadow of the Vietcong positions. The U.S. military didn’t learn of its existence until after the war ended. This interesting 1969 article from Stars and Stripes mentions both the marble quarries and the nearby Vietcong positions without fully understanding just how close and substantial they were.

Back in February we visited the Marble Mountains after staying a few days in nearby Hội An. We rented a car and driver to take us from Hội An to Huế further north. The trip took around 8 hours including the stop at the Marble Mountains for a few hours. Although we had taken buses and planes earlier in our trip through Vietnam we missed a lot of places; renting a car (or motorbike) was the best way to see the sights along the way.

In the shadow of the Marble Mountains our driver briefly stopped at a marble emporium, notable by the sheer number of marble sculptures found through the establishment. The area is known for the stone-work and cutting skill of the artisans who work there; although their skill was impressive we passed on purchasing a statue, even the ones that were small enough to sit on a table.

Entering the area at the base of the mountains, the easiest way up is by taking an elevator. There are other ways to walk up as well although they can be exhausting on a hot day.

After exiting the elevator
Xa Loi Tower near the elevator
One of the many pagodas on the top of the mountain
Interior of the pagoda

Just on the one mountain we went through different caves. There were six in all, of varying sizes and types. The variety was nice as we didn’t know what to expect with each one.

At Tang Chon Cave
Small stone temple inside the entrance
Back on the trail with the stone dragons behind me
Going into Van Thong Cave

Not everyone who visits notices the path behind the altar in Van Thong Cave. If you walk behind you will see a dark path that leads up. This is the reason the cave is also known as the Heaven Cave. Starting in near darkness, we climbed up through a very vertical series of sometimes slippery footholds to exit with a great view of the surrounding area. It requires some effort as you have to use your arms and feet to pull yourself up, but if you can do it you will be rewarded with a great view. Fortunately, there’s an easier way down from the top.

As Kim was climbing out of the cave, she saw a rat right at eye level. She screamed and surprised everyone. The rat escaped as people around her asked her what had happened. Despite the unexpected experience with the local wildlife she quickly forgot about it as we took in the great views of Da Nang, the jungle and the nearby beaches.

View of Da Nang from the exit out of Van Thong Cave
Another view of the nearby resorts and beach

From there we wandered the walkways and saw other temples. Eventually we reached the highlight of the visit: Huyen Khong Buddhist grotto, located within one of the larger caves. As we went into the cave we had no idea what was waiting for us a short descent downward.

A statue greeted us as we entered Huyen Khong grotto
Coming down the steps into the open grotto

After a short walk down from the entrance, we entered a large room where there were small shrines set up throughout the space. The candles and neon combined for an interesting glow in the bottom part of the grotto.

Entrance to another shrine

However, the best part was yet to come. We came just at the right time as sunlight flooded the grotto from the openings high above. It shone in front of the main Buddha statue perched at one end of the grotto.

The sunlight lit up the cave in dramatic fashion
The main altar in the cave
The way out

Once out we wandered around some more, visiting temples, gardens, pagodas and other sights before making our way back to our car and driver. It was well worth the slight detour on our journey to Huế.

Another panoramic view of the other marble and limestone hills from the other side

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