Everything You Need To Know About Marble Mountains
The Marble Mountains dominate the plain-like landscape along the coast road between Hoi An and Danang. On the way from the airport, you can’t help but notice them looming in the distance and jutting up dramatically from the flat earth. Their intrigue continues as you get closer and see the scores of magnificent marble carvings of lions, Buddha, and other statues. Everything you could imagine being carved from marble surrounds them. You will also no doubt do a double-take as you see the somewhat awkward-looking great glass elevator protruding from their side.
The Marble Mountains are a group of five limestone and marble hills in Ngu Hanh Son District. They are one of the most popular day trips from Hoi An, situated just 20 kilometres north of the city. The mountains’ sheer, porous limestone is punctuated by caves and tunnels, which are fitted with spectacular Buddhist and Hindu shrines. Of the five mountains, only Mt. Thuy is accessible to tourists. It has the highest summit and a stunning, panoramic view of the coast, Da Nang, and the other Marble Mountains. We at Hidden aim to equip you with all the knowledge you will need to fully appreciate this popular day trip.
What are the Marble Mountains?
The cluster of limestone outcrops that make up the Marble Mountains were initially sacred sites worshipped by the Cham peoples of Central and Southern Vietnam. However, the mountains are not massive in comparison to some of Vietnam’s northern ranges. But they are impressive in relation to the flat central floodplains of the surrounding countryside. So it is easy to see why they cast an attractive spell on the Cham. They also contain a myriad of cave networks and tunnels that the Cham recognised as holy places.
In the centuries since the Champa Empire, Buddhist followers have built shrines and temples at the summits of the mountains and in the caves below them. Therefore the Marble Mountains and their shrines within, continue to lure visitors to this day to enjoy their expansive views, wander their intricate caves and be swept up in their history.
History of Marble Mountains
Naming Marble Mountain and the Five Elements
In 1825, centuries after the decline of the Cham Empire, the Vietnamese King Minh Mang, named the mountains “Ngu Hanh Son”—The Five Element Mountains. Each mountain is named after one of the five essential elements in Eastern Philosophical thought: Kim (metal), Tho (earth), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire), and Thuy (water). Together, the mountains were a spiritual destination for both the Vietnamese aristocracy and Mahayana Buddhists. So over the years, Buddhist followers constructed the sanctuaries that you see today.
However, during the French colonial period, French geologists realised the mountains were comprised of marble and re-named them the “Marble Mountains.” The French name stuck, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recent History of Marble Mountains
Above all, through a history that was in turns peaceful and turbulent, this sacred site has served as a refuge for generations of Vietnamese. During the French Colonial War, the Huyen Khong Cave served as a secret command post for the local revolutionaries and a forward base from which they could stage guerrilla assaults. However, when the Americans invaded, they and the Southern Vietnamese government used the cave as a garrison. The caves riddled through the Marble Mountains, as a training venue for marines.
The People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF)
In 1968, American forces were attacked and driven out of Marble Mountains by the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, or the Viet Cong). Simultaneous assaults on the Mountains and nearby American air force bases successfully returned the caves to Communist control. The PLAF then established a secret field hospital in the Huyen Khong Cave. Here they tended wounded guerrillas and spied on American forces at nearby China Beach.
One reminder of this wartime history is a plaque dedicated to the PLAF Women’s Artillery Group hung on the cavern wall. In 1972, the women of this artillery unit destroyed 19 Marine aircraft parked at the Marble Mountain Air Facility, an American airfield at the base of the mountains. It’s an interesting juxtaposition; a testimonial to military success in the midst of holy Buddhist surroundings.
So walking into the cave’s interior, just imagine the difficult conditions the cave of Huyen Khong offered as a surgery unit. Therefore it’s possible that, despite the dark and testing conditions, the religious relics looking down into the cave’s interior provided some comfort for wounded soldiers. Today the cave has now returned to its peaceful origins attracting thousands of Vietnamese pilgrims every year.
Lost Your Marbles
However, despite weathering countless wars and uprisings, in the late 20th century, the Marble Mountains faced a different kind of threat to itself. The red, white, and green marble used by local carvers for tombstones, statues, and touristy knick-knacks sold in Da Nang and the surrounding beaches came from the large rock deposits in the mountains themselves. The sacred stone hills even supplied the building material for Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi.
Eventually, it was realised that quarrying marble from the mountains was unsustainable in the long run. Sadly the limitless consumption of stone from their reserves would reduce the towering hills to rubble. So, in order to maintain the mountains as a destination worth visiting, quarrying has recently stopped, ensuring the mountains’ longevity. Therefore today, local stonemasons and sculptors import their marble from other regions of Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
When to Visit Marble Mountains
In the last couple of decades, Marble Mountains has been developed and promoted as a tourist destination. Complete with tours, shopping, and an easy-access glass elevator to take you up the 43-metre ascent. It remains an intriguing place to visit in central Vietnam with its gorgeous views and impressive caves.
There are a variety of tours that offer trips to the Marble Mountains. But it is far easier (and cheaper) to visit on your own for a day trip. It takes roughly an hour and a half to view the sights at Mt. Thuy and costs 40,000 VND (1.70 USD) per person.
Marble Mountains is open year-round from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The best months to visit are during the summer season, even though the heat can be stifling. During the rainy season (September to November), heavy rains can come up suddenly and their torrents will slick the marble stairs, making them slippery and dangerous. Check out our article on the best time to visit the region here.
People typically only spend an hour to an hour and a half exploring just the main mountain, Mt. Thuy. It also has the added benefit of the lift! Without a doubt, the best time to visit is when the tour bus hoards are absent. Usually early in the morning—before 8:30 a.m. The first buses begin to arrive around 9:15 a.m. Or visit later in the day, after the bus tours have left, approximately 4 to 5:30 p.m. Visiting at these times has the added benefit that you avoid the hottest part of the day and have the best light to photograph the expansive views.
How To Get To Marble Mountains From Hoi An or Da Nang
Taxis can be booked for a one-way journey or “wait and return.” For a metered taxi, you can expect to pay around 250,000 VND (11 USD) for a one-way ride from Hoi An. You can prebook or negotiate taxi fares for a round trip from Hoi An at a cost of around 500,000 VND (21.50 USD). Any hotel in Hoi An will be able to arrange this for you.
Taxi company – Mai Linh taxis 0235 3929292
Private car company – Minh Hien Hoi An Transfer Service
The #1 bus from Hoi An to Da Nang passes Marble Mountains along the Le Van Hien highway. It is possible to alight at the nearby bus stop and walk the short distance to the ticket office.
Hidden Hint: You can find a bus timetable along with details of travelling between Hoi An and Da Nang in our travel article here. Have a live map on your phone so you can track your location and know when to ask the bus to stop.
Motorbike or Own Transport
Sitting halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang, finding Marble Mountains with your own transport is very easy. Travel 8 kilometres south from Da Nang or 20 kilometres north from Hoi An. Along either the Le Van Hien highway or the (more pleasant) Truong Sa coast road. You will find yourself in the shadow of the limestone outcrop. The ticket entrance can be found on Huyen Tran Cong Chua street surrounded by sculpture shops.
Organised Tours to Marble Mountain
Most hotels in Hoi An will offer a tour of Marble Mountains. They are usually operating as resellers for a tour company, so ask for full details before booking. For a more unique trip, Vietnam Jeep Tour offers a day trip that includes Marble Mountain, Son Tra Peninsula, and the Hai Van Pass. All on-board a refurbished US military Jeep.
For those who decide to go on your own and drive you can park cars and motorbikes inside the designated parking lot at gate two for 10,000 VND (.40c USD).
Tickets and Getting Around Marble Mountains
There are two entrances to Marble Mountains. Gate one is at the bottom of a long, daunting flight of stairs, at the base of the glass elevator. Gate two is further down the road along the left side of the mountain. Both entrances cost 40,000 VND (1.70 USD) per person to enter. Although the second, further entrance has an easier climb and is less-frequented. The elevator costs an additional 15,000 VND (.65c USD) per person, each way. The 156 step climb at the main entrance is not particularly difficult and offers some interesting views of shrines and stone-carved friezes on your way up. But beware, the stairs are made of marble and can be slippery.
Hidden Hint: Save your legs for exploring the paths and caves by taking the elevator up and walking back down. There are plenty of stairs to negotiate around the rest of the site! At the main ticket office, it is assumed that you want both entrances and return elevator tickets, so be clear about what you want to purchase.
At the ticket office, you can also purchase a map of Mt. Thuy’s attractions for 15,000 VND (.65c USD). There are also large, detailed signs with maps throughout the area.
Getting Around Marble Mountains
Getting around Marble Mountains means negotiating seemingly endless flights of natural and uneven steps. Young children and those with limited mobility will struggle to reach the caves themselves, but they can make use of the elevator to visit the Xa Loi Tower and take in some of the views. For everyone else, you can skip leg day at the gym after a day on the marble steps. Water and snacks are available on the mountain and near its entrances. Good footwear is recommended as the steps are far from uniform—this will be especially important if you intend to climb through the Heaven cave.
Ling Ung Pagoda
After you make it to the top of the mountain from Gate one, there are three main avenues you can explore. The rightward path will take you to Ling Ung Pagoda and Temple, built-in 1825. This towering pagoda is an incredible testament to the faith and determination of the early Buddhists, imagine carrying all those massive tonnes of marble up from the base of the mountain! Also, to the right is the access to the glass elevator, Van Thong (Heaven) cave, and Xa Loi tower.
The central avenue takes you through the “relaxation” area, which is a collection of small stands, vendors and the restrooms, to Tam Thai Pagoda. This 400-year-old pagoda was built in the 17th century and has been destroyed, rebuilt, and renovated many times. A powerful storm completely demolished the little that was left standing after the Vietnam War in 1991 and so it was reconstructed in recent years.
The View from the Summit of Mt Thuy
Behind the relaxation area, slightly off to the right, is a narrow footpath that leads you up to the summit of Mt. Thuy. This is the view worth coming for—to the north, Da Nang sprawls out in front of you like a glass jewel in the flatlands. Meanwhile, to the east is the famous China Beach where the American forces arrived and set up their beachhead. Behind China Beach is the mesmerizing azure South China Sea stretching to the horizon line, unbroken except for the Cham Islands.
To the south, you can see rice paddies and rural countryside stretched like a vast green quilt, interrupted by a patchwork of hotel and resort development. Far off in this direction, barely visible from Mt. Thuy’s vantage point, little Hoi An perches like a yellow topaz along the Thu Bon river. in addition, completing the 360, to the west, you can make out the mountains of Vietnam’s interior, and the invisible border of Laos.
If you follow the left avenue, you will pass through a series of gates and arrive at the signature attraction of Marble Mountains, the spectacular Huyen Khong Cave.
Huyen Khong Cave
This cave is definitely a must-see. Massive and awe-inspiring, the Huyen Khong houses two Buddhist shrines, a small temple, and a giant marble Buddha built into the cave-face 5 metres above the cave floor. Incense rods wedged into crevices let off pleasant smells and slow coiling tendrils of smoke. Small coloured lights burrowed into otherwise dark cracks and holes shine like multi-coloured fireflies around the austere cave walls.
In some places, you can see etched carvings and characters, some recent enough to be depicted. Others have so worn with age they seem part of the stone. In the ceiling of Huyen Khong are large holes that let light flicker down into the cave and dance shadows on the dark walls. If you arrive at the right time of day (between noon and 2 p.m.), with the sun correctly positioned overhead, you can witness beams of light stretching from the heavens to the cave floor.
Back along the right avenue from the relaxation area is Van Thong or Heaven Cave. Now the Heaven Cave may seem small at first, but there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye. Behind the shrine, up a natural marble ramp, is a narrow tunnel that leads into another chamber. In addition, this second, slender chamber possesses no cave ceiling and is doused in light. You will notice, however, piles of various sized-rocks laying on the ground. Yes, these have fallen from overhead!
Through the back of this chamber is another, far smaller tunnel. So here you will have a chance to do some honest-to-goodness exploring. You can shimmy up this tunnel using naturally dugout handholds and ascend four metres to its end. However be prepared that it is dark, and the marble flooring is quite slippery, occasionally there are bats (high overhead). But with a smidgen of determination, all but the most faint-hearted will persevere—and the payoff is worth it!
After pushing through the tunnel, it’s a short hike to the summit of Heaven peak. This view is neither as expansive or as impressive as the towering summit of Mt. Thuy. But it is often completely unoccupied and will present you with some perfect photo opportunities. There is a separate way down that leads back to the relaxation area. So don’t be “that guy” and try to push back down the tunnel against the oncoming traffic.
Activities at Marble Mountains
Half-day rock climbing and rappelling tours are available through an affiliate company, Phat Tire Ventures. Phat Tire provides top-of-the-line equipment and experienced guides that will lead you through a series of climbs up the slopes of the mountains and then the chance to rappel into caves. These tours are fantastic and are worthwhile of your time and money. The tours are for all levels, from amateur to expert, and Phat Tire has a program designed for kids too.
At the base of the Marble Mountains is Non-Nuoc hamlet, a crowded shopping area made up of dozens of stone carving shops. Here, you can watch the artisans work, sculpting and sawing huge slabs of marble, and browse a diverse selection of exquisite statues. But remember, this marble comes from other parts of Vietnam. So,if you make a purchase, don’t expect to be bringing a bit of Mt. Thuy home with you. Many of the small carvings are beautiful and make great souvenirs.
However, if you’re not searching for a small souvenir, and would rather have a 3-metre Bodhisattva decorate your patio, you’ll have to negotiate a shipping price to take it back home. In other words, the airlines aren’t likely to check that 2-tonne mass in with your baggage. But like any purchase you make in Vietnam) healthy haggling is a must. The competition is fierce among shop owners as they all sell identical products.
One of the most expansive and comprehensive sculpture collections is at Tien Hieu 3. Follow the road east (down the hill) until the Truong Sa coast road and the sculpture garden are on your left. Found here are traditional and modern designs of all sizes, also drop in to the workshop to see the sculptors work.
Hidden Hoi An’s thoughts
In conclusion, a trip to the Marble Mountains is one of the shortest day trips you can do out of Hoi An. Their natural beauty alone makes them worth a visit. But they are an important historical and religious site too. Easily accessible and well set up for visitors. So there’s no reason to join a crowded tour group. You can manage this trip easily on your own, at your own pace.
There are a large variety of options available for everyone to comfortably experience the Marble Mountains, depending on your level of interest (and fitness). We pretty much guarantee they will catch your eye and peak your interest as you drive between Da Nang and Hoi An, making them a must-see for most visitors to the area.