Each of the mountains is named after an element. The main and most visited Thuy Son (water mountain) is the largest, with three caves and a secret ‘road to heaven’ — a steep, rocky climb through the cave to the mountain peak, where on a clear day you can see for miles all around. The show stopper though is the last cave, Am Phu, which has a huge Buddha statue set among large stone pillars and wells said to connect the mountain range to the sea.
Thuy Son’s four little sisters — Kim Son (metal), Moc Son (wood), Hoa Son (fire) and Tho Son (earth) — are all easily accessible from Thuy Son and offer more natural caves, grottos, tunnels and Buddhist temples. They really are worth the trek, and although it’s hard work on a hot day, there are lots of quiet shady spots for relaxing away from the crowds and getting a better picture of what makes the mountains a hugely popular pilgrimage site. Hunt hard enough and you may even find a few bullet cartridges left behind by the American and South Vietnam occupancy during the war.
Although guides will be happy to walk you up Thuy Son, you’ll struggle to find one who will show you the others. When you buy your ticket, ask for the map — it’s an extra 15,000 VND but includes all five mountains, their caves and pagodas, and is well worth the extra spend. If you want to take a bit of marble mountain home with you be warned: all the marble sculptures are made from marble imported from other provinces and some of it is not marble at all (a good test is if it’s warm, it’s not marble). Be prepared to haggle to at least a third of the original price quoted and remember your luggage allowance! If you just want to take a peek at the sculptors in action, the best ones are tucked away in tiny shacks away from the main drag where there is less hardcore selling and the carvers are happy for you to go and have a poke around.
Once you’ve had your fill of the mountains, a good rest stop is Hoa’s Place, about 100 metres towards Hoi An down a little dirt track towards the beach. He serves up some pretty good burgers and on a good day will entertain you with stories of the history of the area. If Hoa is not there, he’s got a nice stretch of beach, a very basic guesthouse and some ancient surf boards for hire.
If you are heading for Da Nang, there are some great seafood stalls lined up across the road from the stretch of beach known as Man Thai, all serving up freshly caught seafood or Da Nang’s new speciality dish, mi quang noodles similar to Hoi An’s cao lau, big chewy noodles served with pork and shrimp, packed with fresh herbs and served with a huge crispy rice cracker to break up and sprinkle on top.
A little further towards Hoi An you can’t miss the low rise celebrity hangout hotel – The Nam Hai. The Hoi An side stretch of beach just past this is where the sand-scribbling mute war veteran was featured on the Top Gear Vietnam special. It’s also a beautiful stretch of public beach that makes for a perfect picnic spot during the sunny hours of the day, when it’s practically deserted. If you happen to bump into the mute war vet, he’ll re-enact the planes coming in over the beach in drawings in the sand; be warned that he is somewhat anti-American, so if you are from the US it’s probably best not to tell him that.
The Marble Mountains are 15 kilometres from Hoi An along the coastal road.