In the Marble Mountains of Vietnam there is a huge cave known as Am Phu, and deep inside is a re-creation of a Buddhist hell where sinners confess crimes, suffer punishments, and hope to reach heaven’s light.
At the city limits of Da Nang sits a cluster of five outcroppings known as the Marble Mountains. Sculptors once mined their white marble to make Buddhist statues, and while they are still crafted and sold in the surrounding villages, the marble is now imported from China. Each mountain is named for a different element, with the largest and most famous, Thuy Son (the Water Mountain), housing the notorious Am Phu cave.
Discovered in the 19th century, King Minh Mang named the cave Am Phu (Vietnamese for “hell”) to signify a yin-yang dualism: while the mountain’s topside is considered heaven, visitors first pass through subterranean caverns representing hell. Opened to tourists in 2006, the natural rock formations, stalactites, and pitch-dark tunnels are enhanced with frightening figures and altars created by local artists. It is not unlike walking through a haunted house, with surprises lurking around every corner.
Visitors cross a bridge symbolizing the passage from Earthly existence into the afterlife, begining with a hellish realm of man-hungry crocodiles, violent demons, and fanged devils bathed in sinister red light, where hands reach up from the waters below and river monsters threaten to gnash their souls to bits. Once inside the depths of Am Phu, fragrant incense overwhelms the air. At a temple shrine visitors can confess their sins and repent before a marble scale weighs their good and bad deeds. These visions of punishment haunt visitors until, finally, a steep stone staircase ascends to a sunlit opening.
The climb is no easy path to enlightenment. Infrequent railings, helpful but scary handhold rings embedded in the marble, and the very steep twisting stairs reward one with a grand balcony view and a high sense of accomplishment. But note, it’s a dead end from which you must descend the same, now scarier, route.
Climbing the stairs to salvation isn’t supposed to be easy, but this is where heaven begins—next door, on top of Thuy Son there are more caves, as well as divine shrines and pagodas. There are also reminders of the Vietnam War, including a chamber once used as a Viet Cong field hospital, and a plaque commemorating a Women’s Artillery battalion that was based nearby and destroyed 19 U.S. aircraft. Along with the heavenly shrines and carvings, the yin and yang of war and peace.
Know Before You Go
Take Le Van Hien south and turn left onto Huyen Tran Cong Chua. (Note, Thuy Son is the only Marble Mountain officially open to the public, and not to be confused with Tho Son, the earth mountain)