As you continue down the road to Hoi An, an unattractive stretch of storage tanks and scrubby, postwar wasteland eventually gives way to Vietnam’s most southerly limestone outcrops, known as the Marble Mountains.
Despite all the fuss, only one of the mountains’ caves rates above ordinary, but it’s a good place to stretch your legs and admire the views. A torch is useful for exploring the caves and, although everything is well signposted, it’s still worth picking up a sketch map (small charge) at the ticket desk.
The simplest way of covering the 12km to the Marble Mountains and Non Nuoc from Da Nang is by car, xe om (50,000đ) or bicycle. Just past the first mountain, turn left at a T-junction down a road called Huyen Tran Cong Chua and find the main entrance on your left after a few hundred metres of marble shops. Da Nang city buses run infrequently out to Non Nuoc (7am–5pm), heading down Phan Chu Trinh and terminating at the Non Nuoc T-junction. Finally, if you can face the scrum, Hoi An-bound pick-ups will drop you off at Non Nuoc. If you’re pressing on from here, Hoi An is another 20km down the coast from Non Nuoc – take a xe om (50,000đ) or squeeze onto a passing local bus.
Local mythology tells of the Turtle God hatching a divine egg on the shore; the shell cracked into five pieces, represented by the five small mountains. Historically, Cham people came here to worship their Hindu gods and then erected Buddhist altars in the caves, which became places of pilgrimage, drawing even the Nguyen kings to the sacred site. When Ho Chi Minh died, marble from these mountains was used for his mausoleum in Hanoi, but quarrying has since been banned. In Vietnamese the mountains are named Ngu Hanh Son, meaning the five ritual elements: Thuy Son (water mountain) and Moc Son (wood) to the east of the road; Tho Son (earth), Kim Son (gold or metal) and Hoa Son (fire) to the west.
The highest, at 107m, and most important mountain is Thuy Son (6am–5pm). Two staircases, built for the visit of Emperor Minh Mang, lead up its southern flank. The main, westernmost entrance, the first you reach coming from the main road, brings you to the hollow summit surrounded by jagged rocks with grottoes in every direction. In the middle, the Tam Thai Pagoda sits beside a crossroads. Turn left here, pass through a narrow defile, under a natural rock arch and you enter the antechamber to the most impressive of Thuy Son’s warren of cave pagodas; follow the path to the left of the sandstone Quan Am statue, down steep, dark steps into the eerie half-light and swirling incense of Huyen Khong Cave. Locals will point out stalactites resembling wrinkled faces and so on, but the cave’s best feature is its roof through which midday sunlight streams like spotlights. A wall plaque commemorates a deadly accurate women’s Viet Cong guerrilla unit, which during the war destroyed nineteen planes with just 22 rockets.
Backtracking to Tam Thai Pagoda, the path heading east under a couple more rock arches climbs slightly before starting to descend towards the eastern exit, affording expansive views over Non Nuoc Beach, the Cham Islands and north to Monkey Mountain. About halfway down you pass Linh Ung Pagoda behind which lurks Tang Chon Cave, in this case occupied by tenth-century Cham Hindu altars and two Buddhas, one sitting and one standing. You emerge again at the foot of the mountain in NON NUOC Village. Since the fifteenth century, Non Nuoc has been inhabited by stone-carvers, who coax life out of the local white, grey and rose marble. Nowadays workshops generally churn out mass-produced souvenirs using marble imported from Thanh Hoa Province, but it’s fascinating to watch the masons at work – just follow your ears.