All that separates the path between heaven and hell is a long flight of 156 stairs carved into the side of Water Mountain. I bought a ticket to the cave representing a Buddhist version of "purgatory" on this ancient pilgrimage route. Since I had sensible shoes, I figured this was a desirable first stop on my road to redemption. This Buddhist sanctuary consisting of five mountains made of marble and limestone just outside the city of Da Nang is a wondrous glimpse into the historical roots and folklore of Vietnam.
The most popular mountain is Thuy Son (or Water Mountain). Its reputation as a top tourist destination almost deterred my husband and I from making the trip as we like to go off the beaten track—but I figured a cave to the subterranean underworld could be considered an off-road adventure of a sort. Since the day was clear with not a drop of rain in sight, we decided to make the journey in a 10-minute cab ride from the main white sand beaches of Da Nang.
According to a very old legend of the Cham people from Vietnam, the Marble Mountains were made from the five broken pieces of a dragon's egg when it hatched. Each mountain represents one of the five natural elements in Asian mythology: earth, water, wood, fire and metal. The landscape has a long history that goes back into the first and second century AD. I wanted to connect to the location beyond the regular tourist experience so the cave of the underworld was a good place to start "from the ground up," so to speak.The "Am Phu" cave representing an afterlife in hell felt like entering the set of a strange horror movie. I realize that there is a yin and yang to Buddhism but the cave realm of hell—with all its scary demons, dragons and tortured beings—was enough to give me nightmares. This was a world of karmic justice where your good deeds and bad deeds are weighed out. Perhaps it is a metaphor for life, as I could hardly wait to skip this land of tormented souls and get to the good parts. My husband agreed that this visit to the dark side was enough. We practically raced outside and flung ourselves up the stairs to find the mountain filled with beautiful pagodas, stunning statues and aromatic gardens.
Once at the top of Water Mountain, I found a beautiful pagoda where the melodic sound of monks chanting and bells filled the air along with the smell of pungent incense. The whole mountaintop is a representation of the heavenly realms. A woman with three small children was making offerings of fruit and incense at the pagoda to bring luck for the year. A female Buddha shrine with thousands of tiny ceramic hands at the front of the courtyard seemed as if it was protecting them. I felt honoured to be able to witness this traditional Buddhist ceremony being practiced by the locals.
Gazing out from a little wooden lookout over the white beaches and little villages along the South China Sea leading into Da Nang I was amazed by the stunning beauty of the flat coastline. We bought some heavenly ice cream bars at the top of the hill and paused to enjoy the sweet views all around us.
The marvellous mystery of a dozen fierce dragons carved in marble and baring their fangs among the old twisted roots of a Banyan tree was now a seemingly harmless backdrop to a group of selfie-taking tourists. The effect is both startling and surreal as the old folklore merges into a new techno-savvy brand of visitor. A far cry from the past when the traditional artists were commissioned to create these mythical and wild creatures. Their heads and tails etched with painstaking detail into the marble cliffs. But the stone carving tradition is still very much alive and thriving thanks to the tradition being passed along from one generation to the next over the past 200 years.
Strolling along the base of the hill in Non Nuoc village with all its little stone carving stalls and shops I was mesmerized by all the peaceful and fearsome faces of all the countless statues of infinite sizes and life forms ranging from dancing Buddhas to slithering snakes. It was a whole experience that deserved a few hours at the very least. If I had more room I would have carefully packed some stone dragons to bedazzle my own garden back home. My husband refused to carry any more weighty items in an already overstuffed backpack. So for now I would have to be content to have some delicious "pho" (noodle) soup at one of the local restaurants clustered at the bottom of the hill.
An old woman vending trinkets and jewelry caught my eye and waved me over to her stall.
"Take home a special treasure from Water Mountain!" She offered a handful of marble necklaces and thrust them towards me in enthusiasm.
"I already have a special treasure—the real treasure for me is being here!" I gestured at Water Mountain, knowing that it would always have a special place in my heart.