Lady of Nui Ngu Hanh Son – the Marble Mountains
It was starting to be a warm day.
The sky was grey, overcast and the morning haze still clung to the damp ground as we made our way Northward along the coast from Hoi An towards Da Nang in Central Vietnam. After about 20 kms our driver slowed then turned left onto a small road that led into the village of Nui Kim Son at the base of the Marble Mountains. Nui Kim Son – “Mountain of Gold”. In earlier times artisans from this village made jewelry for war lords. Today, it is still the livelihood of many villagers.
Nui Ngu Hanh Son – the Marble Mountains are actually five hills or crags made of marble and limestone and are located roughly 10 kms (8 miles) south of Da Nang city. The King of the Nguyen Dynasty named the five mountains after the five essential elements which make up the universe. They are named: Kim Son – metal, Moc Son – Wood, Thuy Son – Water, Hoa Son – Fire, Tho Son – Earth.
The Marble Mountains are home to several Buddhist monasteries and the area is riddled with numerous tunnels and caves where one can see statues of Buddha as well as Hindu shrines and even houses carved from stone. The mountains were used by war lords in the past to store their gold and it was the responsibility of the monks to watch over the treasure and to keep it safe. No one knows for sure how much wealth was hidden in these mountains. As custodians, only the monks had the information and only they knew the various ways in and out of the myriad of caves and passages. Beside the monasteries the area is renowned for traditional stone sculpture and stone cutting crafts. Today all the stone material is brought in to Nui Kim Son from elsewhere in Vietnam.
The Marble Mountains played a central role during the Vietnam war era for both the Viet Cong, VC, and the American armed forces. Just a short distance to the north of the mountains on the coast was the Marine helicopter base, MAG-16, also known as Marble Mountain helicopter base. Close by MAG-16 was My Khe the famous China Beach, 30 kms of white sand, where thousands of US soldiers spent their R&R time. Not far inland from the coastline is the Da Nang International Airport known during the Vietnam war as Da Nang Airbase and for a time during the mid – 1960′s it was actually the worlds busiest airport in the single runway category.
During the early part of the war the VC occupied the area in and around the Marble Mountains and even maintained an emergency hospital in one of the caves. Soon after the Americans arrived in Da Nang they constructed the helicopter facility MAG-16 which brought a new element into play in the fighting – air attacks by helicopter. On the night of 27 October 1965, a Viet Cong raiding force quietly assembled in a village northwest of MAG-16 and adjacent to a Seabee camp. Apparently, it came by boat, although whether downstream along the river or south across Da Nang Bay is not clear. Under cover of 60mm mortar fire which engaged the Seabees heavily, at least four demolitions teams moved out to attack the airfield and the hospital. Forty-one VC were killed, but six armed with bangalore torpedoes and bundles of grenades got onto the MAG-16 parking mat, where they destroyed 24 helicopters and damaged 23. Raiders also got into the nearly completed hospital across the road and did considerable damage. Three Americans were killed, and 91 wounded; fortunately, most of the wounds were minor.
Following this attack the Americans secured the Marble Mountains and the surrounding area and it remained under their control throughout the Tet Offensive in 1968 and until the end of the war. From a spot on the tallest of the hills they placed a 106 recoilless rifle, manned by Marines, to help provide security for the immediate vicinity and the area around Da Nang Airbase. This particular hill took on the name “Crows Nest Mountain” and from here you can see all of Da Nang to the North, the jungle stretching to the mountains in the West and the vast expanse of the South China Sea.
Lady of Nui Ngu Hanh Son
After climbing up the 157 steps to the middle level it took us a good 3 hrs to walk around Thuy Son mountain exploring the caves, passages and pagodas. We made progress towards the Eastern side of Thuy Son and stopped at Tam Thai Pagoda to examine this beautiful edifice. Then we made our way another 100 meters over to what is considered to be the most spectacular of pagodas at this site, the Linh Ung Pagoda on a cliff facing the sea.
It was then that I noticed a woman. She was short in stature and dressed very warmly in brightly colored clothing – even though the weather was warm for me, by Vietnam standards it was cold. But what I noticed most about her was her smile. Her face was wrinkled with years but she wore her age well and she had a bright and happy look in her eyes. But then, her smile took on a totally new dimension when she opened her mouth. With her mouth open the predominant feature was her large dark brown, betel-nut leaf, stained teeth. Such magnificence! The Vietnamese elders consider that the stains are actually a protective coating for the teeth and prevents the need for a dentist. Here in the Western world we put so much emphasis on perfect teeth, having that perfect white smile! But what a lady she was – such unbelievable cultural contrast! Snap – I took the shot.