Around Danang



Marble Mountains (Nui Non Nuoc)

The Marble Mountains overlook the city of Danang and its airfield, about 12 km to the west of town. The name was given to these five peaks by the Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang on his visit in 1825, although they are in fact limestone crags with marble outcrops. They are also known as the mountains of the five elements (fire, water, soil, wood and metal). An important religious spot for the Cham, the peaks became havens for Communist guerrillas during the war, owing to their commanding view over Danang airbase. From here, a force with sufficient firepower could control much of what went on below, and the guerrillas harried the Americans incessantly. The views from the mountain, overlooking Danang Bay, are impressive. On the Marble Mountains are a number of important sites, often associated with caves and grottoes formed by chemical action on the limestone.

Of the mountains, the most visited is
Thuy Son
. There are several grottos and cave pagodas in the mountain, which are marked by steps cut into the rock. The
Tam Thai Pagoda
, reached by a staircase cut into the mountain, is on the site of a much older Cham place of worship. Constructed in 1825 by Minh Mang, and subsequently rebuilt, the central statue is of the Buddha Sakyamuni (the historic Buddha) flanked by the Bodhisattva Quan Am (a future Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy) and a statue of Van Thu (symbolizing wisdom). At the rear of the grotto is another cave, the
Huyen Khong Cave
. Originally a place of animist worship, it later became a site for Buddhist pilgrimage. The entrance is protected by four door guardians. The high ceiling of the cave is pierced by five holes through which the sun filters and, in the hour before midday, illuminates the central statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni. In the cave are various natural rock formations which, according to the cave guides look like storks, elephants, an arm, a fish and a face.

A few hundred metres to the south on the right is a track leading to
Chua Quan The Am
, which has its own grotto, complete with stalactites, stalagmites and pillars.

My Son

My Son, with its detailed carved masonry, was the spiritual centre of the Cham empire . Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, it is one of Vietnam's most ancient monuments. Weather, jungle and years of strife have wrought their worst on My Son. But, arguably, the jungle under which My Son remained hidden to the outside world provided it with its best protection, for more has been destroyed in the past 40 years than the previous 400. Today, far from anywhere, My Son is a tranquil archaeological treasure. Not many visitors have time to make an excursion to see it which makes it all the more appealing to those that do. The thin red bricks of the towers and temples have been beautifully carved and the craftsmanship of many centuries still remains abundantly visible today. The trees and creepers have been pushed back but My Son remains cloaked in green; shoots and saplings sprout up everywhere and one senses that were its custodians to turn their backs for even a short time My Son would be quickly reclaimed by nature.

My Son consists of more than 70 monuments spread over a large area. It was rediscovered and investigated by French archaeologists of the École Française d'Extrême- Orient in 1898. Their excavations revealed a site that had been settled from the early eighth to the 15th centuries, the longest uninterrupted period of development of any monument in Southeast Asia. Its maximum population is unknown but it seems to have had a holy or spiritual function rather than being the seat of power and was, very probably, a burial place of its god kings. Unfortunately, My Son was a Viet Cong field headquarters, located within one of the US 'free fire' zones during the Vietnam War. The finest sanctuary in the complex was demolished by US sappers and temple groups A, E and H were badly damaged. Groups B and C have largely retained their temples but many statues, altars and linga have been removed to the Museum of Champa Sculpture in Danang . Currently Group C is being restored by UNESCO; the F building is covered in cobwebs and propped up by scaffolding.

It is important to see My Son in the broader context of Indian influence on Southeast Asia, not just in terms of architecture but also in terms of spiritual and political development around the region. Falling as it did so strongly under Chinese influence, it is all the more remarkable to find such compelling evidence of Indian culture and iconography in Vietnam. Indeed this was one of the criteria cited by UNESCO as justification for My Son's World Heritage listing.

Angkor in Cambodia, with which My Son is broadly contemporaneous, is the most famous example of a temple complex founded by a Hindu or Sivaist god king (
deva-raja
). The Hindu cult of
deva-raja
was developed by the kings of Angkor and later employed by Cham kings to bolster their authority but, because Cham kings were far less wealthy and powerful than the god kings of Angkor, the monuments are correspondingly smaller and more personal. One of the great joys of Cham sculpture and building is its unique feel, its graceful lines and unmistakable form.

The characteristic Cham architectural structure is the tower, built to reflect the divinity of the king: tall and rectangular, with four porticoes, each of which is 'blind' except for that on the west face. Originally built of wood (not surprisingly, none remains), they were later made of brick, of which the earliest (seventh century) are located at My Son. The bricks are exactly laid and held together with a form of vegetable cement, probably the resin of the day tree. Sandstone is sometimes used for plinths and lintels but, overwhelmingly, brick is the medium of construction. It is thought that on completion, each tower was surrounded by wood and fired over several days in what amounted to a vast outdoor kiln. The red bricks at My Son have worn amazingly well and are intricately carved with Hindu, Sivaist and Buddhist images and ornaments. Sivaist influence at My Son is unmissable, with Siva often represented, as in other Cham relics throughout Vietnam, by the linga or phallus.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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