South central Vietnam has its share of people-made wonders but hereabouts has its natural attractions also. Just south of Danang squeezed between the South China Sea and the rapidly encroaching suburbs of Vietnam’s fifth-largest city are the Marble Mountains (Ngũ Hành Sơn). Holy hideaways used down through the ages by the Cham peoples through to the Viet Minh battling the colonial French and the so-called Viet Cong fighting a superpower, and now to make a dollar or two from sweaty tourists climbing hundreds of steps under the tropical sun. The exertion can be hard work, but the views and the history are worth it, and so is the breeze that comes with the change in altitude, nature’s air-conditioning.
Legend has it the mountains came about because of a golden dragon, a tortoise, and an old hermit. The dragon laid an egg, the tortoise claimed to be a god, the hermit buried the egg, after which it hatched and split into five elements: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth, those being the mountains. For over 400 years it was custom to take marble from the mountains for furniture, sculptures, jewellery and to be used as building material. Such is the marble’s quality it was used to line Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi. It is rumoured treasure of gold and precious gems have been hidden in the mountains over the centuries, booty from feudal lords with instructions the monks at the mountains hide the whereabouts, the monks taking the secret location to the grave.
More recent history saw the mountains put to military usage in the wars of independence, their strategic importance as a vantage point overlooking the lowland surrounds, where the then key military infrastructure included airports where air traffic volumes overtook that of Heathrow. During the Indochina wars the French built bunkers, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF, “Viet Cong” was a derisory term for Vietnamese Communists used by Saigon officials of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government) constructed hospitals and tunnels. The Americans had observation points and deployed heavy artillery all on, or in, geological structures 2kms long and barely 800m wide.
The Marble Mountains are five sizable rocky outcrops 5oom high and made of marble and limestone. It is said that each represents a natural element: Kim Son (metal mountain), Thuy Son (water), Moc Son(wood), Hoa Son (fire), and Tho Son (earth). The most famous and largest is Thuy Son which contains a number of natural caves, but all are worth a visit.
I went to see the Marble Mountains from Hoi An, 15kms to the south travelling on a rented motor scooter courtesy of a local private transporter. On the way a scooter with two Vietnamese women pulled alongside. They wore jeans, baseball caps and scarves wrapped around their faces as protection from the sun. They started chatting asking me questions like where I was from, how long I’d been in Vietnam, where was I going next and so on. They said with my traditional Cambodian scarf (Krauma, pronounced “Chrome-Er” with the first “R” rolled) also used for protection from the tropical sun among other uses, I looked like a Viet Cong, and laughed. They were sisters they told me and promised to find me a girlfriend on Marble Mountain after I had visited their family’s marble shop to buy something, an offer I politely declined. Later they followed me to so-called China Beach to insist I visit their shop. In Cairo it’s perfume, in Hoi An clothes, and near Danang, marble carvings and statuettes aplenty. As a tourist you’re fair game.
When I first went to Marble Mountain on that trip back in 2006 it cost 10,000 VND (50 cents) to climb to the top of Thuy Son, for the preservation of the site so they say. Efforts unfortunately don’t extend to litter control given the copious amounts of rubbish strewn down the mountain’s steep sides, an ugly sight. At the top of the steps are Linh Ong Pagoda and several caverns known as Tang Chon Dong. Inside are several concrete Buddhas.
Some caves are open to the sky and are consequently cool, drawing in air to form a natural air-conditioning system. At this point a young boy, perhaps 10 years or so attached himself to me as an unwanted guide. As I was then the only tourist in sight, an elderly woman selling incense to burn at the various altars also followed me around pointing out the features. When the short tour finished both demanded money. Reluctantly I gave the boy some money and indicated he shares it with the woman, which he then refused to do, and a raucous verbal altercation broke out between the two. The whole experience was less than ideal, so I left them to it and headed further up the mountain.
At Vong Hai Da, also at other vantage points on the mountain, there is a magnificent view of China Beach and the South China Sea. The cathedral-like Huyen Khong Cave contains several Buddhist and Confucian shrines. During the US war, the PLAF used this cave as a field hospital. In 1972 the Women’s Artillery Group were reported to have destroyed 19 US planes from a base near the mountains.
Following the climb and the walk back down, the moto man then dropped me at China Beach. China Beach supposedly sits between the beaches of Pham van Dong and My Khe to the north and Bac My An and Non Nuoc to the south. There is some argument about where the various beaches start and finish. That day a few tourists were swimming and the local Vietnamese had set up some deck chairs for hire but there were no takers. That was back then, when people could say “It’s like Thailand but 20 years ago,” or things like that, that leave you wondering why you’re always a generation too late.
The beaches at Danang extend all the way south to Hoi An (and beyond) and are surprisingly under-developed – at least they were back then. In 2006 I saw only one guest house, named Hoa’s Place and no hotels. There was one international resort on the sands; guidebooks wrote off the area in a few unappealing words. It all felt rather desolate albeit with sparkling blue waters and long sandy beaches.
Back on my first visit that morning I stood at the water’s edge looking out to the horizon. I watched as a low-flying MIG fighter, steel grey in colour, on a flight path running parallel to the beach flew by, so close and so low I could make out the pilot in the cockpit. The plane appeared to make no sound, so presumably its speed meant it had broken through the sound barrier. I was struck by the symbolism of this, the beach where French colonialism began and US soldiers first streamed ashore. The struggle for independence against the colonial rule of the former and the wars fought against both cost millions of Vietnamese their lives (3 million by Vietnamese estimates against the Americans alone) and lasted more than a century. Though is it sometime since both were vanquished, a symbol of Vietnamese military power and political independence swept overhead as if in some sort of victory flyover.
This beach at Danang (once Tourane) is where US Marines first came ashore in 1965 signaling large-scale direct involvement of that country in the affairs of this one; though their activity had been steadily ramping up since 1945. Danang is also where the French began their colonial involvement in Vietnam in 1858. Acting on orders from Napoleon III, who had made himself emperor of the Second Empire, French marines landed at Tourane backed by Spanish troops from the Philippines in a land grab intended to add to France’s status as a European power. The rationale was to provide national and international prestige, to satisfy proactive commercial interests, the so-called this “imperial meridian” an act cloaked as a “civilising mission”. French intervention in Vietnam followed previous expansion into Algeria and preceded empire building attempts in Mexico, China, Lebanon, Korea (more a punitive venture), and in Madagascar. While those in the British Empire were known as “gentlemen capitalists” France’s push into Vietnam was part of the search for the China Eldorado prompted by what has been termed “municipal imperialism” based on prestige, commercial and colonial expansion and the conjoining need for naval expansion and strategic bases.
Looking north from the Marble Mountains you’re staring down the runway of Danang airport. The PLAF had spent much time looking at it too, and there was much to keep them occupied. At the height of the US war in Vietnam, Danang was a continual hive of activity of the sort only a rich industrial country can wage on a relatively poor and agricultural one. During the Second Indochina War (1959–1975) the facility was a semiautonomous territory and known as Danang Air Base where could be found all varieties of American-made weaponry that vaporised, pulverised, lacerated, and splattered their not-so-distant neighbours. It was a major United States military base for lethal and non-lethal sorties including those flown by Air America, the CIA’s airline. It was also used by RVNAF, the small Republic of Vietnam Air Force.
Danang was the primary entry point for Americans, mostly youngsters, flying into Vietnam for the first time to fight. The introduction for many of these “grunts” to Vietnam under a hot bright tropical sun would’ve given new meaning to the line “blinded by the light” in all kinds of ways. They were, as someone said, ‘bright-eyed and clean-shaven, with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues.’ At least not yet.
Danang became the world's busiest single runway airport, and rivalled Tan Son Nhut (Saigon) as the world's busiest by the late 1960s. Due to US military activity, Danang became Vietnam’s second largest city with close to a million inhabitants – it’s now Vietnam’s fifth largest but with the same population number. During the war it was a major economic and political centre holding billions of dollars of essential war materials and infrastructure supplied by the airfields and four large seaports.
Tourane Airport as it was known, was built by the French colonial government in the 1930s as a civilian airport. The Japanese had used the airfield from 1940 in an agreement signed with the Vichy French, making an offer they couldn’t refuse. It was bombed at the end of WWII by the US air force from land bases in China and from aircraft based at sea. As Tourane Airfield it was used by the French air force during the First Indochina War (1945-54) with planes supplied by the US and following a quick paint job, and in 1953 US personnel and planes were on the ground and in the air to support the French up to their defeat by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu. It may have been France’s war, but the US footed the bill.
Southeast of Danang Air Base on a strip of beach between the sea and the Marble Mountains was Nuoc Man. Here the US military constructed another air transport facility in 1965. Originally built as a helicopter facility, it was also known as Marble Mountain Air Facility, Danang East Airfield, and Marble Mountain Army Airfield, and largely used by US marines. The airfields were the most northerly major air bases in the Republic of Vietnam until their capture by North Vietnamese (People’s Army of Viet Nam) forces in March 1975. Danang air base was then used by the Vietnam Peoples’ Air Force to bomb Saigon. Today it’s Vietnam’s third international airport with over eight million passengers annually flying to 10 or so countries regionally.
In the 1960s US forces named the beach “China Beach” largely because they couldn’t be bothered pronouncing the Vietnamese name (My Khe though China Beach maybe just part of this) and it was easier to remember. It was 20 miles long and soldiers would rest and recreation at the beach, R and R, swim and have barbecues. At Nuoc Man and other facilities at Danang they’d watch US films, go ten-pin bowling in huge army compounds designed to recreate everything they had at home, adding to the surreal nature of their existence in Vietnam.
As men and materiel were continually flown and shipped in from stateside and the US satellites. All the while, the PLAF from their observation points deep in nearby Marble Mountain would watch US servicemen at work and play, the happenings, and the comings and goings – they even tunnelled under the airport. During the US war Danang was known as the Saigon of the North, the north of South Vietnam that is, mainly for its sleaze and corruption, and the great many bars and brothels that operated for the US servicemen.
These days Nuoc Man still operates a heliport, opposite the growing holiday resorts on China Beach. There are golf courses, private villas and some 150 resorts and counting, unwrapped along the coast. Most offer luxurious spa therapies, yoga and reiki though seemingly priced for the well-heeled and strictly short stay crowd. The developments stretch from Son Tra peninsula in the north south along beaches lining the South China Sea in a country that’s one long beach.
The beaches are getting a makeover but so is Danang, seemingly reinventing itself for the 21st century which had been led by the late Nguyen Ba Thanh, the party secretary and people's council president. He was the man dubbed the King of Danang but is criticised by rights groups for land seizures and corruption. The city struggled for years how to lure tourists to the World Heritage sites nearby: Hue to the north, Hoi An to the south, and My Son inland. When I first visited in 2006, I was told the money in town was due to the Russian mafia. Today it’s been reported the city’s ‘self-esteem glows amid the fairy lights and communist flags’ and the city has the highest rates of urbanisation in Vietnam.
After the pilot swept by, the two sisters from the marble shop turned up interrupting my thoughts. The route from Marble Mountain to China Beach went by their shop and they had seen me pass. Apparently, no tourists had visited the shop that day and it was up to me to rescue the family from certain destitution. It would also be lucky for me to buy something that day they said. The shop was much the others with a myriad of items for tourist consumption. Not wishing to get into a drawn-out conversation about why I didn’t want, or need, to buy marble carvings or anything resembling them, I beat a hasty retreat to the moto and went back to Hoi An.