There are many options of day trips from Hoi An. The two most interesting are the ancient ruins of My Son and the complex of cave temples in the Marble Mountains.
I was very tempted to see the ancient Cham ruins in My Son, dubbed ‘Vietnamese Angkor Wat’ and listed as a UNESCO site. However, getting there independently would cost at least $10 per person, whether by a hired motorcycle or on the organized tour. I got convinced by Sayak it wouldn’t be necessary to see it since we had seen Cham towers in Nha Trang already.
We decided to see Marble Mountains instead since we knew a public bus to Da Nang would stop right in front of them. Marble Mountains are a cluster of karst rock formations dotted with natural caves. Over the centuries, the caves had been used as temples for Hindus and Buddhists. Each of the five mountains is named after one element. The most famous of the mountains is the Water Mountain and it is the only one with tourist infrastructure. The remaining ones are quite ‘wild’ and adventurous to explore.
Two ways up the Water Mountain
Our Catalan friend told us it was possible to enter the main temple complex at Thuy Son or Water mountain for free. If you walked from the bus stop by taking the first small path through the greenery straight towards the only visible pagoda, you’d reach the top avoiding the ticket booths. That was the path the local devotees would take and it was partially marked on maps.me.
We struggled to find the secret path so we just walked along the main tarmac road, passing by numerous mason workshops. The road took us directly to the first and then second paid entrance.
A map I bought at the ticket office was so badly drawn that I didn’t manage to find one of the most important caves- the Hell Cave (located, unlike the others, at the base of the mountain). The Hell Cave – full of graphic representations of Buddhist hell- required a separate entrance ticket.
There was an elevator near the second entrance but in my opinion it was completely pointless since it cost as much as the ticket and was not getting one till the top of the hill anyways.
At the Water Mountain
The whole temple complex was very busy both with local and Western tourists. Coming through the second entrance, the first place to be seen was Linh Ung pagoda with beautiful green-tiled roof and a neighbouring Xa Loi tower with a small viewing platform.
We followed the advice of our friend and went all the way till the end of Van Thong cave where we scrambled through a tiny exit hole. That exciting path led us to an open platform with a nice view at the plains and other karst rocks in the vicinity.
I couldn’t resist checking the viewpoint on the top of the mountain. I was rewarded with a panoramic, 360 degree view at the sea and beaches, river winding its way through the plains and Da Nang city in the distance. I must admit it was extremely hot on that exposed peak, though.
It was quite late when we reached Huyen Khong Cave. It sadly meant we were too late to see the sunlight filtering in magical shafts through the holes in the ceiling onto the statue of Buddha. By the time we reached that cave, it was already completely dark inside.
We quickly saw one more cave and another pagoda and decided it was high time to leave. We were still hoping to see the other mountains featuring old Hindu and Buddhist temples. We knew they would be not only free but undoubtedly completely empty.
Too late to explore the Marble Mountains
We were just coming down from the Water Mountain when we were stopped by a little boy who wanted to practice English with us. We talked with him for a while, amazed with his mother’s idea to bring him there every afternoon for this sole purpose.
The time was passing by and we understood it was far too late to attempt visiting any other mountain. With the Hell cave already closed, we chose another path towards a modern pagoda. It led us through the ‘secret path’ all the way to the main road.
I promised myself to return to Hoi An-Da Nang area since we skipped a lot of interesting places around. A few days after we left Hoi An, our friends started posting on FB videos of a newly opened bridge in Ba Nang Hills near Da Nang, held in giant hands. Reading old blog posts and old guides, we had absolutely no idea about it. I believe My Son also deserved a trip, not to mention a more thorough exploration of the Marble Mountains.
How to get to Hoi An?
The most expensive option would be flying to Da Nang airport which has budget airline connections with HCMC and Hanoi. That route would involve a rather pricey shared airport transfer to Hoi An.
Another option would be a train to Da Nang and then a bus to Hoi An. It would be a reasonably choice if arriving from HCMC or Hanoi.
Hoi An is on every open tourist bus route. It has direct bus connections to Hue (3.5h), Phong Nha (7.5h), Nha Trang (12h) and Hanoi (13-15h).
Otherwise, much bigger Da Nang city is better connected by buses with other destinations. Bus to Hoi An leaves from the Da Nang bus station and takes around 1 hour.
How to get from Hoi An to Marble Mountains?
Go to the bus station in Hoi An (bex xe Hoi An) and wait for the direct bus to Da Nang. The ticket costs 20 000 VND [July 2018] and runs quite frequently. Get off at the crossroads when you see the karst rocks and the masonry shops. The bus stop is marked both on Google Maps and Maps.me
For a ‘secret path’, walk a bit further along the main road towards Da Nang until you see a small path to the right, leading straight to a tall pagoda. Otherwise, take the Duong Huyen Tran Cong Chua road which starts right next to the bus stop and walk until you see the first entrance.
The entrance fee to the Water Mountain: 40 000 VND, lift (one way): 15 000 VND, map: 15 000 VND. There is a vegan eatery near one of the entrances.
Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of July 2018]:
220 000 good standard en-suite, A/C double room 1.5km from the old town
190 000 minivan Kon Tum to Da Nang
120 000 combined ticket for 5 monuments in Hoi An
80 000 cheapest sleeper bus from Hoi An to Hue
50 000 light lunch at Hoi An covered market
40 000 entrance to the Water Mountain complex near Da Nang
30 000 bus from Da Nang to Hoi An
20 000 bus from Hoi An to Marble Mountains
20 000 vegan buffet at a budget vegan eatery
10 000 lotus flower drink from the street
10 000 sugarcane juice (outside old town)
10 000 glutinous rice dumpling with bean filling from a street vendor