Many travelers to Southeast Asia have heard of the Marble Mountains in Vietnam. This gathering of five outcroppings is a pilgrimage site with caves, temples, tunnels and peaks. From afar, the mountains seem small, but as you approach, you see the grandeur of the landscapes. Each mountain represents one of the essential elements – metal (Kim), wood (Moc), fire (Hoa), soil (Tho)), made out of limestone and marble, and water (Thuy). The largest among them is Thuy Son (Water Mountain), and, ironically, it is home to the notorious Am Phu (“hell”) cave.
Discovered in the 19th century, King Minh Mang named the cave to signify the mountain’s yin-yang contrast because the top of the mountain is considered heaven while the bottom is its opposite.
Opened to visitors in 2006, the cave’s natural atmosphere of rock formations, stalactites and dark tunnels have been heightened with startling figures and altars created by local artists, who recreated a Buddhist concept of hell ”where sinners confess crimes, suffer punishments and hope to reach heaven’s light.”
You cross a stone bridge over a pond with carved hands jutting up from the water begging for rescue. The bridge symbolizes the passage from your Earthly existence into the afterlife. Enter in the Am Phu Cave and begin your journey along sometimes challenging stairways. (Those who have difficulty with stairs should consider skipping this as the cave has many sections of stairways, some steep and without railings.)
The cave symbolizes nine floors of Buddhist hell. Go down into spooky tunnels accompanied by the sound of bat wings flapping somewhere nearby. This isn’t Disney… the bats are real. Descend into the realm of man-hungry crocodiles, violent demons, devils and river monsters. In the depths of Am Phu, the strong, fragrance of incense is unavoidable. Sad reminders of the Vietnamese-American War include a chamber used as a Viet Cong field hospital. Altars are scattered around the cave with burning candles and incense. This is where locals come to pray and leave offerings. An altar rests below a stone stele for lost soldiers of past conflicts and a stone Buddha marks a staircase that leads deeper underground.
Another path, leading up, has walls covered with beautiful carvings. This is the section symbolizes heaven. Some steep and narrow steps lead to a small balcony with an altar and a laughing Buddha statue. Climbing the stairs to salvation isn’t supposed to be easy. In Hell’s court, judges evaluate a sinner’s acts to decide on the level of punishment. In the cave’s center, a statue of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, referred to as the Bodhisattva of the Hell beings, is near the spiritual scale. If you have a mind to, you can confess sins and repent before this marble scale that weighs good and bad deeds.
Nearly 1,000 feet in length, this remarkable cave presents a blend of folklore and Buddhism’s philosophy of humanity. You can climb a stone stairway up to “heaven” — the top of the Thuy Son Mountain, or you can opt to take a glass elevator and enjoy the views of the city. On top of Thuy Son, more caves as well as divine shrines and pagodas wait.
If you’d like to travel to Am Phu and back to experience this otherworldly cave system, consider our seven-day Vietnam Private Exploration.