Monday, February 18, 2013


Buddhist temple on 'Marble Mountain'

It's a new morning, and I'm just south of the central Vietnam city of Danang. I’m climbing stairs up a long hill of bedrock. Step after step, I go up and up, until my legs begin to ache. My quads are going to get a good workout today.
Buddhist statues guard a cave inside the mountain

My guide Khanh has brought me to this place that in Vietnamese, translates as ‘Water Mountain’. Climbing higher, I discover that the rock that makes up this place is mostly marble, hence the nickname American soldiers gave this place: ‘Marble Mountain’. It really should have been named ‘Shrinking Mountain’, since the village next to it had been quarrying marble off of this mountain for generations. They were supplying local artisans, who made their living carving marble sculptures. As the artists continued to turn out their creations, the mountain shrank and shrank. Finally, they started importing their marble from China, and the mountain was saved from shrinking further.

I finish the long set of steps, which were somehow carved out of this mountain more than 200 years ago by Buddhist monks. Arriving at a leveled part of the mountain, I see the monk’s temple and surrounding buildings. There are still 15 monks living up here today.

Rising above the nearby coastline, Marble Mountain has a few natural caves, and Khanh and I head into them to explore. Most aren’t much to look at, until I walk into Huyen Khong Cave. Passing through an arch, an old stone sign translates as, “Cave heaven good hell.” Khanh leads on, and we enter the eerie place. Walking deeper into the mountain’s interior, it grows darker. We reach four Buddhist statues guarding an inner entrance, as though they are sentinels. “Two of them are good, two of them evil,” Khanh informs me. In the dim light, all four figures look rather menacing.

Descending further, the cave opens up into a large natural room. There is a bit more light in here. I look upward, and see holes in the cave ceiling, opening into the morning sky. Through the dim light, a large statue of Buddha is barely visible on the far side. Carved right into the cave wall, the statue didn’t always look down on Buddhist monks. In wartime this cave was controlled for years by the Viet Cong.

“In here was VC hospital,” Khanh tells me. Deep inside marble mountain, surrounded by solid rock, this was one of the few places where the guerrillas were reasonably safe from aerial bombing. As a hospital it couldn’t have been very sanitary though, since the cavern is damp, and not well ventilated. For years the Viet Cong occupied these caves, and ran the hospital deep within the mountain. Leaving the cavern, we walk towards the other side of the mountain. Reaching a narrow point of the walkway, we pass through an old stone arch. Looking closer, I see that both sides of the arch are pockmarked with countless bullet holes. This was a scene of a fierce firefight.

A bullet scarred arch marks where a fierce gun battle occurred in 1968
“American soldiers come, fighting here,” Khanh tells me. During the US military build up in Danang in the 1960's, the Americans decided to force the Viet Cong from Marble Mountain. There were heavy casualties in the fight to take this mount, and US troops prevailed. They held the mountain until they departed in the 1970’s.

Walking around the Buddhist temple complex, we enter a hillside garden. I find a sign within, with these notable below words of Buddhist wisdom. Wise words indeed. 

Through all of the conflict over the decades, the Buddhist monks have remained on the mountain, and their rebuilt complex has expanded. The monks were here before the war, during the war, and after the war. Finally, the mountain belongs to them alone. There are old legends that the monks guarded royal gold hoarded in the caves, but it hasn't been found. 

Further ahead, Khanh points to the mountain’s peak, and tells me that US soldiers had a lookout point up there. The marines called this observation post, ‘the Crow’s Nest’.
View looking south along the coast. On this peak US troops had the 'Crow's Nest' lookout post.
“They come on helicopter”, Khanh says. Back then, rather than climb the mountain as we did, the forward observers were picked up and dropped off by air. With my legs weary from the climbing, I’m wishing I had a helicopter right now. But I still have some energy left, so I decide to climb to the top for a look myself. I don’t know it yet, but I’m going to regret it.

I start my way up another staircase, recently installed for visitors like me. Eyeing up the steps, they look very steep, and not particularly safe. Khanh goes ahead, and I start my climb up slowly.

Workmen stare down at me, after the hose burst right in front of me

Up ahead, I hear a jackhammer pounding away, breaking up heavy rock at the top. As I continue my ascent, I pass a noisy air compressor, with a rubber hose running up the steps. Must be for the jackhammer, I think. A few steps on, I pause on the staircase and pull out my camera. That’s when it happens.

POW! There’s an explosion, right in front of me. Then I hear a loud hissing noise. I duck, and cover my head with my arms, managing to not fall backwards down the steep steps. The hissing continues, and I peer briefly between my arms, to see a fantastic sight. The black rubber hose from the air compressor is flailing around wildly, right in front of me, inches from my face. Blowing out steam from the end, it looks like some giant, mad snake, breathing smoke as it fights for its life. Gradually, the hissing quiets down, and the hose finally collapses to the ground.

I catch my breath. That was a very close call. I have just been attacked by a rubber snake.

The workmen above heard the explosion, stopped their work, and are now standing at the edge of the peak, staring down at me. I pause a few moments to gather my thoughts and thank my maker. Then I have a look at what caused the mishap. A poorly fashioned hose connection had ruptured, apparently from a weak clamp. If that clamp or the hose had hit me in the head, I could’ve tumbled right back down the mountain.

I continue the rest of the way to the top, and the workmen continue to just stare at me. There are no apologies. For many Vietnamese, to apologize after a mess like that would have been a loss of face to them. One workman makes a weak attempt at a joke. I don’t laugh.

Looking around the peak, there are chunks of marble lying everywhere, the results of the jackhammer’s work. Apparently the workmen are installing some kind of visitors platform, but at this point there’s nothing but rocks and brush. The workmen return to their mission of attacking the mountain’s marble, this time  with safer hand tools. At least now I don’t have to put up with the noise of their unsafe jackhammer. After regaining my composure, I take in the scenic view of the surrounding coastline. It’s a very commanding view. I take a deep breath, taking it all in. I can see why the Viet Cong had fought so hard to try and keep this mountain, you can easily see for miles in every direction.

Nearby are a few smaller mountains, and at the base of the mountain is a village. Decades ago there were more shacks down there, now it’s a thriving community of rowhouse homes crowded right up to the mountain’s base. Highway 601 cuts between through the village, heading further south of Danang. I had heard about the southern area from my buddy Kenny, the former US marine who was based there in the 60’s. During the war, villages further south were aligned with the VC. When they fought with the marines, many artillery shells fired by both sides never exploded, since they landed in soft sand.

A view of the neighborhood surrounding 'Marble Mountain'
An Australian engineer I met was working on that sandy land now, supervising construction of a new tourist golf course there. When I passed by it on the highway, I saw his bulldozers pushing sand about. I asked him if they had found any unexpoloded munitions while they were digging.

“Loads and loads”, he said. “artillery, rocket propelled grenades, used bullets.”

Talk about a golf hazard.

He told me how some of the Vietnamese construction workers would find this unexploded ordinance, and then play with it. “They would toss it back and forth, and they’d be laughing,” he said. The workers were playing a dangerous game of hot potato. Through some kind of miracle, none of them had been killed. Yet.

To the opposite side of the peak, in the far off haze to the north, is Danang itself.

“There airport,” Khanh says, pointing north up the coast. In the distance, I can make out the runway of the old Marble Mountain Air Facility, built by the US military. Half-cylinder cement hangers are now empty, and the remains of the former American base are now quiet. Part of the base is still polluted with deposits of Agent Orange. It will become prime real estate if it ever gets cleaned up.

Other parts of the old air base however, are already being developed. Next to the ocean, where the base used to have barbed wire fences and guard towers on the beach, I now see huge new hotels under construction. With the need for hotels rising, the base’s beaches weren’t going to remain in the hands of Vietnam's military for very long. The profits of peace are bringing more and more construction into Danang these days.

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