“Am Phu” named by King Minh Mang when he was visiting Thuy Son Mount is one of the biggest and most beautiful caves of the cluster of the Five Marble Mountains. Based on Yin – Yang Theory to name all caves and other places on this mount, he called this cave “The Hell cave” because he found the way to underground at the foot of mountain –“Am Phu cave” and another way to the Heaven on the top of mountain -“Van Thong cave”. The Cave “Am Phu” is also attached with the stories of King Ming Mang. The story said that one time King Minh Mang visited the cave and had soldiers with torches go down the cave’s well to explore it, but after twelve torches were extinguished, none reached the bottom. Later, the King threw a pomelo with some scripts into the cave’s well. The next day it was found on the seashore, and it was learnt that Am Phu cave is connected to the sea.
The formation of the mountain inspired the name. According to the theory, there always exist two contrastive aspects of everything in universe: Night and Day, Life and Death, Earth and Sky, Female and Male, etc. Following the name, the formation of the mountain, People with diversified imagination colored the story of the Hell World, and the belief of the continuousness after Death by art-works in various kinds of marble in this cave.
There are six invisible places of mindfulness (so called “Luc Dao Tam Do”): Thien Nhon – A Tu La – Dia Nguc – Ngoa Quy – Suc Sanh. Following Buddhism philosophy, the life after death is continuous in the Hell World and does not stop and spirit of human-being is existence in another world of mindfulness. A person who does good things much more than bad ones will be quickly transferred to another world and recycle his/her life and vice versa.
Before entering the cave, visitors can see two saints representative for two aspects of life standing at both sides of the gate, “Thien” and “Ac”. Their missions are strictly guarding the cave and controlling all souls getting in and out the hell world when crossing “Nai Ha” river by the “Yin Yang” bridge.
In the hell world, after death, one soul leaves his/her human body and the soul must pass through Nai Ha River by Yin-Yang Bridge. The river Nai Ha with dark wateris divided into two parts, Life and Death; and it has lots of river monsters, snakes, crocodiles, and fearful creatures. The two saints “Long Than, Ho Phap” will take one’s soul past the river smoothly and peacefully if he/she does good things much more than bad ones when alive and reverse, he/she will be pushed to the river for monster’s food.
Not like usual bridges with the shape flat or cambered, the shape of Nai Ha Bridge is harshly sagged. The twelve columns with twelve animals on the top is representative for twelve –year cycle and everyone with their zodiac must pass over this river. On the surface of the bridge there are several circle nets with the central point symbolizing for heaven- nets. Its meaning is that deceitfulness is exposed even though you try to hide it. Yin Yang Bridge and Nai Ha River are products of man’s imagination to generally describe the hell world which is not only of ghosts and devils but also saints and sages.
The two 2 meters high candles in white are on the top of the stair when crossing the bridge. According to the oriental philosophy, the white candle is lit when someone dies and its light peacefully takes their souls to the other world.
On the wall of the wet, deep, cool, and dark tunnel, there are two saints, “Ta Ty” and “Huu Ty” directly carved on it. Their mission is to identify the souls of dead people by the name on a list and the light of torch and transfer them to “Phan Quan” (the judge).
After passing the tunnel, visitors will see the ancestral tablet 4 meters high and 2.2 meters wide, which is the biggest one carved directly on the wall, with three Vietnamese ancient characters “Anh Linh Dai” (Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Altar) and with various sophisticated engraved patterns to the memory of all heroes, martyrs, and previous generations around Vietnam who sacrificed for our country. A 1.5 meter -high urn with the diameter of 0.8 meter, which is made of sand stone with image of “Trong Dong Ngoc Lu” (Ngoc Lu bronze drum), the symbol of Vietnam culture, is in front of the altar.
On the right of Anh Linh Dai Altar is a memorial stone stele for heroes, and martyrs who fought and sacrificed in the cave, especially the combat of five heroes “Ngu Hanh”. The cave is also a place where the heroic combats of people and soldiers in Ngu Hanh Son District, the combat with bravely sacrificed soldiers on 24/8/1968. One hundred and sixty enemy soldiers, one helicopter, and two tanks of M113 were destroyed on this time. The Vietnamese Government had given a medal of feat order and conferred a title “The Heroes of Ngu Hanh Son” on five members of this combat after the win.
Located behind of Anh Linh Dai altar, Giai oan Stream is a magical stream, which connects the souls of dead people to alive ones, flowing to a place called “Tam”-“Spirit”, where sins of souls are erased. Following the belief of oriental people in general and Vietnamese in particular, the phrase “Tu Gia Biet Luan” means that all jealousy and hatred are cleared by this stream after death. Being alive, people give to each other bad words or harmful actions when one dies those still alive forgive all things. It shows humanity, forgiveness of human.
In the world of the death, there are two ways for souls to go forward. The way to heaven is for souls to complete great achievements for their country during their time alive (for example, King Tran Hung Dao, the saint “Thanh Giong”) and the other way is down to the nine stages of hell for sinful souls. It is difficult for visitors to climb up to Paradise (the way to heaven) because of the narrow rough path. The scene of heaven appears little by little with fairies riding cranes and playing flute, and dream-like scenes with male fairies, saints and Lady Buddha riding a dragon.
After crossing Anh Linh Dai altar, visitors will see a spacious area with the two parts, Phan Quan Dien (The Court of Judgement) and Minh Vuong Dien (The Court of The Hell Kings). Phan Quan deity uses a brush-pen to note the documentary facts, both bad and good, and based on these records he evaluates a sinner's acts and then decides the level of punishment for them. The judgement balance in front of Phan Quan deity reminds man he should do good things because all bad things are always detected by supernatural power.
“Ceiling of Heaven is so vast but it is difficult for things to be gone by unnoticed.”
Minh Vuong Dien or Thap Dien Minh Vuong (The Courts of The Hell Kings) is opposite to Phan Quan Dien. It consists of ten kings of hell in charge of controlling ten stages of punishment:
Following the Theory of Buddhism, sinful souls are sent to their stages depending on their sins. Therefore, there is a custom of memorial for recently deceased people, the cult of 7 days, 49 days, and one year is actually a form to cult ten kings of hell and wish sinful souls out of this world as soon as possible. “Kinh Gian Dai” in front of the ten kings of hell has an eye shape with the burning- shaped circle around and the magical mirror in the center. Sinners cannot deny their sins because all of those will appear on the mirror when the sinful souls are in front of it.
The marble statues of Phan Quan and ten kings of hell in the dim light and miraculous cave as well as the stories of them have the impression of humanity and educational meaning. They remind us that we should be careful before we decide to do something to avoid their bad results and potential evil inside our minds.
The section of Dia Tang Bao Toa (Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva throne) is at the back of the cave and connected with the top of mountain by a big vent which supplies the light for the whole cave. Known as the bodhisattva of hell-beings, with a crosier on his hand Dia Tang Bo Tac (Ksitigarbha) is sitting solemnly on the lotus. He takes the responsibility for all things here, the hell world and also has a vow not to achieve Buddha hood until all sinful souls in the hell are emptied.
Next to Dia Tang Bao Toa, there is the way to A Ty Purgatory (purgatory of endless punishment) which is the deepest place of the hell and just for the worst sins. People said that Mrs. Thanh De (Mr. Muc Kien lien’s mother) was sent to A Ty purgatory because of her worst sins. Muc Kien Lien was one of the Śhakyamuni Buddha's closest disciples. His mother was being punished in the hell and as he loved her very much, he many times went down to the hell to find her and give her a bowl of rice. Eventually, he felt sorrowful when seeing she could not eat rice with burning fire and then turned back to see Buddha for advice. Buddha said that no matter how magically powerful he is, he could not save his mother. Only if he calls for all monks on earth to pray for his mother on the full moon day of the seventh lunar month, will he save her, that is also the reason why Vu Lan festival (showing gratefulness to parents) is held on that day.
By this story, the word “Filialness” is highly appreciated because showing the gratefulness to parents is the best feature in Buddhism as well as Vietnamese families.
In summary, the legend of Am Phu cave is full of man’s imagination to teach us how to live in a moral way and to keep our minds peaceful. This story is also a lesson of Kamar to remind mankind to better one’s life for happiness of the world as well as themselves.
The Management Board of Ngu Hanh Son Tourist Area