Ban Gioc Waterfall
At the North East extremity of the country, and pushing up hard against the border of China, sits the less travelled province of Cao Bang. Most travelers, venturing into these northern areas of Vietnam, invariably head for the more well-known Sapa area. With its direct rail link Sapa is the more accessible option. However, for those wishing to get off the beaten track in these Northern reaches of Vietnam, Cao Bang is definitely worth sparing a couple of days for.
The main attraction in Cao Bang province is the visually impressive Ban Gioc Falls. Other worthwhile sites are Nguom Ngao Cave and Ho Chi Minh’s base at Pac Bo. There may be other places of interest in the area but the above mentioned three sites appear to be the best outings. For more detailed information please refer to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_B%E1%BA%B1ng_Province
As with all visitations into the Northern Provinces the starting point is Hanoi. Cao bang Township is approximately 290 Km north of Hanoi and transportation options, compared with those available for a journey to Sapa, are somewhat limited. If you’re traveling by motorbike be prepared for long stretches of twisting mountainous road. The only public transport option appears to be an overnight bus – at approx. USD 12 – departing every evening at 8.30 PM from My Dinh bus station. Another, but more expensive, option is to hire a vehicle with a driver for a 3 – 4 day private excursion. In this regard the manager of the Hanoi Hibiscus Hotel – http://www.hanoihibiscushotel.com/ -was a great help in arranging a four wheel drive vehicle and a driver for my four day trip to Cao Bang province. At USD 85 per day it was a lot more expensive than doing it by public transport but the expense was factored out by the time I saved from the driver’s knowledge of the sites I wanted to visit. I didn’t have to waste any time trying to work out travel routes as the driver knew exactly how to get to my intended destinations each day.
Travel time from Hanoi to Cao Bang, allowing for a lunch stop in Lang Son, is approximately 6 – 7 hours. Prior to setting out I booked 3 nights’ accommodation, through Agoda, at the Duc Trung Hotel in Cao Bang Township – www.ductrunghotel.com.vn – and at a touch under USD 50 per night was pleasantly surprised with a large, comfortable room furnished with traditional style Vietnamese ornaments. The town of Cao bang straddles the Song Bang River with the two halves connected by a dual lane bridge. Being off the beaten track somewhat there’s not much of note in the town save for the open market along the southern flank of the river. For more in depth info on Cao Bang Township please refer to: http://wikitravel.org/en/Cao_Bang
As mentioned above the main attractions in the area are as follows:
- Ban Gioc Falls
- Nguom Ngao Cave
- Pac Bo Cave and historical site
- Thang hen lake
I had two full days for sightseeing and with the weather being relatively dry the driver suggested taking advantage of rain free conditions and doing the trip to Ban Gioc Falls, and Nguom Ngao Cave first up.
Day One – Ban Gioc Falls and Nguom Ngao Cave:
Both of these locations are in the same area and approximately 90 – 100 kilometers from Cao Bang Township. Ban Gioc Falls, and it’s associated river, form part of the border with China with the delineation running straight down the middle of the falls’ terraced levels. Ban Gioc also happens to be the world’s fourth largest cross border falls and in the full flow of the rainy season is well worth the effort of getting there. The drive from Cao Bang also happens to be visually impressive with imposing jungle clad limestone peaks providing magnificent scenery during the two hour trip to the falls. As the road twists and winds its way through the spectacular terrain there are plenty of opportunities for landscape shots from some of the roadside view-points. In September the green and yellow carpets of the rice terraces create a nice contrast against the darker green of the surrounding jungle clad escarpments.
The view, when one does eventually arrive at the waterfall site, is something to marvel. The road terminates at a large parking area surrounded by restaurants and in the distance, across the green expanse of the rice fields, the falls stand out majestically in the river valley below. There is a small fee of 20,000 Dong, payable at a checkpoint at the head of the track, before descending into the wide river valley to view the falls. The walk from the car park is approximately 400 meters as the track skirts the rice fields and leads straight to a first, smaller set of falls on the Vietnamese side of the border.
There is actually two sets of falls. The falls to the left are smaller than the main falls and are completely within the Vietnamese side of the border. The main falls, and its associated river, mark the border of Vietnam and China with the delineation apparently right down the center line of the main falls. Whatever the case it is a truly spectacular sight and as you move in for a closer look at the first set of falls – the smaller ones to the left – the spray and mist coming off them can be felt from fifty meters away; such is the flow and power at this time of the year. The track down from the car park meanders around some rice fields, past a row of trinket sellers to eventually end up at the edge of the river and directly in front of the smaller set of falls on the left. There’s a bridge which crosses a stream, where the flow from smaller falls joins the river, and you eventually end up on a narrow strip of land between the two sets of falls. The far side of river is China where Chinese sightseers can be seen boarding rafts for a cruise around the face of the main falls. Raft cruises are also available on the Vietnam side and a thirty minute drift across the width of the main falls can be done for 200K VND = USD 10. This is definitely the best option for getting a closer look at the falls as the walking trail finishes roughly 100 meters back from the face of the falls. It’s an exhilarating trip and as the rafts man slowly poles his craft across the face of the falls the spray coming off the powerful curtains of water provides some cooling relief in the sticky atmosphere. A quite incredible sight during my raft tour was a lone fisherman perched precariously at the top of the first level of the falls. As the raft moved in closer I could see the adventurous fisherman was dressed head to toe in wet weather gear and he seemed to be fairly comfortable in his extreme fishing spot. Through the use of an interpreter I had with me the rafts man told me these adventurous fisherman are from the Chinese side of the falls.
For those keen on photography it’s worth noting the fine mist in the air fogs camera lenses very quickly so camera settings should be done before turning the lens towards the falls. It’s also worth noting, much to the disappointment of many visitors, that swimming is not allowed. Two hours is probably enough time to take it all in and get plenty of good shots before heading back up to the car park. For those who’ve worked up an appetite during their excursion around the falls there’s a couple of restaurants situated right next to the car park providing simple but hearty Vietnamese food.
The second half of my day was a trip to Nguom Ngao Cave. This site is just five kilometers back along the road and a visitation works out to be very convenient in the context of planning your days outing. After viewing the falls first you can visit the cave site on your return to Cao Bang. The cave site is easy to access with a sealed road leading straight to a large parking area surrounded by trinket sellers. On the way to the site the driver had mentioned something about a long climb up an imposing stairway followed by a one kilometer walk to the cave’s entrance. After arriving at the car park I could see he wasn’t kidding; the initial first part of the trek to the cave entrance was up an imposing 300 step flight of stairs. There is an entrance fee of 20k VND (USD 1) payable at a booth just to one side of the stairway. A few minutes later, after a slow steady ascent, I was standing at the top of the stairway and looking down into an amazing green valley with vertical, jungle clad karst formations stretching off into the horizon.
The locals have done an impressive job creating a safe and easy access for sightseers and even though the entrance to the cave was another one kilometer’s walk there was a solid concrete path all the way there. Although still officially the rainy season the weather in September is hot and humid, particularly when the sun is breaks through the scattered cloud cover. Even though the walk to the cave isn’t that far sightseers are well advised to take a bottle of water along for the twenty minute hike to the entrance. After dropping down of the stairway the path makes a bee-line for an imposing limestone formation and as one gets closer the name sign for the cave – Nguom Ngao – can be clearly seen above a small opening in the limestone wall. After a short climb, of a few meters, I was entering the cooling inner world of Nguom Ngao Cave. The cave is well set up for an enjoyable and safe walk with a concrete pathway and plenty of artificial lighting along the one kilometer of tunnels and chambers. The cave, compared to ones I’ve been into in Phong Nga, is small but it’s still visually impressive in its own right with lots of beautiful formations along the course of the traverse. The first sections are fairly narrow but eventually, towards the back end, the cave opens up to an impressive larger chamber. More care is needed in this section as the concrete path terminates and one is required to nimbly pick your way across an undulating limestone floor full of rim pools. Another interesting aspect of the cave is the river which flows to one side of the passageway.
Two hours is probably sufficient time for a thorough inspection of all the formations and passageways in Nguom Ngao Cave. The final series of chambers, just prior to exiting, is the best area of the cave. It’s where the relatively narrow passageway of the initial section gives way to some large chambers filled with impressive formations. One in particular, the “Lotus” formation, is quite beautiful. For those keen on photography a tripod is highly recommended for time exposure shots within the cave. Like all caves the atmosphere within is humid and clammy and eventually you’ll find yourself dripping in perspiration. Exiting into the drier environment of the outside world is a welcome relief.
The trip to Ban Gioc Falls and Nguom Ngao Cave is a full days outing. My total time from departure from Cao Bang until my return was approximately nine hours including traveling time of roughly 4 – 5 hours. All in all this is a great day out and well worth the effort of coming up from Hanoi.
Day Two – Pac Bo historical site:
Also known as Pac Bo Cave this historical site is one of significance in Vietnam’s recent history; it was Ho Chi Minh’s Jungle Base for twenty years after his return from China in 1941. Although pushing right up on the border of China this site, in distance and traveling time, is a lot closer to Cao Bang than Ban Gioc Falls. At a touch over 60 KM’s from Cao Bang a visit to Pac Bo will comfortably fill in half your day when taking into account traveling time and a leisurely exploration of the site. As with the trip to Ban Gioc the drive is one to remember as the road weaves through wide expanses of green rice paddies and more jungle covered peaks.
At roughly just on an hour from leaving Cao Bang the driver was easing the vehicle into the car park at the Pac Bo Site. The car park is positioned along the edge of a pristine river where large schools of freshwater fish can be seen swimming in the clear waters. As with all other sites I’ve visited in Vietnam there was a small entry fee – 20K VND (USD 1) – payable at a booth at the far side of the car park before entering. After paying the fee I pushed through a check point to follow a solid cement pathway, along the edge of the river, leading off into the green peaks in the distance. One of the things I’ve come to admire about the Vietnamese, when it comes to promoting many of their natural tourist sites – such as caves and waterfalls – is the effort they put in to provide safe and comfortable access. As with the traverse through Nguom Ngao Cave the tour through the Pac Bo site involved a reasonable walk (500 meters) to the foot of the limestone peaks. This is also where the river exits from an underground spring to begin its flow in the open. The pathway then ascends up a stairway to two sites of significance. The first one, and closer to the river, is Pac Bo Cave its self. A bit further up – perhaps another 50 vertical meters – is the site where Ho Chi Minh apparently first crossed back into Vietnam, from China, in 1941. The stone and cement stairway ends at a brush covered, level piece of ground. Apparently Ho Chi Minh lived in a small dwelling at the site before moving further down the hill to the cave. Beyond a small, dirt track leads off into the thick jungle of the border belt between Vietnam and China. A placard, in Vietnamese language, nearby proclaimed the historical significance of the site for Vietnam. The silence of this remote jungle location seemed completely at odds with the brutality of war which ravaged this country for so long. I took a couple of shots and then made my way back down the stairway towards Ho Chi Minh’s Cave.
A few minutes later I was entering the coolness of a small cave in amongst the karst formation of the hill side. The local authorities have set up lighting within the cave so the entirety of it is well illuminated. As far as caves go Pac Bo is very small compared with other cave systems I’ve seen in Vietnam. Along the back wall, supported by rocks within the cave, is a large flat board; approximately the size of an average house door. Nearby sits a blackened kettle on a rock fire. According to a placard on the cave wall this was Ho Chi Minh’s living quarters for quite some time. It is totally Spartan; the flat board was his bed. To live in a situation like this for as long as he did speaks of total dedication to a cause and a life of continued hardship. Little wonder he is still greatly revered by most Vietnamese. I took some more shots and then moved out into the jungle again.
I followed the stairway back down to the river to continue the circuit around the Pac Bo Site. The trail comes down one side of the river and returns along the other side. At the point where the trail begins its return leg sits another point of historical significance; the “stone table and chair.” There is a larger and smaller rock formation, side by side, which look remarkably like a table and chair. Both are flat topped and could indeed be used as a table and chair. According to my guide the nearby placard states this was a favoured spot for Ho Chi Minh each morning as he wrote and planned his long march in ridding his country of foreign invaders. The site is obviously revered as it is fenced off with a nearby sign warning visitor’s not to climb the barrier and sit at the table. Further along the trail there is placard commemorating Ho Chi Minh’s long tenure at the site. His dedication to the cause obviously not forgotten.
To be honest there’s not that much to see at the Pac Bo historical site. In terms of a better understanding of the most influential figure in Vietnams history it really doesn’t offer much either. But it is a nice natural location and definitely worth half day of your time.