Thang Hen Lake
This is a large lake that can be visited year-round; however, what you get to see varies according to the seasons. During the rainy season, from about May to September, 36 lakes in the area are separated by convoluted rock formations. In the dry season, most of the lakes – except Thang Hien itself – are dry. However, during this time of year the lake level drops low enough to reveal a large cave, which can be explored by bamboo raft; that is, if you can locate anyone at all in the vicinity to ask. There are opportunities for good day walks throughout this area, but you’ll need a local guide; ask the staff at your hotel in Cao bang to help.
As yet there are no restaurants or hotels at Thang Hen; nor is there any public transport. To get here from Cao bang, drive 20km to the top of Ma Phuc Pass. From there carry on for 1km to the fork in the highway – take the left branch and go another 4km.
Hang Pac Bo
Hang Pac Bo (Water-Wheel Cave) is just 3km from the Chinese border. The cave and the surrounding area is sacred ground for Vietnamese revolutionaries. Here, on 28 January 1941, Ho Chi Minh re-entered Vietnam after living abroad for 30 years. His purpose in returing was to lead the revolution that he had long been planning.
Ho Chi Minh lived in this cave, writing poetry while waiting for WWII to end. The reason for remaining so close to China was to allow him to flee across the border if French soldiers discovered his hiding place. He named the stream in fornt of his cave Lenin Creek and a nearby mountain Karl Marx Peak.
There’s an Uncle Ho museum (admission free; open 7.30am-11.30am & 1.30pm-4.30pm daily) at the entrance to the pac Bo area. About 2km beyond this is a parking area.
The cave is a 10-minute walk away, and a jungle hut, which was another of Ho’s hide-outs, is about 15 minutes’ walk in the opposite direction, across a paddy field and in a patch of forest. On the way to the hut is a rock outcrop used as a ‘deal-letter box’. Where he would leave and pick up messages. It’s a lovely, quiet spot and presently almost wholly undeveloped.
Hang Pac Bo is about 60km northwest of Cao Bang; allow three hours to make the return trip by road, plus 11/2 hours to poke around. To do this as a return half-day trip by xe om, expect to pay around US$10. No permits are currently needed, despite the proximity to the Chinese border.
Ban Gioc Waterfall
This scenic spot, on the border with China, sees very few visitors. The name Ban gioc is derived from the Montagnard languages spoken in the area, and is sometimes spelt Ban Doc.
The waterfall is the largest, although not the highest, in the country. The vertical drop is 53m, but it has an impressive 300m span; one end of the falls is in China, the other is in Vietnam. The water volume varies considerably between the dry and rainy seasons: the falls are most impressive from May to September, but swimming during this period in the waterholes below may be difficult due to turbulence. The falls have three levels. Creating a sort of giant staircase, and there’s enough water any time, most years, to make the trip worthwhile. Half the pleasure of the visit is walking across paddy fields to reach the base of the falls.
The falls are fed by the Quay Son River. An invisible line halfway across the river marks the border, and rafts (30,000d) pole out the few metres to exactly the halfway mark – and no further! – from each side. There’s been some development of tourist facilities on the Chinese side in recent years, as you’ll see, but almost nothing except a bamboo footbridge and a couple of bamboo rafts on the Vietnamese side.
There is no official border checkpoint there, but a police permit is needed to visit – you cannot simply rent a motorbike and go there on your own. The permit is officially US$10, but hotels in Cao Bang will do the paperwork for between 100,000d and 200,000d. Let them do it – it’s much less police station. About 10km before the falls you show your permit – and leave your passport – at a roadside checkpoint. When you arrive at the parking area at the falls, you leave your permit with an official there. You collect each from the same place on return. It was all very straightforward at the time of writing, but be prepared for changes to the regulations.
Nguom Ngao Cave The main entrance to this cave (admission & guide 50,000d) is 2km from Ban Gioc Waterfall, just off the road to Cao Bang. The cave is enormous (about 3km long) and one branch reaches almost all the way to the waterfalls, where there is a ‘secret’ entrance. Normally a guided tour will take about an hour and will only go about 400m into the cave; ask if you want to see more. The price remains the same, and a full tour takes about two hours. Mains electricity is due to be installed, but it’s probably sensible to take a torch (flashlight).
Places to Stay & Eat At the time of writing, there were no hotels on the Vietnamese side of the border. Cao Bang is the nearest real option for accommodation, though it may be possible to get a very basic bed at the People’s Committee Guesthouse (Nha Khach UBND) in Trung Khanh.
There is limited food available in Trung Khanh, and nothing at all in Ban Gioc. You’d be wise to prepare at least a picnic lunch for the trip to the waterfall and caves.
Getting There & Away The road between Cao Bang and Ban Gioc via Quang Yen is in good nick, and is presently fine for 2WD. The 78km trip will take you about 2 ½ hours each way; it’s mountainous and winding and very beautiful. If you take the loop route to and from the falls, the section between Tra Linh and Trung Khanh is still very bumpy, and 4WD is recommended for this stretch, especially after rain. There is public transport between Cao Bang and Trung Khanh but nothing beyond that; you may be able to negotiate for a xe om (in Trung Khanh) to take you to the falls.
In Cao Bang province, Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) are a distinct minority. The largest ethnic groups are the Tay (46%), Nung (32%), H’mong (8%), Dzao (7%), Kinh (5%) and Lolo (1%). Intermarriage, mass education and ‘modern’ clothing is gradually eroding tribal and cultural distinctions. Check out Tim Doling’s book Mountains and Ethnic Minorities: North East Vietnam for detailed acounts of tribal people in the region. It’s available from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and most bookshops in Hanoi.
Most of Cao bang’s Montagnards remain blissbully naïve about the ways of the outside world. Cheating in the marketplace, for example, is virtually unknown and even tourists are charged the same price as locals without bargaining, Whether or not this innocence can withstand the onslaught of even limited tourism remains to be seen.
The following big Montagnard markets in Cao Bang province are held every five days, according to lunar calendar dates.
Trung Khanh 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th and 30th day of each lunar month
Tra Linh 4th, 9th, 14th, 19th, 24th and 29th day of each lunar month
Nuoc hai 1st, 6th, 11th,16th, 21st and 26th day of each lunar month
Na Giang 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th day of each lunar month. Held 20km from Hang Pac Bo in the direction of Cao bang, and attracting Tay, Nung, and H’mong, this one of the best and busiest markets in the provinces