Though not as famous as Sa Pa or Ha Giang, the northeastern province Cao Bang on the border with China offers an escape from vacationing mobs.
1. Pac Bo Cave
Pac Bo Cave (also known as Coc Bo) is named after a small village in Cao Bang Province that served as Uncle Ho’s (President Ho Chi Minh) residence in the winter of 1941 following his return after 30 years in exile. It has become a popular tourist attraction with the Ho Chi Minh Shrine, Lenin Creek and Karl Marx Peak.
In 1941 Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam and lived in Coc Bo Cave for seven weeks before moving on to avoid detection.
The first thing that catches the eyes of visitors is the turquoise water of the famous Lenin Creek with the signboard: “Uncle Ho used to sit here fishing after work (1941).”
Swimming is strictly forbidden in Lenin Creek as it is sacred to the Vietnamese.
2. Non Nuoc Cao Bang geopark
Non Nuoc Cao Bang, founded in 2015, covers 3,000 square kilometers. Its collection of fossil, sediment, volcanic rocks and karst landscape is believed to illustrate 500 million years of the earth’s history.
Once a remote and lesser-known destination on global tourism map, Non Nuoc Cao Bang catapulted to global fame since it was declared a new global geopark by UNESCO last year, making it the second of its kind in the country after Dong Van Plateau in Ha Giang Province.
With 90 percent of mountainous terrain, the area is inhabited by nine different ethnic minority groups, including Nung, Tay, Mong, Dao and San Chay.
Non Nuoc Cao Bang among world’s most beautiful geoparks
3. Ban Gioc Waterfall
Ban Gioc, which straddles the border 30 kilometers from the central market of Cao Bang’s Trung Khanh District, is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia and the world’s fourth largest along a national border after Iguazu, Victoria and Niagara.
The waterfall is 53 meters high and 300 meters wide and has three levels of smaller waterfalls.
There is a small sloping path to the waterfall. Buses with a seating capacity of 25 or less travel down the path while bigger ones drop their passengers off at a parking lot at the Vietnam border station for them to walk down.
Situated around 340 kilometers (225 miles) to the north of Hanoi, Ban Gioc is still a relatively uncrowded gem. The waterfall can be visited at any time of year, but the best time is said to be September-October when the summer rains that feed the falls are less frequent and the harvest is in full swing.
Swimming is banned here, but there are bamboo rafts that take tourists to the very edge of the fall for around VND50,000 ($2.2) per person.
The waterfall is part of the UNESCO-recognized Non Nuoc Cao Bang geopark. Last April Microsoft’s MSN network included Ban Gioc in its list of 15 most charming cascades in the world.
Discover Tour Babe Lake – Ban Gioc Waterfall – Pac bo cave
4. Thang Hen Lake
Thang Hen is 30 km north of Cao Bang Town, but since the road to get there is twisting, it can take around an hour to get there.
The Thang Hen Lake is made up of 36 smaller lakes that are all connected through caves and underground passageways.
During the dry season the water level drops, showing the 36 distinct lakes. The best time to visit is the monsoon season (from May to October) when the water level rises and links all of them into one big lake 3 km long and 1 km wide.
Unlike other lakes that turn brown during the rainy season, Thang Hen stays blue all year round since it is fed by clear pure water from a cave above it.
5. Nguom Ngao Cave
Three kilometers from the Ban Gioc Waterfall lies Nguom Ngao, a stunning cave with stalactites in various shapes and sizes.
Created by an underground river, it runs several kilometers underground where villagers sheltered during the country’s 1979 border war with China.
It takes around one hour to walk through Nguom Ngao. Locals discovered the cave in 1921, but it was not opened to tourists until 2006 when paths were built for visitors to walk inside the cave.
In the language of Tay ethnic minority group, “Nguom Ngao” means tiger cave. It is believed that this cave used to be a habitat for tigers, hence the name.
Based on data published by the British Caving Association in 1995, Nguom Ngao has the total length of 2,144 meters with three main entrances and thousands of caverns. Inside is a collection of tiny limestone cliffs and unique stalactites that took millions of years to form.
6. Phat Tich Truc Lam Pagoda
Phat Tich Truc Lam Ban Gioc was the first pagoda to be built in the country’s northern frontier on Phia Nhu Mountain, around 500 meters from Ban Gioc Waterfall. From the pagoda, you can see the entire waterfall and the golden rice terraces below.
7. Phia Thap incense making village
The incense making craft of the Nung ethnic minority people in Phia Thap Village, Quang Uyen District has a long history. Though no one knows for sure who began this, incense making has been passed down from generation to generation, and has become a main source of livelihood for the villagers.
Phia Thap incense is made entirely from natural materials, including bamboo, the bark of the cotton tree and sawdust and the leaves of a wild tree named “bau hat” to make the glue for bonding the materials together.
Hoang Van Ut, a local, said after drying the sticks his family would dye their bottom red and tie into bundles to sell in mountain markets. Visitors can buy them for VND10,000 ($0.43) for three bundles.
Making incense sticks not only brings an income but also helps preserve a traditional craft of the Nung ethnic people. Vietnamese have a long-standing tradition of burning joss sticks to their ancestors at home and to gods at temples and pagodas during the Lunar New Year, or Tet, and other important festivals.
How to travel to Cao Bang
Between October and April is the best time of the year for a trip to Cao Bang Province, 280 km northeast of Hanoi, as the terraced rice fields turn yellow, buckwheat flowers bloom and Ban Gioc Waterfall is at its most spectacular.
You can book a ticket for VND200,000 ($9) at My Dinh Coach Station for an overnight bus that leaves Hanoi at 10 p.m. and arrives in Cao Bang Town at 5 a.m. In Cao Bang you can hire motorbikes at the many homestays and hotels for around VND150,000 per day.