After spending almost a week in Hanoi I headed to Cao Bằng city in Northern Vietnam. Part of Cao Bằng Province, which lies along the mountainous border with China, the city is a great base for exploring the dramatic geography and karst landscape of the region. I visited specifically to observe the nature and during my visit would take one of my favorite nature walks of all time around Ban Gioc Waterfall and through the Ngoum Ngao Cave system.
My night bus from Hanoi was way ahead of schedule and I arrived in Cao Bằng city at about 5 a.m. Marching the darkness from the main bus station to my lodging Primrose Guesthouse, I began wishing I’d booked a later bus. Not only was I visiting during the winter dry season, it was also during a particularly cold January for all of Northern Vietnam so I was not looking forward to waiting outside until opening time. At 7 a.m. sharp the guesthouse owner pulled up the screeching metal doors to let me inside. Although the room was not yet available to store my things, I was led to a comfortable couch in the foyer with several blankets where I could catch up on sleep before formally checking in. Once feeling cozy, I fell quickly asleep, not waking until around 11 a.m. As I checked in my host asked me what I wished to see and do in the area. I responded by saying I came to see Ban Gioc Waterfall, and at that he grabbed me by the arm and whisked me out the door and onto a moped while explaining that the last morning bus would soon be departing towards the waterfall and he could get me to the station just in time to catch it. I went without question, deciding to just go with the flow and see where it would bring me. I did want to see the waterfall after all and had a few hundred thousand Dong in my pocket and a mini backpack with a full water bottle and rain gear. We arrived to the station in time and I boarded a mini bus full of local people. I paid a round trip fare for the 90 kilometer ride (about 4 USD and I believe I paid the “tourist” fare).
It took two hours with the road climbing steadily higher into the gorgeous karst landscape of Cao Bằng Province towards the Quay Son River. Although it was just a local bus used by regular people to go about their lives, for me it felt like a special nature tour. The views from my seat were really amazing and not just because of the hills and rocky peaks but the small towns and farms along the way. I had spent a week in Hanoi, home to around 8 million people and now was curious to see the rural, calmer areas of Vietnam.
Ban Gioc is located at the end of the bus line and when I exited I noticed an emptiness. Although it was the winter dry season I expected more traffic at this well known nature site. There were no big tour buses and only a handful of people making their way either in or out of the gates. I could clearly hear the roaring water but was still not able to see the river. After paying the 40,000 Dong entry fee (about 1.5 USD) I walked down a dirt path through a series of wooden stalls filled with souvenirs and packaged snacks. Once out on the open bank I could see the 30 meter waterfall (technically it’s two that sometimes combine streams in rainy season). I wandered over to a raised area set between the two flows for around an hour enjoying the colorful surroundings. One of the two waterfalls had slowed to a trickle and thick vegetation grew on the rocky bed in every shade of blue and green. Even though the sky was overcast the water was beautifully colored.
After leaving the falls, I began walking 4 kilometers to Nguom Ngao Cave, or, Tiger Cave. The route is by no means a hiking path and simply followed the shoulder of the highway going West, the direct back to Cao Bằng city. The stretch of road was not especially scenic but the overcast sky created a mood somehow unique and beautiful. After about 2 kilometers a road branched off to the South, with multiple signs indicating the entrance to the cave. I assumed there would be a trickle of visitors flowing to and from the cave that I could follow but again, it was an empty road. The cool, misty air gave the valley a bit of a creepy feeling and made me question whether I was headed in the right direction but after about 15 minutes I arrived at the entrance gate. My ticket cost 45,000 Dong (2 USD) bringing my total cost for the day tip to less than $10.
Formed by an underground river, and weathered by rain and wind, Nguom Ngao (Động Ngườm Ngao) is home to stunning and sparkling stalactites and stalagmites formed by the interaction between the limestone mountains and water over time. About 1 kilometer of the cave is open to the public and it sometimes felt like it would go on forever. The system is a very comfortable temperature, and I felt significantly warmer than I has outside. The smooth surface of the pathway was sometimes slippery and a few chambers required me to bend down to get inside (and I am a very short person). I didn’t mind being inside almost totally alone but I got the feeling some people might find the environment claustrophobic. My biggest fear in life is snakes so I had been on high alert for part of the day and I admit it was very unnecessary with the cold weather. However, I would have preferred to have other tourists around me more often. I took my time walking all the routes to see the formations from various angles. I had arrived about an hour before the closing time, so I made sure to keep my visit within that time frame. The most interesting formations came in the final third of the walk. I took a couple shots of the Silver Tree and Lotus but didn’t do much picture taking – the lighting in the cave didn’t photograph well and it felt better to just enjoy what I was seeing in the moment verses trying to document it. Looking back I am really glad I hadn’t seen photos of the inside prior to the visit so the formations were surprising.
The ride back to Cao Bằng was a little tricky; to reach the falls, I simply rode to the “end of the line” but hadn’t noticed any official bus stops along the way. I wasn’t sure if I could just flag the bus down or needed to locate a specific pick up point in order to board. My host had explained the basic timetable and with it being the winter low season there were very few buses running taking away the chance I would end up on the wrong bus. I barely made it to the highway in time to manically wave my arms and get the driver’s attention. I was asked to take my rainy shoes shoes off (this is normal in north Vietnam to keep the floors clean) and shown a seat next to the driver who insisted I share in his sunflower seeds and chips during the ride. I was pretty happy about this since I hadn’t eaten in a bout 20 hours time and was running off just knockoff Red Bull purchased at the falls and bottled water. Outside a cold rain fell onto the windshield while I watched the countryside go by in comfort and I really enjoyed just observing the karst hills and farms along the way.
In total I walked about 8 km including the cave system and around the falls area. If I had started my day earlier I would have visited Truc Lam Phat Tich Pagoda Pass, very close to the waterfall. This trip is very affordable and easy if you make time for a conversation with your guesthouse host to discuss buses and get their input on any little side things to see along the way. The bus system is not confusing but the language barrier may make fixing an error on the fly very challenging. Dress for the weather and wear good walking or hiking shoes. I recommend bringing your own food in wintertime.
I spent about 5 weeks in Vietnam during my travels and the day I visited Ban Gioc Waterfall & Nguom Ngao Cave was one of the most memorable. The landscape made a big impression on me and I would love to come back one day for a more thorough visit of Cao Bằng Province.