Tag Archives: vietnam

Ban Gioc Waterfall & Nguom Ngao Cave

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.

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Mountains near the border with China.

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.

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Blue-green pools and vegetation along the banks of the Quay Son River in Cao Bằng Province.

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.

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Ban Gioc Waterfall in dry season.

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.

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Outside the wonderful Nguom Ngao Cave.

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.

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Hanoi, Vietnam

My ten-day* visit to Vietnam began in Hanoi. Upon arrival I noticed a completely different feel from anywhere I’d been before. Heading into the city at night from the airport, it was difficult to get a good view, however, it was quite easy to hear the noises of the metropolis. With roughly eight million people calling Hanoi home, the city is very much alive: talking, shouting, laughing, honking, screeching, music booming and roosters crowing. Even so, I enjoyed my short introduction to Vietnam; meeting other travelers was very easy and visiting alone worked perfectly. The city is full of exceptionally outgoing people and most days I was invited to a beer, dinner or coffee by a total stranger. *I loved my short visit so much that I soon returned for a road trip across the country – an experience I’ll write about soon.

Trying to piece together a vision of Hanoi before visiting was difficult. Easy-to-find information for prospective travelers is, unfortunately, repetitive and covers narrow ground; doing a circuit of war museums, gawking at the famous train street or grabbing bún chả where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined. I also found an appalling amount of “tip” sites exclusively directed at men focused on when and how to pick up drunk or drugged female backpackers or how to buy local women (tourists’ feelings of entitlement in Asia can be extreme and alarming)I filled information gaps with stories and pictures from small travel/personal blogs run by women, travelers living outside the U.S. and Australia, and Vietnamese people traveling their own country. Some of this was found on WordPress but many social media channels were used. After a bit of work I had a simple list of activities and places unique to Hanoi that would get me out and about and getting to see things for myself. In reality, it was challenging to actually follow the plan because of how social other travelers and local people turned out to be. Everyone wanted to chat, hang out, show me something or go exploring. I’m always a concerned while traveling alone that there may be times when I feel lonely or bored but I think it might have been impossible for that to happen in Hanoi.

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Rooftop view.

The first day I simply wandered the streets and alleys stopping when anything delicious came into view (or, as a coffee addict, the aroma of roasting beans hung in the air). Common Vietnamese dishes known to westerners – phở, chả cá, bánh mi, cốm and bún cha are easy to spot, as well as traditional, and all sorts of fusion and foreign eateries, including American fast food. During meal times groups of people just take over the sidewalk, and on occasion the street, with little plastic chairs and tables to sit outside for talking and eating (peoplewatching is top-notch in Hanoi). With so many people around it was fun to ask for recommendations for bars, coffee or snacks. One evening, after speaking with three different groups of people, the same corner was mentioned twice (a noodle stall served there) so I decided to find it. I ended up wandering the same few crowded and noisy blocks for about an hour before finding the place. While I had a big bowl of pho, I talked to the very friendly young lady running things. She laughed after I told her all the trouble that went into finding her place and informed me that Americans sometimes pronounce the Vietnamese word phở as they should for the word “đường phố, which means “street.” Apparently, when I thought I was asking for the nearby pho shop, I sounded like I was asking where the street was.

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Egg coffee and pho.

Getting around the city, even on foot, was an adventure in some of the busier neighborhoods. Nicer motorbikes and cars get parked on any empty patch of sidewalk available and people often converge on curbs and street side restaurants during meal times or just drink in hand, pushing walking traffic into the roadway. From the little alleys to main thoroughfares, everything turns into a gridlocked mess in the evening and traffic looked heavy most of the time. In the French Quarter the madness sometimes worked in my favor, allowing me to slowly walk into what looked like a parking lot and push through. When things weren’t jammed, I watched amazed at how effortlessly Vietnamese drivers just flow through the streets on scooters like a school of fish. They can avoid bicyclists, snail-paced walkers, buses, and opposite traffic even in nightmarish seven-way intersections; I don’t know how it’s possible. Although the tourist area is compact and very walkable, when it made sense to use wheels I found rides on the ride share app Grab – this way I didn’t have to haggle or negotiate a fare. (After Thailand, I never want to haggle again. Ever.) Buses were great for longer trips, though I was very dependent on my hosts to locate the correct pick up spot.

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The long history of the Vietnamese capital, and the almost constant attempts by outsiders to influence and control the country going back millennia, can be read through examining the architecture and layout; Taoist temples and other remnants from Chinese rule, French colonial buildings and related Haussamannization, the modernist-Soviet style monuments and squares, Vietnamese flags in every public place, pro-state propaganda with military imagery, run-of-the-mill modern office buildings, hip eateries and luxury apartment complexes are all mixed together. Going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was interesting as well as visiting historically and politically significant places; seeing how the Vietnamese state defines itself verses the American-approved narrative of Vietnam’s history is illuminating and will be interpreted by each foreign visitor differently. It’s useful to seek out these different visual representations of some elements of modern Vietnamese life. However, the distinct atmosphere and many essential features of the culture will elude travelers that stick to museums and monuments; you will get a much more thorough feel for the city if you can ditch the tours and guides and get out into real life.

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Temple of Literature & National University, originally built as a university in 1070 CE and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This temple is also  on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

Many aspects of life in Hanoi are very modern yet in many places the people face clear development issues. To a visitor on the street sanitation and infrastructure challenges are apparent. Hanoi air is usually of poor quality and it can really knock you on your ass if you are fortunate enough to have lived your life in a place with very clean air – I noticed travel forums and bloggers mentioned this frequently – be prepared, should you visit. Even though I was warned about public health problems and tried my best to take care of myself, after just three days I was struck with both pink eye and a respiratory infection. I will say, treating my conditions was easy with basic pharmacies all over the city, and exceptionally cheap while effective medications. Looking and sounding a bit ghoulish made it harder to make new friends but didn’t get in the way of enjoying the city – no grudge held!

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The fans!

On my final day in Hanoi, the Vietnamese men’s football team played in the Championship match for the AFC U-23 tournament. That morning the city erupted into a football frenzy with people driving slowly down the streets, blasting music, waving flags and wearing all kinds of red and yellow decorations, creating an infectious excitement. By afternoon televisions and radios had been rounded up and brought into any and all bars and cafes for public viewings of the match. Not wanting to miss out on watching, I ducked into a packed coffee house to watch the first half of the game among many families and children. During the half break I ran to a main street and found a bar with three huge screens outside and about 200 views jammed around little plastic tables covered with beer glasses and plates of food. Viewers even spread out into the road with a small clearing for delivery drivers, taxis, policemen and other people at work who wanted to pull over for a game update. Everyone was in a good mood and I was immediately offered a spot to sit with a group of strangers. My new friends didn’t hesitate to keep my beer glass full and filled me in on the team so much as language barriers would allow. As the game progressed the crowd erupted into different cheers and songs in several languages. Even though Vietnam would lose the match to Uzbekistan, it was some of the most fun I’ve had watching football and was yet another personal experience hinged on the friendliness and welcoming attitude Vietnamese people show towards visitors.

After the game I would catch an overnight bus to Cao Bằng, to the north, for a lovely few days exploring the rugged nature along the border with China.

Thanks for reading!