WORTHY ENDEAVOUR

It takes some effort but theres a host of places to take in during a trip to Ban Gioc Waterfall in Cao Bang province bordering China.

By Joe A on June 11,2018 03:42 PM

WORTHY ENDEAVOUR

Photos: Kim Cuong & Thu Ba

Ban Gioc Waterfall would be familiar to anyone who has stepped foot into a tour company in the north of Vietnam. It stands as the sole destination advertised on the northbound road out of Hanoi but it’s considered not sufficiently desirable to book a bumpy, eight-hour bus trip to spend half an hour at a waterfall, no matter how awe-inspiring it may be. It’s even harder to saddle up on a motorbike and drive the 350 km, especially when the resounding advice of local people is it’s ‘too dangerous’. But I’m here as the good angel on your shoulder to tell you that you can do it, and it might be easier than you think.

First, take a moment to think of what you’ll need. I suggest an oil change and mention to the mechanic you’re going to Cao Bang province and he’ll give your bike a look over to put your mind at ease. After your bike is set to go, the only other thing I’d recommend is some rain gear in case you hit some showers before being able to find a café to stop at, of which there are, of course, plenty. Once those two things are in order it’s time to get the show on the road, and that road is National Highway No 3 (Quoc Lo 3).

Unless you have buns of steel, you’re most likely going to want to break the drive up into at least two days each way, but you won’t be sorry since you’ll find more than expected and it’ll put you in the town of Bac Kan the first night. Before you even reach Bac Kan you’ll begin to get a taste of what’s to come. You’ll start the climb and hit the ever-winding road that takes you in and out of rice terraces. Unlike the sprawling rice fields of the valleys, these farms are built onto the sides of the slopes. This form of construction presents itself as stairways of glassy mirrors cascading down the hills. In these farms you won’t find the typical brick and concrete constructed houses, but you will find the unique style of housing called ‘Nha San’, which are houses cleverly built on stilts in preparation of the inevitable floods during the rainy season. You’ll feel far from civilisation, but just around the corner you’ll find a cafe or the all-time local and foreign favourite, ‘bia hoi’, the daily-brewed beer, for an evening drink.

The town of Bac Kan will put you back into the familiar, as it’s an area with all the expected comforts of a city. Along its river road are many street restaurants serving up tasty snails. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as each type of snail has a completely different texture and flavour profile. My favourite was the ‘Finger Snails’, and with a name like that you can’t mistake them. They were hearty and not so strange to a Western palate while still being full of flavour. If you’re sitting on the river you can’t help but notice the colossal mountains rising far above all others and this is when it’s time to plan your detour.

You could even take a day or two off the course to Cao Bang and meander up, up, up until you find yourself in these colossal mountains and you’ll be at Ba Be Lake National Park, home to the country’s largest natural lake and set in a landscape of sharp peaks, dense jungle, and stilt houses. If you stay for the night you’ll have a chance to sleep in one of these stilt houses, which usually includes a home-cooked dinner with the family in the $5 (VND115,000) cost of the room.

Whether or not you decide to stay you can take one of many boats on to the lake for an unforgettable tour. The boat will take you to a few nearby attractions, such as a waterfall and a crystal clear lake, but be sure not to miss the cave. You’ll know which one when you get there, as you could comfortably navigate a commercial airliner through it. It’s ancient waterfalls have calcified into columns the size of skyscrapers, while in some parts the air is filled with the deafening screech of thousands of bats.

WORTHY ENDEAVOUR

On your way back you might notice some strange nests in the trees. Birds? Wasps? No, ants, and once you’re back on dry land talk to one of the local people about where to find a cake made from their eggs - you won’t regret being brave once again for a tasty new experience.

Once you’re finally able to pull yourself away from Ba Be - admittedly no easy task - get ready for another 200 km of some of the most spectacular mountains you could possibly see. Stark cliffs and hanging brush accompany you the rest of the way. These mountains were formed from a Triassic sea bed. As the microscopic creatures in the water died and sank to the bottom, they compacted over millions of years to form a layer of limestone. When that limestone pushed to the surface and then eroded, it became the quintessential Asian karst formations you think of when you picture other famous Vietnamese locations like Halong Bay and Ninh Binh, and you continuously pass through this section for hundreds of kilometres. A quote sometimes attributed to Stalin is ‘Quantity has a quality of its own’, and this sentiment will build in your heart as you wind through peak after peak in the serene mountain air.

Before you reach the waterfalls you’ll come to the city of Cao Bang, another wonderful stop if you’re inclined to stick around. I know quaint mountain towns aren’t for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time here. There were countless adorable cafes and restaurants along one side of the river and a peaceful walk through a banana grove on the other side. If you want to sample some of the local wares visit the wet market for many unfamiliar sights and smells. If you need a hearty breakfast before setting out again, stop into Quan Cay Mit on Vuon Cam Street for the best bún chả north of Hanoi. They’ll serve you a bowl of empty soup with plates of meat, veggies, noodles, spring rolls and all the spicy, sweet, sour and bitter condiments you could want, and then you assemble it all into the soup according to your desired specifications. They had to pull me away from the table kicking and screaming because I couldn’t get enough.

After you pass through Cao Bang you have another 80 km to the border between Vietnam and China, where you’ll also find Ban Gioc Waterfall. Between the town and the falls you’ll have more opportunities to stop at caves or buy goods from local ethnic minorities. Press on past the border crossing road and you’ll come to the falls tourist area. You should expect many others to be there but you’ll still marvel at the raw power of unbridled nature. Even in the low season, when I visited, Ban Gioc leaves you trembling at its magnificence. You’ll notice multiple sequences of falls stacked upon each other so high you can’t even see it all in one view. There will be structures around to climb up so you can reach better vantage points, or you can take a boat to within metres of the falls. The boat also takes you within spitting distance of China, where you can look but don’t touch. But be sure to wave a friendly ‘Ni Hao’ to the people on the other side.

You may need a moment to collect yourself before getting back on the bike, but now you’re ready for the adventure back to Hanoi and make all your friends jealous and pass along all the great advice you picked up along the way.

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