Why Visit Cao Bang and Ban Gioc?
Vietnams Northern region has been one of the most beautiful regions we've seen during our five months in Vietnam. Cao Bang and Ban Gioc are located near the border with China and it was an area I wasn't even sure we'd be allowed to visit. I'm glad we made the journey out because the falls and the scenery was totally worth it. The falls exceeded our expectations and there was more to Cao Bang than we knew. We were very happy we chose to stay four nights instead of the usual one or two!
Where we stayed
We stayed in a lovely homestay called Gia Bao Homestay (click here to see it on Agoda) and we didn't need to venture into the town. The hosts here are very welcoming which made us feel at home. The only thing you need to know is the beds were really hard, but this is Vietnam, and I still think you should stay here (even if it's only for two nights).
We arrived tired and hungry around 8pm, but we didn't have to wait long for a meal before bed. The dinner menu is a bit of a surprise each day, you simply pay per head and she makes it. I think the food was the best value for money we've had the whole time we have been in Vietnam. It was very tasty and there was so much of it!
Cao Bang Town
We didn't see too much of Cao Bang town, except for the half hour when I accidently routed us into the busy town area with the motorbikes (nothing like Saigon or Hanoi, I promise). I was having a moment parked on the wrong side of a very busy street (busy for me on a bike) repeating "I can't do this, I can't do this" while my lovely daughter was telling me, "Yes you can, you can do this mum". Thank goodness for my daughter. I can't tell you a lot about the town, but I do know there is a market, and it's not too big or busy.
The Local Bus from Cao Bang to Ban Gioc
Our hosts showed us how to catch the public bus from Cao Bang to Ban Gioc - the stop was just across the road. When you look at this route on the map, it's only 83kms. It doesn't seem far, but with the roads and on a bus, the trip takes 2.5-3 hours each way. It's worth getting up early for a good day out!
The bus ride itself was a highlight of our time in Vietnam. We weren't too sure about boarding the bus. When it pulled up, it was already filled with people, we knew it was a three hour ride and we definitely didn't want to stand the whole way. I asked the lady if we would be able to sit down soon, she nodded and waved us on. Scattered through the bus, under the seats and up against the back walls were all sorts of packages. As we started, we realised, this isn't just a bus, it's also the local delivery service.
The trip is slow with lots of stops. The kids didn't take their motion sickness pills for this part of the journey and they all survived both directions. The falls themselves were truly beautiful, the best we've ever seen (but we are only at the start of our world adventure). It made the difficult journey totally worth it.
Ban Gioc Falls
Ban Gioc Falls are also known as Detian Falls and in the centre of the falls is the border between Vietnam and China. I haven't travelled the world searching for impressive waterfalls, but when I see a waterfall on a Google Map, I'm usually up for an adventure. These falls were the most spectacular I've seen, they definitely didn't disappoint (unlike most of our waterfall hunts back in NSW, Australia).
There are two sections of falls on the Vietnam side. Both are lovely. We posed for some photos on the rocks under the falls on the Vietnam side. Rimaha and Elijah got in to get some photos, but the security guy told them to get out. They ended up swimming further downstream with a lovely backdrop.
At the falls, you can borrow a horse for some photos and there is a boat that takes you out into the river. You may even float over the border. During non-Covid times, there are usually many boats in the river. I read on another blog somewhere that you can often shake the hands of tourists from the other country in the middle of the river. There were no boats running and not many tourists either, so we stayed on the land.
When to Visit the falls
I think you can happily go at any time of the year. I've read some blog posts that say don't go during the summer because of the rainy season. We were there in the middle of July, and it was stunning. I read that there is a dam and the gates are opened around 10am to midday each day. We arrived around midday. I couldn't tell you if the gates were still open or closed at that time.
Other Not to Be Missed Sites Around the Area
Most people only stay one or two nights in Cao Bang to see Ban Gioc, but if you're going all the way out there, you might as well stop by one of the most beautiful spots in Vietnam. Angel Eye Mountain (AKA Nam Tra Waterfall) is about 20kms out of the Cao Bang town and it was breathtaking. We all gasped as we came around the corner. You don't need to spend a lot of time in this place, but it is well worth calling in for a look.
To do this you will need to rent a bike or get someone to take you out on a motorbike. During Covid, this was really quiet, so I felt comfortable to do this trip. It's not something I'd recommend self-driving if it's busy and you don't feel confident.
Getting from Hanoi to Cao Bang and Ban Gioc
This place isn't the easiest place to get to. After visiting Sa Pa in June and having a nightmare trip back to Hanoi (winding roads, speeding drivers and a car sick daughter), the decision to travel out to Cao Bang and Ban Gioc was a difficult one. I was very unsure if I wanted to take the 6 hour trip over winding roads to Cao Bang, but I also felt like visiting the Ban Gioc Falls would be worth it... It was.
We made the decision to book a private car out to Cao Bang. The car ride was as awful as I'd imagined. Maybe even worse, although far less scary. We ended up taking the snake road, which I had thought we'd probably miss, and it was really awful. The final 100kms (maybe a tiny bit more) took about three hours with plenty of hairpins and not many (if any) straight stretches. I'd given my daughter motion sickness pills as she suffers on the winding roads, but my other two children don't usually get sick so they didn't take pills. The two who don't usually get sick got sick. I'd recommend taking motion sickness pills or travel with an overnight stop in Lang Son. I've also read about a train that runs from Hanoi to Dong Dang, however this wasn't running during our time in the north.
Why People Don't Visit Cao Bang and Ban Gioc?
Often people don't choose to visit these places because they aren't very easy to get to. They are even more difficult to visit during Covid, with bus services reduced and train services stopped. If you are in Vietnam for only a short time, it is usually too much of a hassle to get there. However, if you are in Vietnam for a long time, or if you're living in Vietnam, these places are definitely worth your time! And if you are travelling to Vietnam for a tour of the North, I'd definitely recommend putting these places on your list!