Ban Gioc waterfall is only slowly appearing on the Western tourist’s map of things to visit in Vietnam. But this fourth-biggest waterfall on an international border and its nearby sights can keep up with Iguazu, Vic Falls, and Niagara.
I apologize for the terrible photo quality in this post. It was raining pretty much the whole day that I visited Ban Gioc…
There are three principal ways to organize a visit:
Given that it was July and rainy season in Vietnam, I opted for method 3.
At Hanoi’s My Dinh station, about 8 km from the Old Town, buses depart about hourly throughout the day to Cao Bang. Depending on the type of bus and time of day, you’ll pay 140,000 to 200,000 Dong ($6 to $10) one-way.
The journey takes about 6 hours, so jumping on the night bus (conveniently outfitted with the typical Vietnamese sleeper seats that recline almost entirely but are only comfortable for thin and small people) could save you an overnight stay in Cao Bang. The night bus arrives in Cao Bang at 5 am. Otherwise, you’ll find a few guesthouses (and even a hostel) along the main stretch outside the bus station; if you want to book ahead, Booking.com has some options in Cao Bang but not many.
From the Cao Bang bus station in the center of this larger-than-expected city, buses run half-hourly between the early morning hours until the afternoon directly to Ban Gioc waterfalls. It couldn’t be any easier: the station is small enough that anybody can point you to the right bus. A one-way ticket costs 70,000 Dong, and the journey takes about 2.5 hours (depending on the weather and the driver’s dare-deviledness).
From the bus stop, you walk down a slope, pay your 40,000 dong entrance fee for the That Ban Gioc National Park, and continue for another 100 m along a dirt path lined with stalls selling tourist tant and a few small outdoor restaurants.
Ban Gioc Falls (Vietnamese: thác Bản Giốc – Chinese: Détiān pùbù or Bǎnyuē pùbù) is a collective name for two waterfalls on the Quây Sơn River (Chinese: Guichun River), that straddle the international border between Daxin County, Guangxi, China, and Trùng Khánh District, Cao Bằng Province, Vietnam. The water drops a total of 53 m along the falls with trees and rocks forming obstacles and islands to break the fall.
July is not the best time to visit Ban Gioc waterfall. So much water rushes down the Quay Son River from July to September that the two levels of the fall merge into one and the dense spray reaches too far to get any decent pictures without drenching yourself and your camera.
In the dry season, the waters calm down, and paths allow the visitor to walk along the Vietnamese side of the 300 m wide falls; small boats take visitors to near the other bank before turning back to Vietnam or China, respectively. This is an international border without any civilian border posts. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that it’s a contested border as older scripts seem to confirm that one hundred years ago, Ban Gioc was 100% Vietnamese. During the Chinese-Vietnamese war of February 1979, the Chinese army crossed here.
Once, you’ve sufficiently explored Ban Gioc waterfall itself, go back up to the main road and follow it for about 600 m back towards Cao Bang until you reach a turnoff to the left with a few souvenir and food stalls. This is the access route to Truc Lam pagoda. It’s a steep climb, so steep in fact that I’m not sure I could do it on a motorcycle. But if you make it to the top you are rewarded with a stunning panorama that looks straight down into the karst valley and to the right onto Ban Gioc waterfall.
From Truc Lam pagoda, go back down and follow the main road to Cao Bao for another 2km, before turning leftish onto the road to Nguom Ngao Cave. That road ends at the cave after about 1.5km. So you cannot possibly get lost. If you don’t want to walk, there are numerous motorcycle drivers at the bottom of the pagoda and along the road that are bound to offer you their services.
The entrance fee for Dong Nguom Ngao (Động means cave in Vietnamese) is also 40,000 Dong. Either bring flip-flops or rent a pair from one of the stalls outside the caves (5,000 Dong). You’ll want the waterproof footwear for the last part of the cave explorations.
The relatively remote location of Nguom Ngo cave means that you’ll have to share it with far fewer people than, for example, in the Phong Nha caves while the structures you’ll discover are almost identical – massive stalactites and stalagmites forming bizarre structures plus underground rivers and pools.
The route through the cave is marked by lanterns along an about 1 m wide path and takes about 30 minutes to complete.
The last bit is where the fun is: After passing through an unusually low bit you’ll hit the water. Mirroring the rice terraces outside, the mineral-rich water forms terraced pools. And you are free to roam in them. Careful, though, the water is cold and the mineral surface slippery.
To catch your bus back to Cao Bang, head back to the main road and wave one down. Buses pass by roughly every half hour until late afternoon.
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