Northeast Vietnam

Con Son Den Kiep Bac - Hai Phong - Around Hai Phong - Ha Long Bay - Ha Long City - Cat Ba Island - Bai Tu Long Bay - Mong Cai Chinese Border - Around Mong Cai - Lang Son - Cao Bang - Aroud Cao Bang - Ba Be National Park - Thai Nguyen - Around Thai Nguyen


Thang Hen Lake
This is a large lake that can be visited year-round; however, what you get to see varies according to the seasons. During the rainy season, from about May to September, the 36 lakes in the area are separated by convoluted rock formations. In the dry season, most of the lakes - except Thang Hen itself- are dry, However, during this time of year the lake level drops low enough to reveal a large cave, which can be explored by bamboo raft - if you can locate anyone at all in the vicinity to ask. There are opportunities for good day walks throughout this area, but you'll need a local guide; try the hotels in Cao Bang for assistance. There are still no restaurants or hotels at Thang Hen, nor is there any public transport, To get here from Cao Bang, drive 20km to the top of Ma Phuc Pass. From there carry on for 1km to the fork in the highway - take the left branch and continue another 4km.

Hang Pac Bo (Water-Wheel Cave): Hang Pac Bo (Water-Wheel Cave) is just 3km from the Chinese border. The cave and the surrounding area is sacred ground for Vietnamese revolutionaries. Here, on 28 January 1941, Ho Chi Minh re-entered Vietnam ready to lead the revolution that he had long been planning during 30 years of exile. Ho Chi Minh lived in this cave, writing poetry while waiting for WWII to end. He stuck close to China so that he would be able to flee across the border if French soldiers discovered his hiding place. He named the stream in front of his cave Lenin Creek and a nearby mountain Karl Marx Peak. There's an Uncle Ho museum (admission free;7.30-n.3Qam & 1.30-430pm) at the entrance to the Pac Bo area. About 2km beyond this is a parking area. The cave is a 10-minute walk away, and a Jungle hut, which was another of Ho's hideouts, is about 15 minutes' walk in the opposite direction, across a paddy field and in a patch of forest. On the way to the hut is a rock outcrop used as a 'dead-letter box', where he would leave and pick up messages. It's a lovely, quiet spot and has seen very little development compared with other parts of Vietnam. Hang Pac Bo is about 60km northwest of Cao Bang; allow three hours to make the return trip by road, plus 11/2 hours to poke around. To do this as a return half-day trip by xe om, expect to pay around US$10. No permits are currently needed, despite the proximity to the Chinese border.
Ban Gioc Waterfall: One of Vietnam's best-known waterfalls, its image adorns the lobby of many a cheap guesthouse throughout Vietnam. It's a very scenic spot, marking the border with China, but sees very few visitors. The name Ban Gioc is derived from the Montagnard languages spoken in the area. and is sometimes spelt Ban Doc. The waterfall is the largest, although not the highest, in the country. The vertical drop is 53m, but it has an impressive 300m span; one end of the falls is in China, the other is in Vietnam. The water volume varies considerably between the dry and rainy seasons: the falls are most impressive from May to September, but swimming during this period in the waterholes below may be difficult due to turbulence. The fails have three levels, creating a sort of giant staircase, and there's enough water any time, most years, to make the trip worthwhile. Half the pleasure of the visit is walking across paddy fields to reach the base of the falls. The falls are fed by the Quay Son River. An invisible line halfway across the river marks the border, and rafts (per trip 50,000d) pole out the few metres to exactly the halfway rnaik- and no further - from each side. There’s been some development of tourist facilities on the Chinese side in recent years, including a large resort, but almost nothing except a bamboo footbridge and a couple of bamboo rafts on the Vietnamese side. There is no official border checkpoint here, but you need a police permit to visit. However, this no longer needs to be arranged in advance and can be picked up at the police office near the falls for just 50,000d.
NGUOM NGAO CAVE: This is one of the most spectacular caves in northeast Vietnam. There are two sections to visit but the main entrance to the cave (admission 5000d) is 2km from Ban Gioc Waterfall, Just off the road to Cao Bang. Electricity has been installed in the main cave and the lighting is quite beautiful compared with the kitsch colours in most Vietnamese caves. It takes about 45 minutes to explore. Solo travellers will have to pay 30,000d to fire up the lights. There is a second, bigger cave that is simply enormous and one branch reaches almost all the way to the waterfalls, where there is a 'secret' entrance. A full tour takes around two hours and requires the use of a torch (flashlight). Expect to pay about 50,000d for this experience.
There are no hotels located on the Vietnamese side of the border. Cao Rang is really the closest option for decent accommodation. There is limited local food available in Ban Gioc. Try the little stall by the car park.
The road between Cao Bang and Ban Gioc via Quang Yen is in pretty good shape, and is presently fine for cars and minibuses. The 87km trip takes about 11/2 hours each way; it's mountainous and winding and very beautiful. If you take the loop route to and from the falls, the section between Tra Linh and Trung Khanh is still a bit bumpy, and 4WD is recommended, especially after rain. There is public transport between Cao Bang and Trung Khanh but nothing beyond that; negotiate for a xe om in Trung Khanh to take you to the falls. Hotels and guesthouses in Cao Bang can arrange a motorbike (self-drive) or vehicle (with driver).
Montagnard Markets: In the province of Cao Bang, Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) are a distinct minority. 1 he largest ethnic groups are the Tay (46%), Nung (32%), H'mong (8%), Dzao (7%) and Lolo (1%). Intermarriage, mass education and 'modern' clothing is gradually eroding tribal and cultural distinctions. Check out Tim Doling's Mountains and Ethnic Minorities: North East Vietnam for detailed accounts of tribal people in the region It's available from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and bookshops in Hanoi. Most of Cao Bang's Montagnards remain blissfully naive about the ways of the outside world. Cheating in the marketplace, for example, is virtually unknown and even tourists are charged the same price as locals without bargaining. Whether or not this innocence can withstand the onslaught of even limited tourism remains to be seen. The following big Montagnard markets in Cao Bang province are held every five day, according to lunar calendar dates. Nuoc Hal 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th day of each lunar month Na Giang 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21sf and 26th day of each lunar month. Attracting Tay, Nung and H'mong, this is one of the best and busiest markets in the provinces. Tra Linh 4th, 9th, 14th. 19th, 24th and 29th day of each lunar month
Trung Khanh 5th, 10th, 15ih, 20th, 25th and 30th day of each lunar month
The charming setting of Thang Hen wouldn't be complete without a depressing legend to go with it. It seems that there was a very handsome and clever young man named Chang Sung. His mother adored him and deemed that he should become a mandarin and then marry a beautiful girl. Under Confucian tradition, the only way to become a mandarin was to pass a competitive examination. Chang Sung, being a clever boy, sat the exam and passed. He received an official letter bearing the good news and ordering him to report to the royal palace just one week later. With her son virtually guaranteed admission to mandarinhood, Chang Sung's mother completed her plan. A beautiful girl, Biooc Luong (Yellow Flower), was chosen to marry Chang Sung and a big wedding was hastily arranged. Chang Sung couldn't have been happier. In fact, he and Biooc were having such a great time on their honeymoon that he forgot all about his crucial appointment at the royal palace until the night before the deadline. Knowing how disappointed his mother would be if he missed his chance to be a mandarin, Chang Sung summoned magical forces to help him hop in great leaps and bounds to the palace. Unfortunately, he messed up the aerodynamics and leapt 36 times, with no control over his direction or velocity, and wound up creating 36 craters, finally landing at the top of Ma Phuc Pass, where he died of exhaustion and became a rock. The craters filled up with water during the rainy season and became the 36 Lakes of Thang Hen.