Looking at the map of Vietnam, Ban Gioc Waterfall seems a long way from anywhere. It’s 360 kilometers from Hanoi, and the distance to the nearest town is 60 kilometers away. But that doesn’t stop people to visit this masterpiece of nature. With jade green water thundering down multiple levels of rock setting, Ban Gioc Waterfall is easily one of Vietnam’s most remarkable sights.
Leaving Ba Be Lake behind, my journey continued on to Cao Bang – a mountainous region sharing a border with China. The province is largely known for its gentle landscape where limestone hills embrace leafy valleys. Yet the main reason that lured me to this northeastern corner of Vietnam is something far more dramatic.
1. Ban Gioc Waterfall
Measuring 30 meters in height and 300 meters in width, Ban Gioc is the world’s fourth-largest waterfall along a national border; after Iguazu, Victoria, and Niagara Fall. It can basically be divided into two parts: thác chính (Main Waterfall) and thác phụ (Subordinate Waterfall). While the former straddles the line between Vietnam and China, the latter belongs entirely to the South East Asian country. The site had not always been peaceful until the land border dispute was officially resolved in 2001. That’s why Ban Gioc Waterfall is still under the radar of many visitors to Vietnam.
After four hours on the winding road, I started hearing the rumble of water hitting the cliffs. Even from afar, the thundering effect is clearly audible. Then, behind a veil of white mist, Ban Gioc Waterfall gradually took shape. It is more imposing than I expected, with multiple levels of rock setting. The water cascades down the limestone rocks before plunging into a jade-colored natural pool. Both the cliffs and the rocks are cloaked in green moss, which contrasts nicely with the dazzling flows. It resembles a giant doorstep made by Mother Nature. The waterfall settles into an impressive backdrop of green mountains and bamboo groves, creating a splendid jungle landscape that no other place in Vietnam can compare.
2. Nguom Ngao Cavern
Despite its wild beauty, Ban Gioc is not the only natural wonder in Cao Bang. Just five kilometers from the waterfall, there is an astonishing cave system deeply carved into a mountain. It’s named Nguom Ngao, which in the language of the Tay ethnic minority means “Tiger’s Den”. The cavern was discovered in 1921, but it has only been opened to the public since 1996.
Nguom Ngao looks like a subterranean palace.
Created by an underground river, Nguom Ngao Cavern extends for over 2100 meters underground, of which 900 meters are visible to tourists. It reaches a height of up to 60 meters and consists of multiple chambers, as well as three main entrances. The size of the cavern is comparable to the Heavenly Palace in Ha Long Bay, yet its appearance looks more sophisticated.
Stepping in Nguom Ngao Cavern, I felt as though I’ve seen a subterranean palace, with majestic stone columns and wonderfully hanging stalactites. Along the way are stalagmites of all shapes, such as a giant cactus, terraced rice fields, and even a smaller version of Ban Gioc Waterfall. For millions of years, wind and water have dissolved limestone in this cavern, creating countless unique figures.
3. Crafting Villages
En route to Ban Gioc Waterfall, I made a brief stop at Pac Rang where villagers have practiced forging for generations. It’s one of the two best-known crafting villages in Cao Bang. The other is Phia Thap which specializes in making incense. Though not as popular as those in Hoi An, these villages provide a glimpse into the culture of the Nung An ethnic minority.
It’s said that the village of Pac Rang has been around since the 11th century. Back then, they forged weaponry for the local militia to fight against the Song army. When peace resumed, their production switched to farm and domestic tools. Things continued on like that during the wars in the 20th century. These days, the flame of smithery is kept alive by 51 households. They are using scrap metal, mostly car parts, to make knives, scissors, axes, and other domestic tools. The appearance of these items isn’t as shiny as that of industrial products. Yet its sharpness is more or less equal.
Tips for visiting Ban Gioc Waterfall
- It’s recommended to bring your ID or passport when visiting Ban Gioc Waterfall. I’ve heard that some tourists were asked to present their papers. But I couldn’t verify this information because I didn’t get checked.
- For 50,000 VND, the boat owner will punt you close to the waterfall. The ride takes about 10 minutes, including a few minutes on the Chinese side so that you can view the cascade from there. Do expect to get wet, though!
- Please note that only authorized drones are allowed to fly in this borderland. For a bird’s-eye view of the site, you can hike to the nearby Zen Buddhist temple which was built on the mountain slope.