Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang

Ban Gioc Waterfall: A Masterpiece of Nature

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.

The verdant landscape of Cao Bang

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.

Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang
Ban Gioc, Subordinate Waterfall
Water flow at Ban Gioc Waterfall

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.

Nguom Ngao Cavern

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.

Pac Rang Village
Storehouse full of scrap metal in Pac Rang
Axes made by the Nung An ethnic minority

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.
View of Ban Gioc from Zen Temple
Zen Buddhist Temple in Ban Gioc

13 thoughts on “Ban Gioc Waterfall: A Masterpiece of Nature”

  1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    I love how you include people in some of the photos of Ban Gioc as they give a scale of how big the waterfalls are. This is the first time I learn about these large cascades and it looks like they worth the long trip. It’s nice how the pandemic allows you to explore more of your countries.

  2. Orvillewrong – "I am well read, fairly well travelled, maybe not as many stamps on my passport as I would like. Young at Heart, Always! I like Military history. I Love Life`s variable, colour, character are potential events to record for posterity!!
    Orvillewrong says:

    I’m certain that the journey was worthwhile judging by your wonderful photographs!

  3. Len, I’m really enjoying posts from your beautiful home country. This waterfall is stunning and I love the view from the temple. Is the water flow volume good for visiting throughout the year? Vietnam has been near the top of our travel list for sometime, and your posts are taking it to the very top. I’m thinking once travel opens up again it may be a much safer options than other places on our list.

    1. I’m glad that you enjoy my posts about Vietnam, Caroline 🙂 I visited the waterfall in late October. It’s just the end of the rainy season, so the flow volume is quite good.

  4. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    What a beautiful place. I’m as smitten with the cavern as I am with the waterfall. Gorgeous photos!

  5. Jane Lurie – Hello! Berenice Abbott said, “Photography helps people to see.” It is satisfying when someone looks at one of my images and remarks that they now see something in a new way. I hope that my photographs delight and surprise you.
    Jane Lurie says:

    Hi Len, Amazing waterfall photos and caverns. Terrific post. One of my most favorite trips was to Vietnam. Maybe one day again.

  6. justbluedutch – Bavaria, Germany – Expat- lifestyle Blogger from the land of Lederhosen & Dirndls. A self-taught Aquarelle & Mixed Media visual artist.
    justbluedutch says:

    No wayy…….this is super beautiful Len! Those waterfalls, are they really in Vietnam?? Wow.No words.
    these are exactly my thing. the waterfalls, the caves, did you do spelunking?suits the Tiger´s Den name.
    and that temple…lovely mother nature over there.
    I wanna see this soon. Terrific post and as always, I am travel-drooling.
    i wonder though if my 6 year old can enjoy this though..!

    1. Oh don’t worry! The route through the cave is paved and well lit. There is only one way in and out, so a guide is not necessary 🙂

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