Guide To Vietnam's Cao Bằng: What To Do, Where To Eat And Stay

This northeastern province has waterfalls, caves, lakes and temples that you should explore on your Vietnam tour
Fields in the Trùng Khánh area of Cao Bằng province
Fields in the Trùng Khánh area of Cao Bằng provincehuynguyen_pch/Unsplash

Cao Bằng province in northeastern Vietnam is home to such stunning natural beauty that the region has been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark. It has 47 lakes, five major river systems, limestone caves and mountains, waterfalls, and sedimentary rocks which date as far back as 500 million years ago. The capital—also called Cao Bằng—rests against the Sông Bằng River. It’s a small but growing city with hotels, shops and restaurants cropping up in the past few decades. Visitors can explore the rest of the province from here.

The best time to visit Cao Bằng is during the dry season from October to April. The region is bitingly cold from November to February, while the rainy season from May to September brings hot and humid weather. Here's our guide to this magnificent place that you should check out on your Vietnam tour.

What To Do

Bản Giốc Waterfall

The Bản Giốc Waterfall
The Bản Giốc Waterfalljankgo/Wikimedia Commons

Located on the border between China and Vietnam, Bản Giốc is the fourth-largest waterfall in the world. Measuring 300m wide and 30m in length, the falls are set in a fertile valley and surrounded by lush jungle. Bản Giốc is actually made up of two waterfalls: thác chính (the main waterfall) and thác phụ (the subordinate waterfall). The waterfall is known as Détiān Falls on the Chinese side.

The thundering sound of the water hitting the cliffs can be heard from afar. Visitors should explore the pools surrounding the Bản Giốc waterfall. The best time to visit is during the dry season from October to April when water from a dam is released, thereby swelling its banks.

Phật Trúc Lâm Tích Pagoda

A statue at the Phật Trúc Lâm Tích Pagoda
A statue at the Phật Trúc Lâm Tích Pagodaglen_z_/Instagram

A short but steep walk brings you to this traditional Vietnamese-style temple. The temple has enchanting views of the Bản Giốc Waterfall and the entire karst valley. The pagoda was built to serve the spiritual and religious needs of the people here. On the first full moon day of the month, the pagoda receives many Buddhist believers who come to worship.

Kỳ Sầm Temple

A stone dragon near the entrance to the Kỳ Sầm Temple
A stone dragon near the entrance to the Kỳ Sầm Temple

The Kỳ Sầm Temple was built as a memorial at Nùng village in honour of Nùng Trí Cao, a leader who organised an ethnic minority revolt in the 11th century against the Vietnamese monarchy. The temple was renovated in the 19th century. The exterior and interior pillars of the temple were retouched and the Chinese-character inscriptions at the front were removed. References to the self-proclaimed king have been replaced with floral patterns and pictures of horses, acting as generic symbols linked to local heroes.

Ngườm Ngao Cave

The Ngườm Ngao Cave
The Ngườm Ngao CaveAdam Jones/Wikimedia Commons

About 4km from Bản Giốc Waterfall is the Ngườm Ngao cave system which has some of the most unique stalactite formations in Southeast Asia. Created by an underground river, it extends for several kilometres underground. Villagers took cover here during the 1979 war with China. As you step foot into the cave, the formations change with each new cavern. The entire cave system is 2,144m long, but local authorities have only opened 948m of it for visitors in order to preserve its natural beauty. Remember to bring water with you as the 1km long route inside the cave can leave you parched.

Thang Hen Lake System

Tuyệt Tình Cốc is also known as “The Mountain’s Eye"
Tuyệt Tình Cốc is also known as “The Mountain’s Eye"vietsui/Instagram

The Thang Hen Lakes are made up of 36 miniature lakes which are connected through caves and underground passageways. In the rainy season, water levels rise to form a single lake which meanders through a valley of karst peaks for over 300km. The rock formations and scenes of daily life make Thang Hen worth visiting. Hire a local guide to show you Tuyệt Tình Cốc, also known as “The Mountain’s Eye.” This single karst peak is home to a cave that runs from one side to the other, forming a giant hole in the mountain.

Pác Bó Historical Complex

A section of the Pác Bó Historical Complex
A section of the Pác Bó Historical Complexhiimbach/Unsplash

The Pác Bó Historical Complex is a memorial and museum founded on the site where Vietnamese nationalist and politician Hồ Chí Minh began his revolution. The cave sheltered him when he went into hiding. The River Lenin—which he named—is where he fished and wrote poetry. The complex attracts travellers on their Vietnam tour because of its pristine natural beauty. The Lenin is not only clear but also has a vivid, bright green colour. Tourists can sit by the stream, close their eyes and take in a lungful of fresh air.

Interact With The Locals

A Nùng woman and child
A Nùng woman and childjanet_gerrard/Instagram

The Cao Bằng province has over nine ethnic groups which have lived in the region for centuries. The Tày, Nùng, Dao, and H’mong are some of the most well-known. Each group has its special customs, folklore and way of living. To experience Cao Bằng’s cultural tapestry during your Vietnam tour, visit a minority craft village with a local guide or book an ethnic homestay.

What To Eat

Bánh trứng kiến is a northern Vietnamese speciality
Bánh trứng kiến is a northern Vietnamese specialityavatarhuyenpham517/Instagram

Northern specialties like phở chua (sour noodle soup), bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls), the Trùng Khánh chestnut, bánh trứng kiến (cakes made from ant eggs), seven-flavoured roast duck, and sticky rice with black truffles should be sampled. You will find them in local restaurants scattered across the city. Alternatively, check with the chef or your guide on the best spots to savour Cao Bằng cuisine.

Where To Stay

Beds in the Cao Bằng Eco Homestay
Beds in the Cao Bằng Eco

The Mường Thanh Luxury Cao Bằng Hotel and La Maison Boutique Hotel offer luxury stays. Budget-conscious travellers should consider the Lan Homestay, the Khuổi Khon Homestay, the Jeanne Hotel, the LươngSơn Homestay, and the Cao Bằng Eco Homestay on their Vietnam tour.

Getting There

Fly from Ahmedabad, Kolkata or New Delhi to Nội Bài International Airport (HAN) in Hanoi. Cover the 281km distance to Cao Bằng city by taking an overnight bus which will complete the journey in approximately 7-9 hours.

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