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Some Experiences You Need to Do in Cao Bang

Tucked away in a remote area of Northern Vietnam, Cao Bang Province is bursting with beautiful geo-cultural sites. With five major river systems and 47 lakes, water plays a vital role in shaping the landscape and local life. Much of Cao Bang is protected as UNESCO Global Geopark. The province’s extraordinary diversity makes it a spectacular place to explore, especially for adventure travellers. Here are seven stops in Cao Bang you must not miss.

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Bản Giốc Waterfall

Located on the border between China and Vietnam, Bản Giốc is the fourth largest waterfall in the world. Measuring 300 meters wide, the falls are absolutely breathtaking in size. The vast area and range of different falls and pools within the park is captivating. Set in a striking valley and surrounded by lush jungle, Bản Giốc feels like a paradise of its own. 

TIP: The best time to visit is during the dry season from October to April. At the end of the dry season, a daily release of water from the dam-controlled Quây Sơn River takes place between 10:30am and 1:00pm, bringing the falls up to their full flow.  

Trúc Lâm Phật Tích Pagoda

A short but steep walk brings you to this traditional Vietnamese-style temple. The design of Trúc Lâm pagoda fits perfectly into the hillside. As you climb higher to the main temple area, a valley filled with karsts unfolds below. A stunning spot not far from Bản Giốc Waterfalls, Trúc Lâm Pagoda can easily be visited in the same day.

Ngườm Ngao Cave

The Ngườm Ngao cave system has some of the most unique stalactite formations in Southeast Asia. As you step foot into the cave, the formations change with each new cavern. The entire cave system is 2,144 meters long, but local authorities have only opened 948 meters to visitors to preserve its natural beauty.

TIP: Don’t forget to bring drinking water for this trip: the one-kilometre walk can easily take an hour or more. 

Thang Hen Lake System

The Thang Hen Lakes are made up of 36 miniature lakes that are all 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 300 kilometres. While the lake is picturesque, it’s the rock formations and scenes of daily life that make Thang Hen worth visiting. 

TIP: Hire a local guide to bring you to Tuyệt Tình Cốc, also known as The Mountains Eye. This single karst peak is home to a cave that runs through one side to the other, forming a giant hole in the mountain.  

Ethnic minority groups

Cao Bằng Province has over nine ethnic groups, which have lived in these valleys for centuries. The Tày, Nùng, Dao, and H’mong are some of the most well-known, and each minority has its own special crafts and way of living. To experience ethnic culture, visit a minority craft village with one of the local guides, or book an ethnic homestay during your trip.

Cao Bằng City

Anchored around the Sông Bằng River, Cao Bằng City has grown into a bustling centre of development. With a small but contemporary selection of hotels, shops, and restaurants, it’s the perfect base for exploring the rest of the province. You’ll find many northern specialities to try in town, such as Phở Chua (sour noodle soup) and Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice rolls). Cao Bang City also has several festivals which are unique to the region. 

Pác Bó Historical Complex

Pác Bó Historical Complex is a memorial and museum founded on the site where Hồ Chí Minh began his revolution. Here you can take a look at the cave where Ho Chi Minh lived in hiding, and the river where he fished and wrote poetry. This tasteful tribute to the life and work of Ho Chi Minh is an important pilgrimage spot for the Vietnamese.

Cao Bang Travel Tips

Transport to Cao Bang

The distance from Hanoi to Cao Bang City is around 280 kilometres. Travel time can be around eight hours depending on type of transportation. Day and overnight buses are available from Hanoi to Cao Bang. Buses leave from the My Dinh Bus Station. Private charter and group tours to Cao Bang are also available. Local and online travel agencies can help you book your trip.

When to Visit Cao Bang

The best time to visit Cao Bang is during the dry season, from October to April. It’s worth noting that North Vietnam can get quite cold during the winter months, from November to February, so pack accordingly. Rainy season — from May to September in North Vietnam — can be beautiful, just be prepared for hot and humid weather.   

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Ha Giang: markedly different geography and culture makes a difference

Ha Giang is just 300 kilometres from Hanoi, but the life that unfolds in the province is a world apart from most other places, given its topography and ethnic diversity.

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Between September and November is the most ideal time to visit Ha Giang with dry climate and cool weather with average temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius.

From the end of September to early October marks the ripening of its terraced rice fields, which are a spellbinding sight.

Buckwheat flowers blooming in November is another unique sight in the northern highland’s province.

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WHAT TO EXPLORE

Nestled in the middle of a valley, the Dong Van Old Quarter, also called Dong Van Old Town, is a unique gem in Vietnam’s final frontier that is surrounded by high Rocky Mountains and limestone formations.

The old town was formed in the early 20th century with a few Hmong, Tay and Chinese families settling down here.

Now, the town has 40 two-storied houses with a touch of Chinese architecture such as yin-yang tiled roofs, yellow walls and red lanterns hung on the gables.

Since 2006, the town has attracted tourists by organizing a lantern festival on the 14th, 15th and 16th days of each lunar month, around the full moon time. All the local families hang red lanterns, display their special product – ethnic brocade – and sell their traditional food to boost tourism, somewhat like what the more famous Hoi An ancient town has been doing.

A cup of coffee at the Pho Co Café, one of the few places that have retained its Chinese-Vietnamese architecture, is a highly recommended experience.

Another cultural-commercial highlight of the town is its flea market, held every Sunday morning. It is a place to shop for local products made by ethnic minorities such as the Mong, Dao, Giay, and Tay and a place for young women to hang out with friends in their colorful traditional costumes, shopping and having fun.

Located in Sa Phin Valley of Dong Van District, the Hmong King’s Palace, the seat of the H’mong kings Vuong Chi Thanh and Vuong Chinh Duc, who ruled over the region during the French colonial era up until Vietnam regained independence in 1945, takes visitors to another age.

The palace consists of six two-storied houses with a total of 64 rooms, all connected to each other. The architecture features the Qing Dynasty style, with green pebbles, pine woods and terra-cotta tiles as the main building materials.

Admission fees cost VND20,000 per person.

Leaving Dong Van Town, a 25-kilometer road through steep paths and rugged mountains leads to the Lung Cu Flag Tower, which proclaims the nation’s territory and sovereignty, and is mark of pride for all Vietnamese citizens.

Built at the summit of Rong Mountain at the height of 1,700 meters above sea level, the octagonal monument is 33 meters tall and on top of the tower flies a 54-square-meter flag that represents 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam.

Visitors have to climb 389 stone steps and another 140 steps on a spiral iron staircase to get to the tower. A panoramic view of Ha Giang awaits those who reach the summit.

The Ma Pi Leng Pass is often described as one of the four most dangerous passes in Vietnam. Soaring over the pass is a mountain 2,000 meters high that is hugged tight by the Hanh Phuc (Happiness) Road connecting Ha Giang Town with the districts of Dong Van and Meo Vac.

The road was completed in 1965 after 11 years of construction mostly by workers belonging to the Hmong ethnic group.

Negotiating the pass is a tough task even for the most seasoned travellers and some foreign tourists have died driving off the pass.

“Ma Pi Leng pass is such a wonder of the world which lies right on the border of Vietnam and China. The pass offers breathtaking landscapes and exotic walking trails along the mount. Love this!” said Victor from Denmark.

“This might be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. A bit dangerous, I suggest you pay for a service with a driver,” Zupanc Nina wrote on Tripadvisor.

Currently, some tour operators also offer one-day tours for inexperienced tourists to navigate Ma Pi Leng Pass. Experienced tour guides will take them through the rugged curves and steep cliffs.

A boat trip on the Nho Que River’s turquoise waters at the foot of Ma Pi Leng Pass is another highly recommended travel experience.

Hire a motorbike taxi (xe om) to reach the pier and pay VND100,000 per person for a 30-minute boat trip.

Visitors can also request special photo stops along their way down Tu San, known as one of Southeast Asia’s deepest canyons.

There are 23 tourist boats that transport thousands of visitors who come to admire this majestic wonder every year.

“Before the Covid-19 outbreak, this place was crowded with tourists during weekends and holidays. Now we only get tourists traveling in groups to ensure safety,” said boatman Trieu Chuong.

Along both sides of the river are rice fields planted by the Giay people.

Pho Tro, a small village on the outskirts of Pho Bang Town in Dong Van District, is characterized by traditional ‘trinh tuong’ houses with yin-yang tiled roofs.

As part of a rural renovation program, local authorities have improved infrastructure to develop tourism here. The village now has spacious headquarters and an elementary school. Cemented pathways provide easy access to every house. Households have received subsidies under the program to build bathrooms and indoor toilets.

As noted earlier, visiting Ha Giang from September until November is an opportunity to visit Hoang Su Phi District, famous for 3,000 hectares of terraced rice fields that form wavy, mesmerising golden yellow carpets.

There aren’t many places to stay in Hoang Su Phi, but homestays are available in villages or motels in Vinh Quang Town for VND250,000 to 550,000 ($10.68 to 23.50) a night.

It gets cold at nights and early in the morning, so taking a jacket along is a good idea when visiting Hoang Su Phi. Extra care has to be taken when driving on the road from Ha Giang Town to Hoang Su Phi because it’s narrow, winding and crowded with trucks.

WHERE TO STAY

Built atop a mountain in Yen Dinh Commune in Bac Me District, the P’apiu Resort is particularly favored by well-to-do couples who wish to enjoy a peaceful, secluded atmosphere and green landscapes.

The resort is also unique in that all its staff are local ethnic minority residents. Room prices start from VND9.8 million a night.

The Hmong Village resort in Quang Ba District, around 50 kilometers northeast of Ha Giang Town, has 25 bungalows surrounded by green trees and picturesque natural scenery.

Bungalows designed in the shape of rattan baskets that Hmong women sling on their backs to carry rice and other things are a distinctive feature of the resort.

It also has a community guesthouse that can accommodate up to 40 people at VND400,000 a night. A night’s stay in the bungalow’s costs from VND2.4 million ($105.31).

To gaze up on the rice terraced fields during the golden season from their windows, the Hoang Su Phi Lodge and Kinh Homestay in Nam Hong Village are ideal options.

Dong Van and Meo Vac districts offer budget-friendly homestays with prices ranging from VND100,000-230,000 per night.

WHAT TO EAT

Given the diversity of ethnic minority communities who live in Ha Giang, a culinary exploration of the province is a rewarding exercise.

The xoi ngu sac (five-colored sticky rice) – red, yellow, blue, purple and white – is made by using fruits, roots and leaves of plants. Glutinous rice is soaked in water for 6-8 hours and divided into five parts. Apart from the original white color, the other parts are dyed with a natural food coloring agent and steamed until tender.

The dish can be found at the weekly flea market in Dong Van Town.

From mid-October onwards, the Ha Giang rock plateau blooms with buckwheat flowers, a season which has already made the place a major tourist attraction. Residents use these flowers to make a signature dish – triangle buckwheat cake – that is difficult to find elsewhere.

The buckwheat seeds are harvested, dried and crushed into fine powder. The power is mixed with water to make flat round cakes that are then steamed for about 10 minutes. The cakes bought at the markets can be taken home as a special gift.

Tourists can buy this cake from street food vendors or food stalls in the Dong Van flea market.

Thang den is another signature dish made with glutinous rice flour in Ha Giang. It looks like banh troi, the cake with a sweet filling that is popular in Hanoi.

The thang den is made by mixing glutinous rice flour with sugar, shaped into balls and steamed. They are served with a syrup made with sweetened coconut milk and ginger. A bowl of thang den is topped with peanuts and/or black sesame seeds.

Though the steamed rice roll, banh cuon, is a popular dish in the north of the country, the version in Ha Giang is quite different. It is filled with pork/egg and mushroom, topped with dried shallots and served with a bowl of delicious bone broth flavored with fresh coriander, chopped scallions and Vietnamese pork sausage.

In Ha Giang’s chilly mornings, a bowl of hot broth with banh cuon makes for a great breakfast.

The most popular restaurants to try this dish are: Ms.Ha’s stall at 31 Dong Van Town; and Ms. Cuc’s stall opposite to Ha Giang Town’s social security center.

A special porridge favored by the Hmong people in Ha Giang is made of the root of the monkshood aconite plant, known as au tau, which grows on Ha Giang’s highest mountain peak, Tay Con Linh.

The process of cooking the porridge is very time-consuming, because the roots can be poisonous without being processed and cooked in the right manner.

After harvest, the roots are soaked in water for a night and then simmered on a fire for about four hours. They can then be turned into dough and mixed with glutinous rice and pork trotters.

The porridge is only sold at night and is served with fried minced pork, pepper, herbs and sour bamboo shoots.

You can find this treat at Ngan Ha Restaurant at 161 Tran Hung Dao Street.

The black chicken hotpot is a not-to-be-missed dish on a cold day in Ha Giang. It is normally had with cabbage, peas and other vegetables that make the hotpot sweeter.

Unlike ga ac, a kind of black chicken in the Mekong Delta, the Hmong variety is a rare breed found in the northwestern mountainous provinces of Son La, Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Bac Kan. It is a favorite of the Hmong people, who believe that it helps enhance human vitality, including libido, and is good medicine for heart disease.

The hotpot is served at Oanh Hieu Restaurant in Dong Van Town and at Phan’s Restaurant on Hai Ba Trung Street.

HOW TO GET THERE

Ha Giang Town is 300 kilometers from Hanoi and the most popular method of transportation is by overnight sleeper bus, for which tickets can be booked/bought at the My Dinh Bus Station. The journey of around six hours to reach Ha Giang Town costs VND200,000-350,000 ($8.54-15) per person.

On arrival, hiring a motorbike for VND150,000 a day is probably the best way to explore the undulating paths that embrace the province’s mountainous terrain.

With one’s own motorbike, take National Route 2 to Vinh Yen Town, turn into National Route 2C past Tuyen Quang and Viet Quang towns to reach Ha Giang. This is the easier route, though slightly longer.

Source: VNExpress International

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Ta Xua, a high-altitude haven in northern Vietnam

Nestled at an altitude of over 2,800 above sea level, Ta Xua stands as one of the highest mountain peaks in Vietnam. It located in Bac Yen District, Son La Province, and borders Tram Tau District in Yen Bai Province, and is about 240 kilometres from Hanoi.

Ta Xua has a cool climate all year round and is known as a captivating cloud hunting destination from October to April.

Ta Xua is known for its steep and winding roads near dangerous cliffs. Travelers can get to Ta Xua by motorbike or car, or even trek to the summit if you’re feeling adventurous. There are different trekking routes from Yen Bai and Son La.

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WHERE TO VISIT

Dinosaur Backbone

The renowned “Dinosaur Backbone” area is approximately 15 kilometres from the heart of Ta Xua and about 5 kilometres from Hang Dong Commune in Bac Yen District. It leans against the Ta Xua Mountain range, overlooking a valley that plunges hundreds of meters deep.

The area features a 1.5-kilometer trail, regarded by backpackers as one of the most beautiful places in the north to witness cloud formations. Often, thick clouds linger from early morning until 10 a.m.

On clearer days, from this area, visitors can immerse oneself in the surroundings of lush forests, terraced fields, and Hmong houses dotting the mountainside.

Dolphin Cliff

The Dolphin Cliff is characterized by two large rocks resembling dolphins swimming in a sea of clouds. The cliffs are adorned with patches of moss, adding to their wild and natural beauty, blending with the surrounding landscape.

To reach the Dolphin Cliff, starting from Bac Yen Town, follow the road leading to Ta Xua Commune. Along the way, visitors will encounter a fork with road signs: one direction to the “cloud paradise back” (8 kilometres), and the other leads to Ta Xua Tea Hill.

Choose the latter, and visitors will arrive at the Dolphin Cliff. Visitors staying at Lu Tre Homestay will find it convenient to reach the Dolphin Cliff when heading towards the hydroelectric dam.

Turtle Cliff

A rock outcrop shaped like a turtle’s head sits at an elevation of 2,100 meters along the path to Ta Xua’s peak. To access the Turtle’s Beak, you’ll need to traverse approximately one kilometer of high slopes with sharp rocks.

Camel’s Ridge

From the center of Ta Xua Commune, travel about 7 kilometers in the direction of the Commune People’s Committee to reach the Camel Ridge.

This attraction in Ta Xua offers splendid morning views, making it an ideal addition to your travel itinerary.

Lonely Tree

The lonely docynia indica tree graces a small hill at Gio Peak, located at the intersection of Xim Vang and Hang Dong, just over 1 kilometer from the heart of Ta Xua. Standing by the tree, travelers can gaze upon the Suoi Sap River. On clear days, the river exhibits a clear and azure hue.

The Lonely Tree is revered by backpackers as a symbol of resilience amidst Ta Xua’s rugged terrain and is often cited as one of the best spots to witness the captivating sunset, especially in the early evenings.

Primeval forest

The Ta Xua primeval forest occupies the southeastern slopes of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, extending from an altitude of 2,600 meters to the summit. This forest exudes an enchanting, mystical charm, with its constantly changing altitude along the Phu Sa Phin range.

Within the forest, visitors can encounter various rare species of flora and fauna, such as the moss forest. Meandering forest paths combined with dappled sunlight create a fairy tale-like atmosphere.

Ancient tea hill

Ta Xua’s ancient Shan Tuyet tea is celebrated as one of Vietnam’s most distinguished teas. The Shan Tuyet Ta Xua Tea Hill, situated at an altitude of over 1,500 meters above sea level, remains shrouded in clouds throughout the year, resulting in a humid and chilly climate.

These ancient tea trees, aged over a century, receive minimal sunlight, endowing them with exceptional medicinal properties and a unique flavor. Ta Xua tea leaves possess a snowy-white fur-like layer, while the brewed tea reveals a clear and viscous yellow hue. Its initial taste is smooth and astringent, with a sweet and fragrant aftertaste.

Ta Xua Steppe

The Ta Xua Steppe, located along the same route to the Dolphin Cape and the Lonely Tree, lies about 10 kilometers from the commune center. The road is wide with gentle curves, and near the Dolphin Cliff, visitors will encounter signs guiding you to the Ta Xua Steppe. This expansive natural landscape not only offers breathtaking views but also serves as an ideal setting for recreational activities, sports, and camping adventures.

Cloud-watching cafes

Ta Xua boasts several cafes with names like Mi Oi, Hien Coffee, Thao Coffee, H’mong Coffee, and Ban Coffee. These cafes offer stunning views, making them perfect for cloud-watching and ideal spots for photography enthusiasts.

Even during cloudless periods, they provide a serene place to enjoy a cup of hot tea while marveling at the majestic natural surroundings, witnessing the gradual descent of the sunset, or simply unwinding. Prices for drinks range from VND30,000 (US$1.20) to VND60,000.

WHAT TO EAT

When it comes to culinary delights in Son La, the must-try specialty is mac nhung (solanum dulcamara) porridge. As the fruits in the fields ripen after each harvest, they are picked, washed, and transformed into various dishes, with the most renowned being porridge.

This dish boasts a unique blend of bitter, sweet, and spicy flavors, perfectly suited for the chilly weather in the Ta Xua highlands.

In addition to mac nhung porridge, visitors have an array of options to choose from. They can savor a hearty pot of black chicken hotpot, indulge in salmon or sturgeon, or relish popular northern mountain dishes such as buffalo meat, nam pia (internal organs with excrement soup), bamboo-tube rice, sour meat salad, and five-colored sticky rice.

HOW TO GET THERE

Travelers can access Ta Xua using a range of transportation modes, including motorbikes, personal cars, and passenger buses. Starting from Hanoi, the route takes you through Son Tay Town, over Trung Ha Bridge, along Highway 32, and rightward towards Phu Yen and Bac Yen Districts along Highway 37.

The main road leading to the heart of Ta Xua has been paved with concrete, making it much more accessible than in the past. Even 16-seat vehicles can make their way to the summit.

Travelers can opt for passenger cars offered by bus companies such as Khanh Thinh, Quang Nghia, and Nguyen Hang, at a cost of VND700,000 per person for a round trip. These cars usually depart from Hanoi around 10 p.m. and arrive in Ta Xua after approximately five hours, with brief stops along the way.

Once travelers arrive in Ta Xua, they have the option to rent a motorbike for convenience. However, if they aren’t confident in their riding skills, it’s advisable to consider hiring a local motorbike taxi driver, as the roads in the region are quite steep, narrow, and filled with twists and turns.

WHERE TO STAY

While Ta Xua is a burgeoning tourist destination, it lacks large hotels or upscale accommodation options. Nevertheless, approximately 20 homestays and motels dot the area, catering to a range of budgets from VND200,000 ($8) to VND1 million ($42) per night.

Accommodations are mainly concentrated in the central and adjacent areas, featuring community-style houses (stilt houses) and some private rooms. They include Xa Homestay, Nam To Homestay, Mua Tru Homestay, Bao Chau Homestay, and Long Anh 1 Homestay.

Additionally, guesthouses like Phu Hoa, Tra May Ta Xua, Thu Bien, Hai Hang, and Nguyen San provide alternative choices.

For those seeking a unique experience, Homestay Lu Tre stands out as the highest-altitude accommodation establishment in Ta Xua, situated approximately 7 kilometers from the central area. Some high-clearance vehicles and motorbikes can reach the doorstep, while others can park at the gate, with guests covering the remaining 300-meter distance on foot or using a motorbike shuttle service. Accommodation options include bungalows, houses, and stilt houses.

Ta Xua also beckons camping enthusiasts. By selecting the right spot, visitors can relish the opportunity to witness the sunrise or sunset from the mountaintop.

While cloud hunting is a highlight of Ta Xua, it’s essential to consider the weather. Checking the forecast is advisable, and it’s best to select a day with low nighttime temperatures, pleasant daytime warmth, and ample sunshine. Familiarize yourself with the direction of the sunrise in the cloud hunting area to capture the best angles for your photographs.

Avoid arriving in Ta Xua during the evening and try not to travel in large groups. When traveling by motorbike taxi, it’s a good practice to inquire about the fare and engage in a bit of bargaining.

The estimated cost per person for a two-day, one-night stay ranges from VND1.5 million to VND2 million ($62-82). During holidays and peak seasons, it’s advisable to book accommodation in advance, as Ta Xua tends to fill up quickly.

The area can accommodate a limited number of tourists simultaneously, typically around 700-800, so planning ensures you secure your spot at this destination.

Story by Tam Anh

Sources: VNExpress International