Cao Bang highlights and travel guide

Cao Bang Overview

Cao Bang is an immensely beautiful, sparsely populated frontier region of North Vietnam. This mountainous expanse sits on the northeast border with China and is home to many ethnic minority communities. Although the Ban Gioc waterfalls have become a popular attraction, this region is often overlooked by tourists which have meant its unique beauty and culture has been well preserved. The landscape here is typified by jagged mountains carpeted in thick vegetation, sporadic rice paddies and thin winding roads. Typically the Vietnamese populations tended to avoid mountainous regions in favour of the better farmland in low-lying, flat areas. This meant that these remote and hilly areas were inhabited mainly by the ethnic minority communities and this is still largely the case in Cao Bang. The main groups living in the region are the Nung, Dao, Tay and H'mong.

 Cao Bang overview, a viewpoint belong the way to Trung Khanh
Cao Bang overview, a viewpoint belong the way to Trung Khanh

Although Cao Bang feels as if it has been left to wild, mostly undisturbed by the troubles of modern day society, the region has seen upheaval during the wars. Being situated directly on the border with China meant that Cao Bang was an area of contention between the two countries. It also played a significant role in the communist movement, acting as a base for the North Vietnamese revolutionaries and earning itself the moniker 'Cradle of the Revolutionary Movement.' For a time. Ho Chi Minh also took refuge in a cave in Pac Bo.

The area is beginning to garner more attention from adventurous travellers looking to get away from the overcrowded and over visited tourist areas and wanting to experience the rugged beauty of the frontier region. Because of its northerly location, Cao Bang is cooler than the rest of Vietnam with an average temperature of 25-28 degrees in the summer and 16-17 degrees in the winter. Some of the higher peaks sometimes see snowfall in particularly cold bouts. The cooler climes, rich forests and fresh air make Cao Bang a great nature escape which leaves visitors feeling refreshed and full of appreciation for the beauty of nature.  

See and Do

Ban Gioc Waterfalls are without a doubt the number one attraction in Cao Bang, and it is clear to see why. The wall of water demarcates the border between China and Vietnam. The water crashes over the 30-meter creating a roaring which echoes across the land. The cascading water set against the back of the immense mountains is a uniquely captivating sight.

 Ban Gioc waterfall, Trung Khanh. Cao Bang
Ban Gioc waterfall, Trung Khanh. Cao Bang

A trip to Ban Gioc Waterfall is usually combined with exploring Nguom Ngao Cave which can be found just a short distance away. The cave stretches over 2 km, but only the first kilometre is open to visitors. The name itself roughly translates to Tiger Cave and for a long time the cave lay dormant as local legend told of tigers who inhabited the cave. Luckily, rather than an ambush of angry tigers, those who enter the cave are met with stunning scenes of rock formations. The cave is filled with stalactites and stalagmites in differing shapes and sizes, their forms emerging from the cliff face and often depicting mythical creatures or magical scenes.

Nguom Ngao cave. Cao Bang
Nguom Ngao cave. Cao Bang

Thang Hen Lake sits in a tranquil valley surrounding by rocky, forested mountains. The colours of the turquoise blue waters and rich green trees are intensified by the bright sun on clear days. The lake is peaceful; the still air is only disturbed by the horses grazing idly and birds dipping through the sky. The lake is actually made up of 36 different lakes, but during the rainy seasons when the lakes swell, they flow into one another creating one large expanse of water. Small wooden boats wait on the shores of the lake to take visitors on a voyage around the lake, the perfect way to bask in the beauty of both the mountains and the lake.

Pac Bo Cave is not only famous for its incredible beauty but also as Ho Chi Minh's sanctuary after his return from exile in China. A pleasant walk past Karl Marx Peak and Lenin Creek, named by Ho Chi Minh, leads to the entrance of the leader's hideout. The cave still displays Ho Chi Minh's modest living conditions settled in amongst the fascinating karst rock formations. It was here the national treasure spent his days writing poetry and reading and the translating the texts of leaders he admired. The setting is certainly an inspiring one, the birdsong and peaceful ambience are the perfect accompaniment for contemplation.  

Culture and Arts

Ky Sam Temple is another great place to take in the revolutionary past of Cao Bang. It was built in remembrance of Nung Tri Cao an independence fighter who, during the 11th century, led an uprising against King Le Thai Tong with the intention of becoming an independent kingdom. He was following in the footsteps of his father and brother who had been executed because of their rebellion. Although Nung Tri Cao did succeed in creating an independent kingdom name Dai Lich he was eventually captured by King Le Thai Tong. He made a second attempt in 1048 this time taking part of China, but once again, after five years, he was captured, and this time he was executed. The temple can be found in Nung Village and sits surrounded by beautiful big trees, the smoke from the incense wafting up between the branches.

Another viewpoint from Linh Ung pagoda, Cao Bang
Another viewpoint from Linh Ung pagoda, Cao Bang

With many ethnic minority communities spread out across the region, one of the best places to experience local culture in Cao Bang is at the local markets. People gather at the markets to trade and sell everyday items such as the fresh food in the wet market and traditional goods such as traditional clothes. Pac Mieu is one of the busiest in Cao Bang, to experience the colourful, lively market visit on the 1st, 5th, 10th or 15th day of the lunar month.  

Food and Drink

The food in Cao Bang is mostly typical of that in the North with some specialities of its own. Xoi tram Cao Bang is a regional take on the classic Vietnamese dish sticky rice which is mixed with fruit from the Carnarium tree to give it a rich purple colour.

Cao Bang also has some unusual dishes which feature insects on the ingredients list. Peng Ray, which translates to ant egg cake, is a seasonal delicacy for the Tay community in Cao Bang. Each year they gather the ant eggs from the nearby forests from April to May. The eggs are encased in a glutinous rice cake and wrapped in fig leaves. The dish is popular for its high nutritional value.
Bees are another interesting feature of the Cao Bang cuisine. Bee larvae are collected in autumn and either fried with sour bamboo shoots or added to hot rice porridge.
Cao Bang also has its own take on the traditional noodles soup pho. Pho chua Cao Bang has a sour soup with noodles, chunks of roasted duck, strips of bacon and peanuts. The meaty flavours are a great combination with the fresh, sour soup.
Duck is one of the favoured meats in Cao Bang, and as well as being one the main ingredients in pho chua Cao Bang, it is also served in a number of other dishes, such as flavoursome, marinated roast duck and fried duck cakes called banh ap chao.
Cao Bang is also known throughout the country for its production of bitter tea. The tea plants thrive naturally in the area, growing to great sizes. The tea is thought to have a medicinal effect and is currently sold across the country.  

Festivals and Events

Long Tong Festival is one of the biggest Tay celebrations of the year. The festival takes place throughout many Tay villages in the north of Vietnam on the 4th day of the lunar year. The spring festival is a chance for the villagers to worship the god of agriculture and pray for prosperous crops in the upcoming year. People prepare offerings of food for the gods and then celebrate with a feast and lively traditional games.

Another Tay festival, held in the Dong Khe region of Cao Bang is Moi Me Trang which means Mother Moon Festival. This is another spring festival which brings the local villagers together to celebrate and pray for prosperity. In particular, this festival is a chance to ask the moon for luck. The celebrations start with a beautiful ceremony of traditional singing and flower offerings which are followed by cultural activities and games.  

- We highly recommend  BA BE LAKE AND BAN GIOC WATERFALL DISCOVERY 4 DAYS 3 NIGHTS to see the highlights of Cao Bang
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