4. Doing the Cao Bang Loop

09.05 – 11.05.2016

Motorbike ready, bags packed on the back of the bike (not leaving lots of space for my bum on the seat), wearing my hopefully-decent-helmet without a visor (not a lot of choice for a helmet) and with direction in hand I was ready to leave Cao Bang.

The first part of my road trip was doing what I call now the “Cao Bang Loop” – heading north to the north-east border with China to see the Pak Bo cave, and then making my way to Ban Gioc waterfall on the far east, before returning to Cao Bang via the southern road. In theory it was possible to do the trip in a relaxed manner. Well – I said something about good plans when travelling to Cao Bang…

Unfortunately due to the motorbike issue I only left Cao Bang after 11:30. Getting out-of-town was easy enough with the direction until I arrived at a massive round about with 5 possible options. It was the first time I just turned to a random person and asked “Pac Bo?”, and he indicated the correct direction – or so I was hoping. And it was, and soon enough the road led to a view I really didn’t expect to see, so I had to stop. Did I see only mountains on the way to Cao Bang, I was now on a road that was surrounded by green rice paddies, with mountains in the background. I got the impression I was back in the Mekong Delta. I mentioned a few times in previous blogs that I feel very relaxed when seeing rice fields, I just love the strong green or yellow colour. I recently took a train to northern Germany and I saw a lot of wheat fields. It looked nice, but I didn’t feel as peaceful and relaxed when seeing a rice field. It might have something to do knowing I am in SEA when seeing them, but who knows.

I enjoyed riding on that road, passing the rice fields and little villages. The road was in good condition, and the traffic not bad, so it was a good place to get used to the bike and the gears. The bike was nice enough, and I felt comfortable rather quickly. One thing that also surprised me was the heat. It was much hotter than I expected – a heat wave was over northern Vietnam. My hope for a bit cooler weather was disappointed on day 1.

After an hour it was time to check my bags, as for some reason I never really managed to get the bags fully fixed onto the bike – they seem to fall onto one side during the ride. Without realising I stopped in front of a food place, and suddenly I was invited in by a few guys sitting on one of the tables. Well – why not. I was in need of a little break from the heat, so I joined them on the table, and without a question a little keg of Saigon beer was brought to the table and I had a cold beer in front of me. Well – it would have been rude to say no. However, I declined after the second small glass, and got plenty of cold mint tea instead. One of the guys spoke a bit English, so we all managed to have a conversation – about the life there, and obviously where I am from and why on earth I was in this area.

They were rather impressed to see a foreigner keen to see these parts of Vietnam. Soon I was asked if I had lunch already – which I hadn’t. Like it was a sign two girls from the table next to us got up and went into the kitchen, and soon a few plates containing fried rice, chicken, soup, pork ear and vegetable were brought to the table. Oh, it was delicious, and the food tasted even better with the company. Unfortunately after a longish break I really had to leave to make it to the cave and to the border to the town I wanted to stay for the night. When I asked how much the food was they all looked shocked and waved their hands. “No money – you are our guest”. Once again the locals just surprised me – inviting a stranger to their table for lunch. This is one of the moment I realise why I love Vietnam so much – because of the people. Before I left it was advised though not to follow the road along the Chinese border as the road might not be in good condition, and instead return to Cao Bang after the cave. Surely I would listen to the advise of the locals, right??? As a final thank you I got a bag with some fruit for the road. Yep – I clearly look like a person who doesn’t eat enough!!!

I continued following the road, passing more little villages and even more rice fields. Thankfully you only have to follow that one beautiful road, and when the rice paddies stopped on both sides I knew I was near my first planned destination. And soon enough I saw a sign with an important milestone – the “0 Mile” marker of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, next to the Chinese border. Considering I travelled on the Ho Chi Minh trail in other parts of Vietnam it was actually nice to see the starting point

But first I parked my bike next to a gate where other bikes where standing. I spotted a pagoda on top of the hill and thought it would be nice to climb all the stairs to reach it. Well – on the positive I had a great view and could peek into the temple with a statue of Uncle Ho. On the downside – I was knackered!!!! After walking all way back to my bike I was finally told that I have to pass the gate to get to the cave. D’oh!!! Not sure if I should just walk, I decided to be taken the bike – and it was the right choice.

A little dirt path passing more rice fields and a small village I finally got to the entrance of the cave. Hooray, the 60km journey from Cao bang to the cave took only 3 1/2 hours (including breaks). I would definitely break any speed record. But as you say – I am on holiday and just enjoying the trip. I know – it is the usual excuse of a darn slow-moving bum.

So now I was at Pac Bo Cave, but I hear you ask “Why is this cave so famous?”. It is famous for a simple reason: Ho Chi Minh returned here to Vietnam, and stayed in these caves for a while. So it is an important pilgrimage site for the Vietnamese – and a beautiful spot.

Straight after the entrance there quite a few stalls selling souvenirs, food and most important water, while on the other side a stream is passing by, with a hill overlooking the whole situation. The path follows the stream, and soon you can either continue on that side of the stream, or cross it via a wooden bridge. Either way you soon arrive at a little pond between the two paths, with a beautiful turquoise colour, and some water buffalos grazing on the shore of the pond. Without any noise of traffic it felt so peaceful here. At some point a little path on your right leads up the hill – and apparently to the caves. It is a bit steep, and you might have to walk around some goats(!!!!) and you reach the first little cave where Uncle Ho lived for a short while. Going further up there are more caves, but I suddenly felt like not being able to walk any longer. Bit dizzy and just tired. Well – it seems riding a bike during the midday heat caused a little heat issue with my head. I never had this before, so I decided it wouldn’t have been a great idea climbing up the hill and returned to the where I was happy to get a seat and ordered an ice-cold sugar cane juice. Sitting in the shade with the cold drink helped a lot, and I felt much better after a little while. Unfortunately I had to leave the area without fully exploring it. It felt a bit disappointing!!!

Back on the bike I had to make an important decision after a few km – do I go back to Cao Bang, or do I take the road along the Chinese border. Even though I was warned about the condition of the road the adventurer in me won the argument, and I turned off the main road and into the mountain. Quickly I realised it was a good choice – thanks to the very steep road after only a few minutes I got a great view over the valley with all the rice paddies and house. And this was not the end of it. The road, which was in rather good condition only a few potholes here and there, led me further up and soon I was already on top of the highest point in that area. From the bottom to the top in less than 15 minutes. The stunning view, the lack of noise – it was just a WOW moment. It was worthwhile to stop, have a seat and just take everything in.

On the top the road became flat again, and the surrounding was different to earlier that day. There were still fields, but more terraces than paddies, and not just rice, but also corn and soy beans. Limestone hills shadowing the fields and road, in some instances little valleys opening up, creating a beautiful sight. There are also countless little hamlets, with only a few houses. Kids and adults alike were waving and shouting Xin Chao. It was just lovely – and I am glad I didn’t heed the advise not to come here. With the sun starting to set the terraces and hills turned orange, adding something mystical or magical to the whole area. I felt like being in a different world. If there would have been a homestay or guesthouse with that view, I would have stopped immediately. Unfortunately there wasn’t. So instead I had to ask for direction a few time as signs were not clear enough. As the sun started to disappear got a bit nervous – I was not sure if it would be nice to ride along a road where any minute a dogs, chicken or larger animal could cross the street in the dark.

Though I made it to border town Tra Linh – unfortunately there was no chance I could reach a newly opened homestay initiative next to a lake now. Thankfully I somehow found a hotel in Tra Linh, and they even had a room available for 300.000 Dong. Here is my review of the hotel. I didn’t know about it when I checked in – but it was the worst place I have ever stayed at in SEA.

Tra Linh definitely has a border feel to it. It is not a big place, more a larger village than a small town, with some typical old colonial style buildings. The main road passing the market and the only petrol station. And you can see quite a few trucks coming back and forth the road to the Chinese border. After a short walk to the market and back to the hotel I didn’t spot many food places, so I decided to visit the busiest place opposite the hotel. I clearly raised attention as soon I entered any premise in Tra Linh, as everyone was looking at me. I could just guess, but some must have thought what on earth this crazy foreign man is doing here. Not having any menu and the lack of English made me just getting a pho, which was actually very nice. Some older men on the table next to me tried to have a conversation with me (well, the usual English – Vietnamese version of it), which was actually quite nice. However, the happiest person was probably the young daughter working in the food place, as she could practise her little English with me. Like many children in Vietnam she was initially a bit shy, but with encouragement of the guests she loved using her school English – saying hello, how are you, where are you from and counting to ten. You cannot help but smile and feel happy if you have such encounters.

After dinner I found a place I could get a ca fe sua da, though it was not a cafe, but a karaoke bar, and every new guest arriving looked at me surprised, some trying to say a few English words. As I was a bit tired I declined the offer to join one group for karaoke. I usually never say no to such invites, but the heat of the day really took a lot of energy out of me. So I was glad to fell into my bed in my room. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well, as I was bitten by something during the night, re-checking if I missed black spots on the sheet and mattress (sings of bed fleece), but nothing was there. I still have no idea what it was, but I slept on the second bed after that. I didn’t get the restful sleep I was hoping for.

The next morning I was a bit grumpy, however my mood was improved quite a bit though when I headed to the local market. Was it dark and empty when I arrived the market was full now, noisy and colourful. It was just lovely to walk around for a bit, and I was tempted to buy some food at every stall. Curious as I am I bought some donut like balls, that turned out be rice balls with something sweet inside, deep-fried (well – similar to a fried Mars Bar in Scotland!!!). They looked like a light snack, but I was so wrong – they were filling. So filling I managed to eat one. Not wanting to throw food away I offered the remaining four to some women selling tools. Not understanding straight away that I wanted to give them the food they showed me some tools I might want to buy, but everyone was laughing when they finally got it. Based on their face I assume they enjoy these balls more than I did.

It was time to head off and soon I was back on the road. Following the great mountainous road at the end of the previous day I was back on a well paved road in a valley surrounded by mountains and passing rice paddies dotted around individual tree covered limestone karst hills. With the scenery, waving kids and little village flying by it was sometimes difficult not to look at the road. There is just so much to see.

After an hour or so I saw the sign for Ho Thang Hen. This was the lake where you can apparently find some nice homestays. I would have loved to arrive here the previous night, but at least I could check it out now. I turned off the main road onto a little path, and soon another absolute beautiful valley opened up. The ever-changing scenery just makes you speechless. This was just a place you have to stop, sit down, and let the view just sink in. All the stops might have made the ride longer, but it is better to actually see the scenery, and not just riding past it. From previous bike trips in Laos I know not everyone think the same and might bet annoyed with slow-moving attitude. Maybe this is why I love travelling solo so much.

I followed the road and soon enough I reached the lake and with quite a few buildings – the homestay. It seems like you can get normal bungalows there, or stay in traditional long houses, sharing it with others. It all looked very nice and clean, and the highlight was the view. The complex was built on a hill overlooking the small Ho Thang Hen lake. From some descriptions I imagined it was larger, but it was still just beautiful, with the turquoise water, the hills around it. I think this must be a great place to spend a night, and I was a bit upset not leaving Cao bang earlier. Now I was tempted to maybe stay here for a night, and just continue the journey tomorrow. But then I thought I will find more of these places, and I couldn’t take a day rest so early. Though I must admit, I have not seen a setting like that again. If I ever return to this area, I will stay here for sure.

I headed back to the main road, and not long I came back to the highway QL 3 – connecting Cao Bang with Ban Gioc. Turning east I followed the highway towards Quang Nuyen. The highway was a bit busier with traffic, and the surrounding here was more lush green, all the limestone hills covered in trees. The road also continued going up and down, providing some great views in the process. It was actually impossible not to have a beautiful view at all. After 1pm I finally made it to Quang Nuyen, the biggest place in that area. Here I realised something – it is difficult to find a place to eat here after noon. They are all shut. I didn’t even see a Banh Mi vendor next to the street. So any plans of a “late” lunch was not possible. I have hardly seen that before. But clearly the locals prefer hiding from the heat and having a siesta – and I fully agree with the idea behind!!! At least I found a little cafe where I could get a little rest and enjoying another ca fe su da. It was not as hot as the previous day, but nonetheless still hot. So the break here was very much-needed. Even though the cafe was at the main road of the town, there was not a lot of traffic. Clearly the locals are more intelligent than me and stay indoors during midday. Clearly not learning from the locals, I was off again to make the last section towards Ban Gioc.

And I must admit – I saved the best of today’s route to last. As soon turning into TL206 road, the scenery became more and more beautiful and stunning. From watching limestone hills from the bottom, with rice fields below them, the road brought me higher up to a plateau where the top of the hills look so much closer, while the road continued to wind through the hills. Left and right I passed more rice fields, with water buffalo grassing next to it. Some streams followed the road, and I passed quite a few little hamlets. There were also lots of little tents along the road were locals were selling fruits and vegetables – or at least some of them had tents I was often greeted with hellos and Xin Chaos, which I happily replied to. In addition of the beautiful surrounding I also encountered quite a few lorries heading to and back from the Chinese border. In this section overtaking became rather important when going up a steep road, the horn being a very important tool. I must admit – it was actually fun.

During one of my stops for an important sip of my water a lorry suddenly stopped next to me. The driver jumped out, waving and shouting Xin Chao, indicating that I should follow him. Sightly confused but followed the driver to a woman sitting next to the street selling cucumber. A minute later I was sitting on grass next to her and the lorry driver eating fresh cucumber bought by the driver. I really have no idea what happened there, but is was amazing. It really was a surreal experience. None of them could speak English, and I entertained them with my limited Vietnamese. I just had a massive smile in my face, enjoying this very special moment. Before the lorry driver returned to his cabin to continue his journey he bought more cucumber for me in case I get hungry during the ride!!! Still not sure what just happened I enjoyed sitting in the shade eating the freshest cucumber I ever had (and maybe the tastiest) even after the lorry driver left, still appreciating the beauty of this area and the friendly and welcoming attitude of the locals here. For me these little encounters make a trip so memorable.

However, a great scenery helps as well. And it continued to improve. After a corner, not expecting anything special I just had to stop. My mouth wide open, the view here was like a painting.

In the front were different fields, a section of bright green rice, some sections not planted yet and a section growing corn. In these fields locals with the typical hats or umbrellas were working, while others moved a herd of water buffalo across the fields. The background was full of different limestone hills and mountains that were all full of trees. THis is how you would imagine rural Vietnam. At least so did I before my first visit. No picture could ever reflect how special this particular place was. I was just stunned, sitting down to enjoy it.

The road towards the border continued with such view, I really had to focus to keep my mouth shut so I am not having flies for lunch. But this stretch of the route was some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in Vietnam till then. I could have easily stopped very 5 minutes. And I nearly did. Anyone who just drives here fast cannot really appreciate the pure beauty of this part of Vietnam, or small things like the irrigation systems. I was amazed by the scenery.

In the afternoon I arrived in the village near Ban Gioc waterfall. I didn’t saw any guesthouses or hotels in the village, but near the falls there were two opposite each. One had a karaoke bar downstairs, and the other one reminded me of an old Soviet building. Well – I am not sure shabby looking would be a nice description, but it definitely had better days. The room for 250.000 was not nice at all, and on the stairs were some of the biggest cockroaches I have ever seen – at least they were dead. This was clearly a hotel aimed for lorry drivers travelling over the border. I didn’t fancy it. So I turned and drove all the way back to the first village, but once again no sight of accommodation. Resigned that I had to stay in the shabby place I then saw a sign on a building in a tiny hamlet between the village and the hotel. Only then I realised that it was Vietnamese for guesthouse. Turning onto the dirt path I stopped in front of the building, and as it was my lucky day there was even someone who spoke English. Great. And it was a guesthouse. Even better. And the lovely room was only 250.000. Perfect. Kieu Thanh Nguyet really is a little gem in that area.

After freshen up a bit I went for a little walk. The guesthouse was located on a little dirt road off the main road creating a little hamlet with a few houses, some of them look a bit like a longhouse. On the other side of the village across the main roads were just some fields, and it was nice to watch the locals returning from their working day. The locals in the village were all smiling at me, and one of the little shops go to know me a bit soon. The first time it took some explanation to get my favourite ice tea. The second time someone already went to the back of the house to get me another, and the next morning they had it ready for. It was actually a good laugh I had with them. The little dirt road followed a little valley between two hills, with a few small villages across a stream, and some houses along the road – perfect for a little stroll, and as usual I was unable to walk anywhere without being stopped by some locals, sitting down and getting a fresh tea it was not beer time yet. There was more smiles then talks, which was ok for me as I enjoyed the peaceful surrounding. Yes, I found the perfect place to stay for the night.

The only disadvantage was that there was no food place in this hamlet. So in theory I would had to ride to the village for some food. However, as it turned out the guy speaking English didn’t belong to the guesthouse, but was the guide of a Dutch family of three who were doing an organised trip through the north of Vietnam. And he just had a word with the owner, and I was invited to join the Dutch family for a home-made dinner at the guesthouse. I couldn’t decline that offer – and the price of 60.00 Dong was very good.

The dinner served in the kitchen and we got a selection of chicken, pork, rice, vegetable, spring rolls tofu, soup and rice. It was delicious. It was nice to share stories with the family (the parents just met her daughter who is doing a longer trip through Asia) or learn more about the area from the guide. A very enjoyable dinner was finished with a few glasses of something new for me – corn wine. It wouldn’t be the last time I had it.

The next morning I already had the day’s programme in my head. First I wanted to visit the Động Ngườm Ngao cave, which was somewhere near the falls. Well – it turned out that the cave was at the end of the dirt road I walked on the previous day. Great. Well – not that great. There was heavy construction ongoing, so I had to leave my bike there, and it turned that the Dutch family and the guide arrived at the same time. At least I had company. We just had to walk for 15 minutes, but it was not hot yet, so it was actually very pleasant. At the end of the road is the entrance area where you can buy the ticket fort he cave (20.000 Dong) and even some drinks. From here you have to follow a little road, however that road turned to be into a slightly tricky track as there was construction ongoing, so instead of pavement or flat ground it was uneven and full of gravels. Hopefully the construction will be completed soon as it just such to the contrast to the valley that opens up in front of you – with several larger hills, green fields and one hill with the name of the cave in big letters on top of it. I Just took the risk and assumed that the cave was inside the hill!!!

I really didn’t know what to expect. I saw one or two pictures of the cave when planning my trip – but that’s it. Not going in without any expectation can be a good thing, and in this case it just blew me away. The start of the cave was just like so many other caves, with some beautiful stalagmite. But soon you crossed some larger chambers – one moment you had a ceiling 10 minute high, the next moment you had to crouch through a small entrance.There were also some interesting rock formations called silver tree, mushroom garden. The highlight was the largest chamber with a rock that looked like a massive cactus. It was just stunning and impressive. And when you think it is done, you come into another chamber. It is not a small cave. In total we spent nearly an hour inside. it might not be a famous cave, but it was one of the most impressive ones due to the size, and can easily compete with the Surprise cave in Halong Bay. Not to be missed when in this area.

It was then time to say good-bye to my Dutch companions and soon I was back on my bike. However, this time I learned from my mistake and when I saw a food place on the way I stopped, even though it was only after 11am. But I was hungry and in need of food – and I was just worried that everything was closed. It was close to the entrance to a pagoda on top of a hill (which I missed I must admit), though the staff was a bit confused when a foreigner and some soldiers entered around te same time. I clearly did not belong to them, but I still waved to them and after Xin Chao I got a few laughter as response. Any issue solved before they appeared. The food was simple but very very good – though the plate somehow reminded me of a youth hostel or even prison. It didn’t reflect the quality though.

A short ride I finally reached the place why I actually wanted to come to this province – Ban Gioc waterfall. Even from the road you get a great view of this beautiful waterfall – and you can look over to China, as the one side of the falls below to Vietnam, and the other side to China. You cannot get much closer to China without going to the border crossing. I had to ride down a steep road to the bottom of the valley, where some shops offer a parking spaces. I really appreciated that a card box was but over the seat and bags – at least this way I would not burn my bum when getting back onto the bike. Following the path you pass a line of souvenir stalls until you reach the open pace in front of the falls – and gave you a great view. In front was the massive waterfall with the pond where several boats got closer to the falls, and slight to your left you had a wide open green field with benches and a path and bridges bringing you as close to the waterfall as possible – and even to the smaller tiers. There quite a few places with lots of shade so even in the midday heat you can get some nice places to sit down. In the pool at the bottom were quite a few boats, unfortunately only Chinese ones. The Vietnamese staff was having a lunch break, or having a nap. So I had to miss a nice boat ride. Instead I had a good laugh with a vendors selling sugar cane juice and his little daughter, running around me shouting “Hello – what is your name”. It was a worthy substitution for the boat ride. THough I was actually thinking that the girl should be at school rather than helping her father to earn money – but it seems it is a common problem that the help of kids are needed to get enough money to live. It was a sad reminder that this was a rather poor province and that many people struggle. till, they all showed great hospitality and welcomed me everywhere I went. This shows a great attitude.

I left Ban Gioc to make my way back to Cao Bang. I didn’t fancy to return the same way I cam here, so I followed the TL206 / 207 road southwards. It was interesting hugging the Chinese border – actually being able to constantly see China across the river. After a short while I had to say bye to the border as the road climbed up a few hills again. And passing a little village my heart was stopping. A few minutes earlier I re-done my bags, when a local helped me to tighten the ropes around the bag. unfortunately not good enough, as suddenly my daypack and main backpack were falling off the bike. Thankfully I didn’t rode fast, still I saw my iPad and other parts in pieces – but I was lucky and nothing was broken. Just my pride as a man and his family came out of the house to help me putting the bags back on. He also saw my empty water bottle, went inside and refilled it from his dispenser. Talking about kind people.

After this incident I was back on the road enjoying the now usual scenery – rice paddies, limestone hills, little villages, and in some instances I got a great view over a valley with rice terraces and rivers. It was just beautiful. Overall the road condition got worse in this section, more potholes and more sections with gravel instead of proper road. But it was still a spectacular ride, in some sections the road winding between hills. It was fun.

Unfortunately after half way the ok condition of the road turned into atrocious. I am not sure you could even call it a road. It was some straightened ground with rocks everywhere. No chance to ride here normal speed. You had to slow down a lot to ensure your tyres do not get damaged. And it was bumpy – so it was not very comfortable for my bum. Passing a village I thought that it was only a small section – it wasn’t. In some instances it improved back to paved roads with more holes than a swiss cheese. it was a challenge. After getting direction of a local I turned into a very steep road (again the road was just atrocious) and it went up and up and up. Until I could see the whole valley below me – including a nice looking road passing through the valley. At the time I was sure that this might have been the easier road. But I got the one with the better views. And it great. At time it felt I was on the same height as all the surrounding mountains, seeing the trees on top of them, rice terraces covering the slopes.

Traffic in this area was nearly non-existent, though when I saw locals they waved very enthusiastically. But I must admit – at the time I had no idea where I was. Whenever I asked for Cao Bang I got a smile and they pointed into the direction I was driving. So I guessed I went into the right way. Still, I haven’t seen any signs saying how far Cao Bang was away. So I just continued riding the road, finally heading down the mountain in a very remote looking area, with naked rocks around me, and only a few houses. And of course here I came to the end of the road, with the option to turn right or left…and no one around. I had a 50% chance and turned right. After 10 minutes I finally saw a house with a few people outside, and after saying Cao Bang 5 times they finally got me and told me, wrong way. Well, I had 50% chance to be wrong…

I followed the road along a nice looking pass on a road hugging the hill on one side, and a drop on the left. And still no idea how far away I was. I was actually glad when arriving in a larger looking village – it felt like being back into civilisation. And here the road condition switched between good and bad condition. As the sun started to set, I used the good sections well and rode as fast as possible, until a next construction site appeared and I had to slow down again. I focused so much on e the road, I really didn’t appreciate some of the views I saw. I finally arrived at a large construction site and here I was advised that Cao Bang was still 50km away. Are you kidding me, another 50??? After the shock at least I got a big farewell from probably 20 construction worker shouting and waving while I was driving away.

But thankfully the road was now in pretty good condition, and I could ride a bit faster. Passing more villages, riding a road through a little pass, seeing waving local, fields, water buffalo. But I was tired. I was on the bike for over 5 hours now without a real long break. And just after 6pm I finally recognised the road that led me back into Quang Uyen. I knew where I was. The right decision would have been to stop here and get a room at the guesthouse I saw. But it was just 30km to Cao bang, and it was not dark yet. Yes, I would not really appreciate the Ma Phuc Pass. But once again I decided against common sense and continued the journey. Knowing part of the stretch I took advantage of the road and drove not slowly – well, until I was stuck behind a lorry…and there was constant traffic from the opposite direction. I can tell you riding behind a lorry transporting pigs is not pleasant – things fly past your face you don’t want to have in your face. And there was no chance for a safe overtaking manoeuvre. So a bit slowed down I could the sun disappearing, and the it got darker and darker. And I was riding with my little scooter on a busy highway at night. All the horror stories I heard came back into my mind, and I wondered if I will actually survive to tell the tale. The road went up and down with some nice serpentine, and at some crossings I was not 100% sure I went into the right direction. At one point I was sure I missed a turn, turned back and saw a few cars using their flashing lights. It seems they knew where I was heading (well – a foreigner stands out) and indicated to turn my stupid ass again. I did that, and I was so glad to finally see a large sign saying turning left for Cao Bang.

But here was the next problem – where in Cao Bang was I? I just followed what looked like the main road, and soon I recognised a few buildings and I arrived at the bus station. From here I knew where the hotels were, so crossed the bridge and rode back to Ming Hoan Hotel. But despite being a big hotel I was told no room available!!! OK, so I headed to a guesthouse opposite the motorbike rental place. It looked nice enough, and it was close to the shops. And thankfully – they had a room available. Than Loan Hotel was actually a nice place to stay

I was so happy to be back in Cao Bang, as it was just before 8pm, I could feel every bone in my body and I was tired. I enjoyed the three-day Cao bang Loop, the scenery was beautiful, the sites I visited were impressive, the people were lovely, and I enjoyed riding the bike. But this last day, riding from Ban Gioc to Cao Bang took a lot of energy out of me, with hardly any stops since after noon. So with the pride to complete that section, doubts came into my mind if I really wanted to ride a bike to Ha Giang province, or if I should take a bus to Ha Giang and get a bike there. I decided to spend the night in Cao Bang first to reflect the great trip I had so far, and make a decision the next morning.

 

Recommendation

  • If you have the time do a three-day trip minimum in this area. This way you can visit the highlights of the Cao bang province: Pac Bo cave, Ban Gioc & Động Ngườm Ngao cave
  • While the distances do not look long, try not to leave too late, otherwise some of the parts feel rushed
  • The road from Cao Bang to Pac Bo was in very good condition – flat and well paved
  • The road from Pac Bo to Tra Linh offers some fantastic view, and it was a very enjoyable journey. The road was on good condition with some sections containing a few holes
  • If you have the chance I would rather stay at the homestay at the lake than Tra Linh – the only hotel was terrible. Though the morning market there was lovely
  • The road to Ban Gioc from Tra Linh was very good again, though traffic on the highway was busy – a big different to the rather empty roads to Tra Linh
  • It might be nicer heading to the waterfall in the afternoon, as it is apparently a bit livelier and boats on the Vietnamese side will be on offer. Get some food for a lovely picnic. It was rather hot mid day
  • Taking the southern road to Quang Nuyen (TL 206/207) was ok at the start, but turned into an atrocious excuse of a road. It will take time to follow the road. Saying that, the scenery was beautiful. Anyone sharing a motorbike I would highly recommended NOT going that way.
  • There seem to be guesthouses in most larger places, but not in small villages, so time your journey and avoid driving when it is dark. It was a nerve wrecking ride
  • Food places were closed after noon, so make sure you either buy a Banh Mi and stop on the road (something I should have done), or stop a bit earlier for lunch. Cafes were also not wide-spread, not like the central highlands here you could find one around every corner.
  • Finally – take your time. Some sections of the journey were so beautiful, you have to sit down and really appreciate it in my opinion. So do not try to rush the journey. Even a day trip from Cao Bang to ban Gioc would be a waste – rather stay a night near the falls.

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