The best way to explore the north-eastern province of Cao Bang is by motorbike. You could easily do a day trip to the Ban Gioc Waterfall, or Pac Bo. However, for a really memorable experience try to see more of the province.
One nice journey could be the so-called Cao Bang Loop, that covers the Pac Bo cave in the north, the Ban Gioc waterfall in the east, and then following the southern road back to Cao Bang. This trip can be done in 3 days, or more if you want to explore more of the side roads. However, I only cover the 3-day journey.
One slight challenge could get a motorbike in Cao Bang. I found one motorbike rental place opposite the Than Loan Hotel on Vuon Cam. You might need to ask someone to call the owner of the rental place. The reception of the hotel could be helpful. Check the bikes, as they vary in quality. Price was between 200.000 and 250.000 Dong, with a 10.000.000 Dong deposit. To be honest, I was not impressed with the bikes.
An alternative is Khách Sạn Bằng Giang hotel. The receptionist Ana helped to arrange a semi-automatic bike in good condition for 300.000 Dong, but only a 5.000.000 deposit required. I would recommend to try getting a bike here first.
I will split the route into three sections – each could be done in a day. This pace would allow time to see a bit of the area, and not just riding the bike.
Part 1: Cao Bang – Pac Bo – Tra Linh (95km)
The first section is partly a nice easy ride on a well paved flat road for about 50km to the Pac Bo cave, before heading to the mountains to hug the Chinese border for a 45km ride to Tra Linh. If you want to include a few stops on the way (including a longer one at the Pac Bo cave) this is a good distance to travel without rushing.
Getting out-of-town is quite easy. Assuming you start from Khách Sạn Bằng Giang hotel turn left at the hotel, and turn right at the traffic light, leaving the market and bridge behind you. Cross a small bridge and turn right. At the end of that road turn left at the traffic light and follow the road (it is the Q3) until you get to a big roundabout. Take the second exit and you get onto the TL 203, the road that head north towards the Chinese border. If you are not sure, ask locals “Pac Bo” and they will point towards the right direction.
Once you are on the TL2013 you are on a nice road in great condition, with rice paddies on both sides of the road while passing little villages on the way. It looks a bit like the Mekong Delta here, and only the mountains in the distance reminds you where you are. Except of taking a break for food or drinks you can easily ride the road in between 1 1/2 and 2 hours. Just follow the road.
Shortly before the cave the rice paddies stop on both sides, and you need to go straight through a little round about and the road ascend a little bit and you follow the road hugging the side of a hill. Soon you will see a pagoda on a hill to your left and to your right a monument of the “0 Mile” marker of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The pagoda is in memory of Ho Chi Minh, with a statue of him inside. Climbing all the stairs for the view over the surrounding areas and paying respect to Uncle Ho is worthwhile. You can leave your bike at the gate at the end of the road.
To get to the Pac Bo Cave ride pass the gate and follow the road downhill, turn left at the end of the path, and right again to ride on a little road between a hill and a little stream, leading to the actual entrance of the cave, where you can park the bike as well.
Pac Bo Cave is an important site for Vietnamese as Ho Chi Minh did spend time here after his return to Vietnam, and he apparently came up with some of his plan for an independent Vietnam. So for anyone interesting in history it is a nice place to visit – and people who like a lovely spot with rivers and caves will enjoy this site as well. Here is a description of the site.
From the cave you could return to Cao Bang or you could head south an alternative way, hugging the Chinese border. It is a more impressive road, with some great views, and the road is in a good condition.
Just head back south from the entrance, and at the little turn around take the third exit and turn left onto a road that goes up straight away. After a minute you already get a nice view over the main road and the rice fields, leading you further up onto a plateau with a first impression of a more rough terrain now. It is a different world here than down in the valley. The road TL210 remains in a rather good condition only a few potholes here and there, and brings you up higher and higher until you reach the highest point of the area. The view from there is just stunning. From the bottom to the top in less than 15 minutes. The stunning view, the lack of noise – it is just a WOW moment.
On the top the road becomes flat again, and the surrounding is different again. 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 is a lovely place, you might even say magically. Peaceful. Wonderful. Follow the road winding around fields and hills, and while there are some interesting roads turning off stay on the same road and it will lead to the border town of Tra Lin.
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. I wouldn’t call it a beautiful place. I think the description of a Wild West town I read somewhere was quite suitable. It offers accommodation and food places – although limited. Here are details about Tra Linh.
If you arrive not too late, and you might want to consider an alternative option for accommodation do not stop in Tra Linh and follow the road TL210 for another 20km until you see a sign for Ho Thang Hen, and turn right into a side road. Another few km and you reach an homestay initiative with several options of accomodation. The area looks lovely overlooking a lake, with some nice looking rooms in bungalows or traditional long houses. A good alternative to the border town of Tra Vinh. You will find it hard to find a better setting.
Part 2: Tra Linh – Ban Gioc Waterfall (80km)
The second part of the trip will bring you to a highlight of the area – the Ban Gioc waterfall. This part of the journey is mainly on a very well maintained road and offering some great views on some passes.
From Tra Linh follow the road TL210 south. After the great mountainous road at the end of the previous day this road was in a valley surrounded by mountains and passing rice paddies dotted around individual tree covered limestone karst hills, little villages flying past and kids waving at you. It is just so beautiful and peaceful.
If you have stayed in Tra Linh a detour to the Ho Thang Hen might be an option – it is located off the main road, behind a valley you have to ride through. The lake is rather small, but it was still just beautiful, with the turquoise water, the hills around it. This is a lovely setting for an overnight stay – a good alternative to Tra Linh.
Soon after the crossing for the lake the TL210 finishes when getting to the highway QL 3 – connecting Cao Bang with Ban Gioc. Turn left here for Ban Gioc, and right for Cao Bang. The highway is a bit busier with traffic, and the surrounding here is 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. At some point you will reach one of the larger places in this area – Quang Nuyen. It is kind of gateway to the far east, with a few guesthouses, cafes and food-places. So it is a good place for a break.
After Quang Uyen you have to leave the highway by turning left onto a smaller paved road, that leads straight into the mountains again. And this is probably the most impressive part of the this section. As soon turning into TL206 road, the scenery becomes more and more beautiful and stunning. From watching limestone hills from the bottom, with rice fields below them, the road goes 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 more rice fields are passed, with water buffalo grassing next to it. Some streams followed the road, with little hamlets and villages along the road. On the road are also quite a few vendors selling fruits and vegetables. If you need a snack just stop at one of the vendors, buy a fresh cucumber and enjoy the scenery while eating. It is a worthwhile activity. In addition of the beautiful surrounding you will encounter quite a few large lorries travelling to and from the Chinese border. So be careful on the road going up and down the mountains.
The scenery continues to improve on that route, with some stunning views open up when taking a corner – not expecting something special. But the views on offer here are special. Some of the views are just like taking from 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.
The road towards the border continued with such views. This stretch of the route is some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in Vietnam. You could constantly stop to enjoy the view. Anyone who just drives here fast cannot really appreciate the pure beauty of this part of Vietnam, or small things like the irrigation systems.
The road will lead eventually to a little village 10km before Ban Gioc. For accommodations you can either choose one of the rather poor looking hotels a few minutes away from the falls, or you can choose the lovely guesthouse Kieu Thanh Nguyet located in small hamlet jusy off the TL206. The hamlet offers two little shops, but no food choice. You could ask if the guesthouse offers food, or return to the village where you can find a few food places.
The surrounding of the guesthouse invites for a little stroll with some nice views, villages and locals waving at you.
If you follow the dirt road away from the main road you will get to Động Ngườm Ngao cave. in May 2016 there was some heavy construction ongoing on that road, making it impossible to ride a bike on the gravel. Instead you might need to leave the bike near the construction site and walk the remaining road. The ticket booth is at the end fo the road. A visit to the cave is worth it if you are in that area. It was empty early morning if you prefer avoiding crowds. Here is a summary of the cave.
The highlight here is of course the Bang Gioc waterfall – a natural border between China and Vietnam. Follow the TL206 and you cannot miss it on your left side. Even from the road you get a great view of the falls. The entrance booth is on your left next to a building – on the right side is the fancy resort Saigon Ban Gioc resort. You have to ride down a little road, and the shop on your left will offer to look after your bike – including putting a cardboard on your seat to prevent it from getting burning hot.
The fall itself is just beautiful, and you can easily spend some time here. In the afternoon it must be nice to have a pick nick and maybe freshen up in the water. So if you arrive early enough in the afternoon head to the falls after dropping your bags in the guesthouse.
Part 3: Ban Gioc Waterfall – Cao Bang (110km)
For the return trip you have two options. You could return the same road (TL206) to Quang Nuyen and then to Ban Gioc. You will see familiar views, ride on a very good road and it is only 87km.
Or you take the road south, following the Chinese border, and then take the south-west road with some detours to Quang Nuyen and then to Cao Bang. The first part of the journey between Ban Giog and Quang Nguyen is not in best conditions to put it mildly. Some section of the TL206 and 207 are not even dirt roads, but just earth with some rocks on the ground. It is definitely not an easy ride. On the other hand you will get some great views. If you do this journey, make sure you leave the area not too late.
For this route turn right after the falls and follow the Tl 206/207 southwards. At the beginning you will ride along the river that is the border between China and Vietnam. After a short while the road climbs up a few hills again, offering the now usual scenery – rice paddies, limestone hills, little villages, and in some instances a great view over a valley with rice terraces and rivers. It is just beautiful. However, the road conditions get worse here, 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.
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 is some straightened ground with rocks everywhere. No chance to ride here normal speed. You have to slow down a lot to ensure your tyres do not get damaged. And it was bumpy – so it might not be nice for your bum. In some instances it improved back to paved roads with more holes than a swiss cheese. This section is really a challenge. Also, there is a lack of signs, so you might need to ask locals which way to go – but it is part of the fun.
At one point you will follow a very steep road (again the road was just atrocious) and it went up and up and up – until you can see the whole valley below you. The view here is just beautiful. At time it feels you are 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 is nearly non-existent, though locals will wave very enthusiastically. Just follow the one main road (ask for Cao Bang if not sure), until finally heading down the mountain in a very remote looking area, with naked rocks and only a few houses. In this area the road ends in a T-junction. There is no signs for Cao Bang here, but turn left. Otherwise you go back east.
The new road is hugging the hill on one side and offering a drop on the other, while following a nice looking valley. And you will pass again some villages that welcomes you back into civilisation after the remote area. The road condition improved here again, though in some instances it still has potholes and sections with gravel.
Around 50km away from Cao Bang the road is in pretty good condition. You will pass more villages, riding a road through a little pass, seeing waving local, fields, water buffalo. until you reach the main road of Quang Nguyen. These 80 km are not easy, and it takes time as you have to ride walking pace in some sections. If you arrive in Quang Nguyen when the sun starts to set, choose a guesthouse here and ride to Cao Bang the next morning.
Otherwise just follow the highway Q3 back to Cao Bang. You will see some familiar sites again, and after passing the turn off for Tra Linh you will soon reach the Ma Phuc Pass. Unfortunately I passed it in the darkness, but what I have seen it looks nice, and should be appreciated in daylight. The highway is busy, but offering other nice views as well.
At some point you reach a large roundabout with a large sign indicating to turn left for Cao Bang. Turn left and follow the main road into Cao Bang – it will lead you eventually to the bus station and after crossing the bridge you are back in the “tourist area” of Cao Bang, where you can find accommodation for the night.
The Cao bang Loop might not be as exciting as the Ha Giang Loop, but it offers spectacular scenery, and will bring you two some important historic sites as well as some impressive natural sites. It is surely a great road trip.
From here you could extend the motorbike trip and head north towards the Ha Giang province via Bao Lac.
- 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 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.
- You could extend a motorbike trip to include the Ha Giang Loop by travelling north to the Ha Giang province