Huge industrial zones are being created around Mong Cai, with plots being snapped up by Chinese and foreign corporations. Shopping malls dot the city centre. For the Vietnamese, the big draw is the chance to purchase low-priced (and low-quality) Chinese-made consumer goods. For the Chinese, the attraction is two huge casinos and new golf courses. Eslewhere in this border region, travellers’ highlights include the stunning karst scenery around Cao Bang, historical caves and the thundering Ban Gioc Waterfall.
A bustling border city, Mong Cai is an upwardly mobile place that thrives on trade with China. But other than as a border crossing, Mong Cai holds no interest for tourists.
Sleeping & Eating
There are plenty of food stalls on P Hung Vuong, including several good spots near the Nam Phong Hotel.
Nha Nghi Thanh Tam
(033-388 1373; 71 D Trieu Duong; r 280,000d) Clean comfortable rooms with hot-water bathrooms. There are similar options on this street, D Trieu Duong runs south from D Tran Phu, two blocks before Mong Cai’s main market.
GETTING TO CHINA: MONG CAI TO DONGXING
Getting to the border The Chinese border at the Mong Cai – Dongxing border crossing is around 3km from the Mong Cai bus station; around 20,000d on a xe om (motorbike taxi) or 40,000d in a taxi.
At the border The border is open daily between 7am and 10pm Vietnam time. Note that China is one hour ahead of Vietnam. You’ll need to have a pre-arranged visa for China.
Moving on Across the border in Dongxing, frequent buses run to Nanning in China’s Guangxi province.
Nam Phong Hotel
(033-388 7775; P Hung Vuong; r 320,000-450,000d) A more upmarket place featuring spacious, well-equipped rooms with satellite TV. There’s a bar and restaurant serving good Chinese and Vietnamese dishes.
Getting There & Away
Mong Cai is located 340km from Hanoi. The bus terminal is on Hwy 18, about 3km from the border.
Buses from Mong Cai:
DURATION & FREQUENCY
|Hanoi||230,000||8hr; frequent to 1pm|
|Halong City||100,000||4hr, every 30 minutes|
|Lang Son||110,000||7hr; 6.30am & 12.30pm|
Very close to the Chinese border, Lang Son is a booming city. Surrounded by karst peaks, it is in an area populated largely by Tho, Nung, Man and Dzao tribal people, though their influence is not evident in the city.
The city was partially destroyed in February 1979 by Chinese forces, and the ruins of the town and the devastated frontier village of Dong Dang were shown to foreign journalists as evidence of Chinese aggression. Although the border is still heavily fortified, both towns have been rebuilt and Sino-Vietnamese trade is in full swing again.
Lang Son has a good night market, and there’s a great local restaurant. Most travellers come to Lang Son when crossing between Vietnam and China; the border is 18km north, just outside Dong Dang.
Sights & Activities
There are two large and beautiful caves around 1200m from central Lang Son. Both are illuminated and have Buddhist altars inside. Tam Thanh Cave (combined admission with Nhi Thanh 5000d; 6am-6pm) is vast and seductive. There’s an internal pool and natural ‘window’ offering a sweeping view of the surrounding rice fields. A few hundred metres up a stone staircase are the ruins of the Mac Dynasty Citadel. It’s a lovely, deserted spot, with stunning rural views.
The Ngoc Tuyen River flows through Nhi Thanh Cave (combined admission with Tam Thanh 5000d; 6am-6pm), 700m beyond Tam Thanh. The entrance has a series of carved poems written by the cave’s 18th-century discoverer, a soldier called Ngo Thi San. There’s also a carved stone plaque commemorating an early French resident of Lang Son, complete with his silhouette in European clothing.
Lang Son’s huge night market (5-11pm) is a bargain-basement delight, with cheap electrical goods and decent food stalls.
Sleeping & Eating
Van Xuan Hotel
(025-371 0440; Isvanxuanhotel@yahoo.com.vn; 147 P Tran Dang Ninh; r 320,000-500,000d) All rooms are light and airy, but the family rooms (500,000d) are particularly enormous and extremely comfortable. The hotel is on the lake’s eastern edge, around 50m from the market.
Hoa Binh Hotel
(025-870 807; 127 D Thanh Tam; r 280,000d) A reliable cheapie close to the Lang Son market. Cane furnitures, spacious rooms and spotless bathrooms add up to the best deal in town.
Thanh Lan Com Binh Dan
(Tran Quoc Tran; meals 50,000-70,000d; 11am-10pm) One block south of the market, the delightful Miss Lan serves around 20 different dishes for lunch and dinner. It’s a point-and-pick affair – all seasonal and all local.
New Dynasty Restaurant
(025-389 8000; Phai Loan Lake; hotpots 150,000d; noon-11pm) This bar-restaurant juts out into the lake. Everyone’s here for the hotpots, but there’s also a draught-beer emporium.
GETTING TO CHINA: LANG SON TO NANNING
Getting to the border: The Friendship Pass at the Dong Dang-Pingxiang border crossing is the most popular crossing in the far north. The border post itself is at Huu Nghi Quan (Friendship Pass), 3km north of Dong Dang Town. Frequent minibuses travel between Lang Son and Dong Dang. From Fong Dang a xe om to Huu Nghi Quan is around 30,000d and a taxi around 60,000d. From Lang Son count on about 140,000d for a taxi and 70,000d for a xe om (motorbike taxi).
At the border: The border is open from 7am to 7pm daily Vietnam time. Note that China is one hour ahead of Vietnam. To cross 500m to the Chinese side you’ll need to catch one of the electric cars (10,000d). You’ll also need a pre-arranged visa for China.
Moving on: On the Chinese side, it’s a 20-minute drive to Pingxiang by bus or shared taxi. Pingxiang is connected by train and bus to Nanning (three hours).
Vietin Bank (51 D Le Loi) has an ATM and changes money; the post office (D Le Loi) is adjacent. Both are around 300m from the lake on the road heading east towards Mong Cai.
Getting There & Away
Buses to Hanoi leave from the terminal on D Le Loi, around 500m east of the post office. From the Vietin Bank and post office, turn right into P Tran Dang Ninh, and continue for 200m to the market, hotels and restaurants. Buses to Mong Cai and Cao Bang leave from a separate northern bus terminal around 3km north of the town centre.
Buses from Lang Son:
DURATION & FREQUENCY
|Hanoi||90,000||3hr; frequent to 6pm|
|Cao Bang||85,000||4hr; five from 5.15am to 1.45pm|
|Mong Cai||100,000||7hr; 11.30am|
There are only very slow trains between Lang Son and Hanoi (100,000d, 5.5 hours).
Mountainous Cao Bang province is one of the most beautiful regions in Vietnam. Cao Bang itself is more prosaic, but it is a useful base to explore the surrounding countryside. The climate is mild here, and winter days can get chilly when a thick fog clings to the banks of the Bang Giang River.
(Cao Bang Town) Climb the hill and head up the second lane off D Pac Po, go under the entrance to a primary school and you’ll see the steps. There are great 360-degree views from the summit, and it’s a very peaceful spot.
Thanh Loan Hotel
(026-385 7026; Thanh Loan_hotel@yahoo.com; 159 P Vuon Cam; r 400,000-550,000d) On a quiet street with cafes and restaurants, this efficient, spotless place features spacious rooms with high ceilings, dark-wood furniture and bathrooms with tubs. Rates include breakfast, and there’s even a bar area for a nightcap.
Duc Trung Hotel
(026-385 3424; www.ductrunghotel.com.vn; 85 D Be Van Dan; d 430,000-630,000d) Wooden floors and spotless bathrooms stand out at this 2012 opening in a quiet residential neighbourhood just a short walk from Cao Bang’s main drag. Big windows allow for lots of sunshine, and there are good banh mi (filled baguettes) and pho stalls just across the road.
Eating & Drinking
You’ll find cheap food stalls (meals from 15,000d) near the night market on P Vuon Cam near the Thanh Loan Hotel.
Men Quyen Restaurant
(026-385 6433; D Kim Dong; meals 45,000-70,000d) Tucked away behind the market, this modest little place has a buffet-style set-up – just point to the dishes you want. Be sure to try the delicious cha lo lot (cabbage rolls).
(21 P Vuon Cam; mains 40,000-60,000d; 8am-9pm) Good-value local eatery owned by a friendly family.
(026-395 02440; 140 P Vuon Cam) Good Vietnamese coffee, cappuccino, juices and beer, plus a snack or two.
ATMs are in the centre of town, and internet cafes are on P Vuon Cam.
Getting There & Away
Cao Bang is 272km north of Hanoi, along Hwy 3. It’s a fully sealed road, but a full day’s drive through mountainous terrain. Buses depart Cao Bang for Hanoi (140,000d, seven hours, 12 daily) and Lang Son (90,000d, three hours, four daily before 2pm).
A direct bus (90,000d, five hours) departs Cao Bang for Ba Be Lakes at noon. Another option is to catch a local bus to Na Phuc and then another to Cho Ra, where you’ll need to hire a xe om for the final strectch into the national park.
A direct bus (75,000d, 2.5 hours) departs Cao Bang for Ban Gioc Waterfall most mornings at 7.30am and 9am. If you’re heading northwest to Ha Giang, a daily bus (100,000d) leaves Cao Bang for Bao Lac. From there you’ll need to arrange private transport to Meo Vac.
Hang Pac Po (Water-Wheel Cave)
After 30 years of exile, Ho Chi Minh re-entered Vietnam in January 1941 and took shelter in a small cave in one of the most remote regions of Vietnam, 3km from the Chinese border. The cave itself, Hang Pac Po (Water-Wheel Cave), and the surrounding area are sacred ground for Vietnamese revolutionaries – this is the base from which Ho launched the revolution he’d long been planning.
Even if you have little interest in the history of Vietnamese communism, the cave is in a beautiful location surrounded by evergreen forests filled with butterflies and birdsong, and overlooked by limestone mountains.
Ho Chi Minh lived in the cave for a few weeks in 1941, writing poetry and translating key texts by the fathers of the socialism. He stuck close to China so that he would be able to flee across the border if French soldiers discovered his hiding place. Ho named the stream in front of his cave Lenin Creek and the jungle-clad mountain that overlooks this stream Karl Marx Peak.
There’s a modest Uncle Ho museum (admission 20,000d; 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm Wed-Sun) at the entrance to the Pac Po area. About 2km beyond this is a parking area. The cave is a 10-minute walk away along a shady stone path that follows the riverbank. You can step inside the mouth of the small cave, but not enter inside. The path then loops past various other points of interest, including a rock table that Ho is said to have used as a kind of jungle office for his translations and writting.
In a patch of forest about a 15-minute walk in the opposite direction is a jungle hut, another of Ho’s hideouts, On the way to the hut is a rock outcrop used as a ‘dead-letter box’, where he would leave and pick up messages.
Hang Pac Bo is 58km northwest of Cao Bang. Allow three hours to make the return trip by road, plus an hour to look around. To do this as a return half-day trip by xe om, expect to pay around 200,000d. No permits are currently needed, despite the proximity to the Chinese border.
Ban Gioc Waterfall & Nguom Ngao Cave
Ban Gioc Waterfall (admission 15,000d; 7.30am-5pm) is one of Vietnam’s best-known waterfalls, and its image adorns the lobby of many a cheap guesthouse. The falls, fed by the Quay Son River that marks the border with China, are an impressive sight and in a highly scenic location.
The waterfall is the largest in the country, though not the highest. Its vertical drop is only around 30m, but it has an impressive 300m span; one side of the falls is in China, the other is in Vietnam. Water volume varies considerably between the dry and rainy seasons, and the sight is most impressive from May to September.
Boat owners will punt you on bamboo rafts (100,000d) close enough to the waterfall so you can feel the spray on your hair (bring shampoo!) and skin. Rafts on the Vietnamese side have green canopies, and on the Chinese side canopies are blue. You’re allowed to swim in the large natural pool on the Vietnamese side, but not in the river or close to the main waterfall.
It’s a picturesque 10-minute stroll through paddy fields to reach the base of the falls from the parking area. If you’re here at harvest time in September or October, the farmers may encourage you to try out their pedal-powered threshing machines.
A police permit (200,000d for up to 10 people) is required to visit this region. The permit has to be organised in advance but any hotel in Cao Bang can sort it out for you. You’ll need to show your passport.
About 4km from the waterfall, Nguom Ngao Cave (admission incl guide 30,000d; 7.30am- 4.30pm) is one of the most spectacular cave systems in Vietnam. Created by an underground river, it extends for several kilometres underground; villagers sheltered here during the 1979 war with China. Visitors are permitted in one section, where a 1km-long concrete path and excellent lighting have been installed. A guide ( speaking very few words of English) accompanies you on an hour-long tour of the cave network, past huge stalagmite and stalactite outcrops that resemble a waterfall and chandelier, and through a vast 100m chamber. The 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the cave is also very beautiful, threading through the limestone hills that characterise Cao Bang province, past fields of soya beans.
A second, even bigger branch of the cave system is said to extend almost all the way to the waterfall, though there’s currently no visitor access to this section.
There are snack and drink stalls by the cave and waterfall, but the nearest accommodation is in Cao Bang.
Getting There & Away
The journey to the falls and cave is absolutely stunnning; the road follows a beautiful river valley and weaves through soaring karst peaks for much of the trip. It’s an 87km journey along a decent paved road, and takes about 2.5 hours.
BUS & BIKE
Buses (70,000d, two hours, 12 daily) connect Cao Bang with Trung Khanh, 27km short of the falls. Negotiate for a xe om in Trung Khanh to take you onward, which should come to around 200,000d including a two-hour wait. Another option is a direct bus (75,000d, 2.5 hours) departing Cao Bang at 7.30am and 9am.
CAR & MOTORBIKE
Alternatively, hotels and guesthouses in Cao Bang can arrange a motorbike (self-drive) or vehicle (with driver).
In the province of Cao Bang, Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) are a distinct minority. The largest ethnic groups are the Tay (46%), Nung (32%), H’mong (8%), Dzao (7%) and Lolo (1%). Intermarriage and mass education are gradually eroding tribal and cultural distinctions. Check out Tim Doling’s Mountains and Ethnic Minorities: North East Vietnam for detailed accounts of tribal people in the region. It’s available from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and bookshops in Hanoi.
Most of Cao Bang’s minorities remain blissfully unaware about the ways of the outside world. Cheating in the marketplace, for example, is virtually unknown and even tourists are charged the same price as locals without bargaining. Whether or not this innocence can withstand the onslaught of even limited tourism remains to be seen. The following big markets in Cao Bang province are held every five days, according to lunar calendar dates. The Na Giang market, which attracts Tay, Nung and H’mong people, is one of the best and busiest in the provinces.
Nuoc Hai 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th day of each lunar month.
Na Giang 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th day of each lunar month.
Tra Linh 4th, 9th, 14th, 19th, 24th and 29th day of each lunar month.
Trung Khanh 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th and 30th day of each lunar month.