Ban Gioc Waterfall: A Guide

Last updated January 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

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Ban Gioc Waterfall is one of Vietnam’s most impressive natural sights. Located in the northeastern province of Cao Bang, the falls are 30 metres high and 300 metres across, making Ban Gioc the widest (but not the highest) waterfall in the country. The falls occur on the Quay Son River, a beautiful jade-blue body of water flowing from China through a pastoral landscape of rice fields and bamboo groves surrounded by limestone pinnacles. Despite improved road access and public transportation connections, and the popularity of several recent viral drone videos showcasing the majesty of the falls, Ban Gioc is still a relatively off-the-beaten-path sight. Mass tourism has yet to arrive and, outside of weekends and public holidays, there’s rarely more than a trickle of foreign and domestic visitors.

Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang Province, VietnamBan Gioc Waterfall is one of Vietnam’s most impressive natural sights, yet it remains rarely visited

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GUIDE: BAN GIOC WATERFALL


In this guide, I’ve written a description of the waterfall and surrounding area, including places to see and things to do, followed by information about accommodation, food and drink, and transportation, and my annotated map of the region. The waterfall can be visited at any time of year, but, in my opinion, the best time is from September to October, when the summer rains that feed the falls are less frequent and the harvest is in full swing. Ban Gioc waterfall can be combined with a visit to the nearby Nguom Ngao caves (which are included in the guide below) and as part of my Northeast Loop. For more interesting destinations in the region, take a look at the Related Posts.

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MAP:

Ban Gioc Waterfall & surrounds, Cao Bang Province


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The Waterfall & Caves:

At Ban Gioc, the Quay Son River forms the border between Vietnam and China. Consequently, the falls are half in Vietnam and half in China. Both countries have bamboo rafts that punt visitors around the base of the falls for better views of the cascade: you can literally shake hands with Chinese tourists on the other rafts. Ban Gioc waterfall is roughly 360km from Hanoi, reached via a good national highway to Cao Bang City, and then several recently upgraded provincial roads, leading through fantastic countryside to the falls (see Transportation). It’s now easier than ever to visit Ban Gioc, but still very few people, especially foreign travellers, make it here. A perfect destination if you’re on a motorbike road trip following the Northeast Loop, or an independent traveller looking to get off-the-beaten-track, this waterfall is a favourite destination of mine and is bound to be a major draw-crowd in the future.

Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang Province, VietnamBorderlands: Ban Gioc waterfall is half in Vietnam, half in China

Before reaching Ban Gioc falls, the Quay Son River ambles through a sumptuous valley, studded with limestone karsts. I warm to this gentle landscape, and it’s been one of my favourite corners of the country ever since I first visited the area in 2009. On a trip in 2014, I was lucky enough to camp on the river bank here during the night of a lunar eclipse.


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Quay Son River Valley, Cao Bang Province, VietnamBefore reaching the falls, the Quay Son River ambles through a sumptuous valley

There’s an impressive limestone cave system, called Nguom Ngao caves (entrance: 40,000vnd [$2]), just a few kilometres on the right before reaching Ban Gioc waterfall. A kilometre-long walkway leads through the caves, which are beautifully lit and very impressive. Tread carefully because the pathway can be very slick, thanks to the dripping of calcium carbonate, which forms the stalactites that you see all around you.

Nguom Ngao caves, Cao Bang Province, VietnamNguom Ngao caves, just a couple of kilomotres before Ban Gioc falls, are very atmospheric & well-lit

Farming techniques can’t have changed much here in centuries: save for some mechanized rice threshers, most of the work is done by hand. One piece of ‘technology’ you’ll see along the banks of the river is the bamboo water wheel. This attractive, medieval-looking device scoops up water from the river, carries it up to the level of the fields, and drops it into earth gutters, which channel the water into the fields to irrigate the crops. It’s a hypnotic, peaceful and timeless sight. However, it would appear that they are slowly dying out: on my last visit, only a few of them were operating, and a couple were in a state of neglect.

Bamboo water wheel on the Quay Son River, Cao Bang ProvinceA hypnotic sight: bamboo water wheels line the Quay Son River as it flows towards Ban Gioc falls


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The serenity of this valley is suddenly and dramatically broken when the Quay Son River reaches a 300 metre-wide limestone ledge, and drops sharply down several terraces, creating Ban Gioc waterfall. Some brave (or foolhardy) fishermen stand in precarious positions, casting their lines into the cascade.

Fishing from the cascade, Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang ProvincePrecarious: a fisherman casts his line atop Ban Gioc falls

Because the falls are located right on the Chinese border, foreign travellers used to require a special permit to visit the area. But today, you can just turn up and buy a ticket (45,000vnđ [$2]) at the kiosk without any documents at all, before walking down a gravel path to the waterfall. (Very occasionally, the ticket kiosk may ask to see your passport.) The path threads through rice fields, over wooden bridges above gurgling creeks, and onto an exposed grassy bank at the bottom of the falls. The wide, white cascade is fringed with foliage and framed by sharp, tooth-like limestone mountains, which are partly obscured by drifting clouds of vapour from all the spray generated by the waterfall. A good viewing point is from the newly constructed hilltop temple and pagoda on the south side of the road, opposite the falls.

Ban Gioc Waterfall, seen from the road, Cao Bang ProvinceA panorama of Ban Gioc falls, seen from the ticket entrance at the road on the Vietnamese side

Apart from a new hotel, the only tourist infrastructure at the falls themselves are a few unattractive wood and concrete shacks covered by blue tarpaulins and corrugated iron roofs, selling snacks and trinkets. Happily, Ban Gioc has yet to be subjected to the ‘Disneyfication’ (think concrete elephants, papier-mâché unicorns, and tacky theme park rides) that spoil so many of Vietnam’s natural attractions. Litter, too, is still not a real problem, although on my last visit I did see some of the vendors dumping their trash in the streams. There are lots of beautiful spots around the base of the falls on which to sit and take in the spectacle. Find a place on a pebbly beach or grassy bank, perch on a boulder in a stream or lay in the curving trunk of a tropical tree, and gaze in awe at one of Vietnam’s most romantic sights. Providing you don’t visit on a weekend or public holiday, you may have it almost all to yourself.


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Relaxing at Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang ProvinceTaking in the views: there are plenty of spots to idle the day away, and it’s rarely busy at Ban Gioc falls

Bamboo rafts (50,000vnđ [$2] per person) punt visitors closer to the cascade for better views. The ‘ride’ lasts about 10 minutes and you’ll definitely get wet. In some areas, signs in Vietnamese read ‘No Swimming!’ But it’s difficult to resist taking a plunge in one of the blue pools of water, especially around the smaller falls to the left of the central waterfall. There’s usually no one there to stop you bathing, and I’ve never encountered any resistance (although I’m sure this will change as the falls become more popular). But, of course, you should be very careful: stick to the placid rock pools and stay well away from the main cascade.

Punting on bamboo rafts, Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang ProvinceGetting wet: bamboo rafts punt visitors around the base of Ban Gioc falls

Across a wooden bridge to a beach beneath the falls, there’s a treacherous path leading up through jungle to the first and second tiers of the waterfall. Not for the faint-hearted – or for those without proper footwear – this track climbs steeply among vines and roots to several gorgeous pools of blue running water. Tread carefully because the rocks are slippery and soon you’ll reach the edge of a ledge, from where the water drops straight down into a giant limestone bowl below. Again, there are some half-hearted attempts to block access to this path, and if you choose to climb it, you do so at your own risk.

View from the path behind Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao BangTake the treacherous path up the side of the waterfall & be rewarded with fabulous views


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It’s possible to wander further and higher up the side of the falls for even more spectacular views of the deluge from above. It’s an awesome sight – in the true sense of the word – but be extremely careful, and don’t even think about attempting it if it’s been raining. There are no handrails so if you slip there’s nothing to hold onto except exposed roots. You can find the start of the path at the bottom of the falls behind a milestone marking the Vietnamese border, located over a rickety wooden bridge.

View from the top of the path behind Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao BangClimb even higher up the treacherous path (at your own risk) for a bird’s-eye view of the entire waterfall

Considering the waterfall’s proximity to China, and the frosty history (both ancient and recent) between the two countries, the atmosphere at Ban Gioc is very relaxed. Official presence on either side of the falls is minimal and, as seen in the photo below, Vietnamese floating vendors often approach Chinese rafts to sell their wares to Chinese tourists.

A Vietnamese floating vendor & a Chinese tourist raft, Ban Gioc WaterfallA Vietnamese vendor approaches a raft of Chinese tourists to sell her wares

It’s easy to forget that this province was one of several points along the Vietnamese border where, in February 1979, Chinese forces entered Vietnam under the orders of Deng Xiaoping. There were many reasons for the invasion, but ultimately it was an extension of tensions between the Soviet Union and China (Vietnam having signed a treaty with the USSR in 1978). Thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese were killed and, when the Chinese army departed (or retreated, depending on whose version of events you believe), they laid waste to the land they had briefly occupied. Along the road that follows the border just beyond the falls, there are memorial shrines dedicated to local Vietnamese who died during the 1979 war. Border disputes continued into the 1980s, and included the historic Nam Quan Gate, an ancient gateway between the two countries, which ultimately ended up on the Chinese side. The photo below shows a border marker on the Vietnamese side of the Quay Son River: just 20 metres away, across the river, is China. At some points along this road, the distance between the two countries is as little as five metres.


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Border near Ban Gioc Waterfall: Vietnam in the foreground, China across the riverA border marker on the Vietnamese side of the Quay Son River: China is on the opposite bank

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Accommodation:

On the Chinese side of the river there’s a hotel on the hill, but until recently the Vietnamese side hadn’t seen any significant development. However, a new mid-range resort, called Saigon-Ban Gioc (tel: 091 542 4228), has now opened on the road directly opposite the entrance to the falls. It’s quite a big, sprawling complex but not high enough to be an eyesore. Rooms are good, comfortable and OK value for the price ($40-$50). Breakfast (which isn’t very good) is included in the price, and the restaurant/bar serves lots of Vietnamese dishes and some alcohol too. If you get a room on the higher terraces you can just about see the falls from your balcony, hemmed in by forested limestone mountains. Staying here is a good idea if you want to see the falls at dusk or dawn, which is when they look their best and there’s absolutely nobody around.

As well as the Saigon-Ban Gioc Resort, there are a handful of local guest houses (nhà nghỉ in Vietnamese) on either side of the road, between the Nguom Ngao Caves and the waterfall. Ha Vuong Hotel (tel: 096 281 1311), Phuong Troi Hotel (tel: 0167 4341 831), and Kieu Thanh Nguyet Guest House (tel: 096 966 1992) are all just west of the falls on Road DT206. They all offer simple but clean rooms for around 200,000vnd ($10).


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Saigon-Ban Gioc Resort, Cao Bang Province, VietnamRecently opened, the Saigon-Ban Gioc Resort is the first major hotel development at the waterfall

There are also one or two local nhà nghỉ in Trung Khanh, the nearest town to Ban Gioc falls, 25km to the west: try Minh Duc Guest House (tel: 0206 3826 588). This is a good option for intrepid travellers, because Trung Khanh is a dusty, rustic border town with a wild west edge. There are several crumbling pastel-coloured shophouses and an interesting daily market with various imported goods from China. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be the only foreign traveller in town.

Quang Uyen, a town at the junction of roads QL3 and DT206 halfway between Cao Bang and Ban Gioc falls, also has some decent places to stay. Duy Huong Hotel (tel: 0206 6266 888), Tuan Hien Guest House (tel: 0206 3821 666), and Tuyet Niem Hotel (tel: 0206 6285 285) are all fine for a night on the road.

Shophouse in Trung Khanh, near Ban Gioc Waterfall, Cao Bang ProvincePainted shopfront on the dusty streets of Trung Khanh, a possible overnight option, 25km from Ban Gioc

However, the vast majority of visitors to Ban Gioc stay at one of the dozens of accommodation options in Cao Bang City, 90km west of the falls. Cao Bang, the provincial capital, is a bustling, likable city on the banks of the Bang Giang River. Vuon Cam and Kim Dong (QL4A) streets are lined with places to stay. For mid-range rooms with river views try the Bang Giang Hotel (tel: 0206 3851; $20-$30), which has a fading Soviet grandeur that appeals to me. There are lots of budget beds to choose from: Hotel 89 has simple, clean, bright rooms or there’s a string of cheap mini-hotels down the southern end of Kim Dong Street (QL4A).


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Cao Bang City on the Bang Giang River, VietnamCao Bang City, 90km west of Ban Gioc waterfall, is where most travellers stay: there are lots of hotels

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Food & Drink:

Although there are plenty of good places to eat in Cao Bang City, food at and around Ban Gioc waterfall is not so readily available. At meal times you’ll find basic local rice and noodle eateries (quán cơm phở in Vietnamese) in most small towns in the area, like Trung Khanh (especially around the market) and Quang Uyen. There are also a few informal rice joints along the roadside between Ban Gioc falls and Nguom Ngao caves. (For more about quán cơm read this.) The new Saigon-Ban Goic Resort has a restaurant serving dozens of Vietnamese dishes. Prices are fairly reasonable and food is decent quality.

Noodle soup vendor, Cao Bang Province, VietnamThere are informal noodle soup & rice stalls, like this one, near Ban Gioc falls & the surrounding villages

In Cao Bang, there’s a lot of food and drink available, especially on Vuon Cam Street. Thu Ngan eatery is an excellent casual dining spot: do as the locals do and walk up to the counter, point at what dishes you want with your rice and sit down to a metallic tray of good food. There are dozens of dishes to choose from and it’s dirt cheap. Or, if you’re craving Western food, Cao Bang has an couple of (unexpected) pizza joints: check out Pizza Chi. For breakfast there are lots of soup kitchens on Vuon Cam Street, including bánh cuốn (steamed rice flour rolls), a dish that’s very popular in northern Vietnam. Domino Cafe is a good place for coffee, and you can stock up on picnic supplies (such as bánh mì baguettes) at and around the Cho Xanh market.

Noodle soup, Cao Bang Province, VietnamCao Bang City has plenty of eating options, including local noodle soups for breakfast

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Transportation:

Ban Gioc waterfall is 90km east of Cao Bang (see map). The easiest and most enjoyable way to reach Ban Gioc is by motorbike. If you don’t already have one, motorbikes are available for rent from some hotels and guest houses in Cao Bang for around 200,000vnd ($10) per day. Alternatively, many accommodations in Cao Bang can arrange a day trip to the falls by hired car with a driver. Another option is to take public transportation: small local buses run from Cao Bang to Ban Gioc and back again several times each day. Ask the staff at your accommodation for more information.

Local buses run between Cao Bang City & Ban Gioc Waterfall several times dailyLocal buses, like this one, run between Cao Bang City & Ban Gioc waterfall several times daily

Getting to Cao Bang from Hanoi is pretty straightforward: Either take a bus (including comfortable, two-level sleeper buses) from Hanoi’s My Dinh Bus Station (8 hours) or, if you have your own wheels, take Highway QL3 (which is in excellent condition for most of the way and passes great scenery) from Hanoi to Cao Bang (280km). From Cao Bang to the falls stay on Highway QL3 east via the scenic Ma Phuc Pass to Quang Uyen, then turn left (due north) on Road DT206, which veers east at the town of Trung Khanh before reaching Ban Gioc waterfall. Bear in mind that, if you plan to continue riding beyond Ban Gioc waterfall and along the Chinese border on roads DT206 and DT207, these roads are in pretty bad condition and should be avoided for the time being, unless you are an experienced rider and have a bike that is suitable for off-roading. (Note: the falls are also part of my Northeast Loop.)

The Ma Phuc Pass between Cao Bang City & Ban Gioc WaterfallRiding to Ban Gioc is very scenic, especially the Ma Phuc Pass (pictured) between Cao Bang the falls


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