Ba Be Lake and Cho Ra Town
270km (168 miles) north of Hanoi
About a 6-hour ride past the Hanoi airport north on Route 3, and north of Thai Nguyen, you'll pass through some areas of terraced rice farming that are a harbinger of the stunning mountainous scenery to come. From the town of Bac Can, you'll take the western road (a left) toward Ba Be Lake, and from there the track is a winding path carved into the side of a mountain range. As the road climbs toward the park, you experience increasingly picturesque views of the valley among hilltribe villages -- a left or a right off the main track brings you to terraced rice fields and likely to invitations for tea and friendly chats with locals.
Cho Ra is the small town servicing Ba Be National Park, just 14km (8 3/4 miles) to the west. Cho Ra is the best place to overnight before a day tour in the park and an afternoon ride on to Cao Bang (or back to Hanoi). Cho Ra is just a quiet little outpost, one busy main street surrounded by rice fields and mountains. Surrounded by diverse ethnic hilltribes, mostly Thai, the town's central market is very busy on weekends, when rural villagers trek to town to sell produce, as well as weaving and needlework. Ba Be Park is a great place to enjoy an all-day boat ride and trekking to remote villages in the surrounding hills.
Come prepared for self-sufficiency: There's no bank, post office, or Internet in tiny Cho Ra. You can usually pay with U.S. dollars at the hotels, but be sure to also carry Vietnamese dong.
Getting There -- Go by car or motorbike north from Hanoi some 200km (124 miles), and then follow signs to Cho Ra.
Ba Be National Park -- Just 10,000 VND to enter -- plus an additional 1,000 VND for a motorbike -- Ba Be National Park surrounds central Ba Be Lake, the starting point for adventurous trips to the park's more far-flung destinations. Best if organized through a tour company, you'll find many options for rugged travel here. Some start near the town of Cho Ra in a little area called Pak Kaw, and then spend all day on long-tail boats exploring the small river as it snakes among hilltribe villages before emptying into the lake. The remote caves and far-flung villages are all best visited with a guide. Standard group tours commonly hop a boat just past the park entrance (half-day trips are $10 and full-day trips are $20).
285km (177 miles) N of Hanoi
This provincial outpost lies in a picturesque crook in the Bang Giang River. Few foreigners get up this far, and the state of hotels and services might indicate why, but rugged travelers are in their element. The city alone is worth a wander, especially its large riverside market, and sunset in Cao Bang is an event, best viewed from the bridge or walking along the riverside promenade. From here, you can watch water buffalos grazing and locals paddling low skiffs to bring their produce to market. What brings people to Cao Bang, apart from the call of the fun rural roads in the region, is the famed Ban Gioc Waterfall northwest of town, one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world. Northwest of Cao Bang are the Pac Bo Caves where Ho Chi Minh hid out upon returning from China. On designated days, usually on weekend mornings, you are sure to come across hilltribe markets in the towns outside of Cao Bang (on your way to Pac Bo or Ban Gioc) -- a photographer's dream.
The Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (Hoang Dinh Giong St.; tel. 026/385-2932) can exchange currency, as can most small hotels, but it's best to bring U.S. greenbacks or dong with you from Hanoi. There are a few Internet corners, including one very good storefront right next to the Hotel Hoang Anh. The post office is on central Hoang Dinh Gong Street.
Both the journey and the destination in Cao Bang offer attractions. The caves at Pac Bo are of little interest to foreign visitors, but the waterfall at Ban Gioc is quite a stunning sight and worth the effort to see. The best part is that the roads to both sights pass through beautiful mountain landscapes among ethnic hilltribe villages. Especially on weekends, you are likely to pass through seemingly impromptu hilltribe markets, the roads lined for miles with Tai and Nung people in traditional wear marching their product to market. Ask at your hotel about any scheduled markets (they are often held on auspicious days in the lunar calendar).
Ban Gioc -- Some 85km (53 miles) of mountain road -- more than a 4-hour drive one-way -- east of Cao Bang brings you to one of the most well-known waterfalls in Asia. People don't know it by name, but once you tick this sight off your list, you'll be able to spot glossy photos of it in Chinese restaurants and hotel lobbies everywhere. The multitiered falls are fueled by the Quay Son River spilling into Vietnam from China. The French originally built small villas on the banks at the base of the falls. Vietnamese tourists now come to this beautiful place in big groups, especially on weekends, and the place is crowded with happy picnics, drinking, and chatter. Sit for a while and you might be invited to join in. Nguom Ngao Cave (admission 5,000 VND) is just a few kilometers past the falls, and the cavernous space is well worth the visit.
Important: You have to arrange a special permit (just a bit of a bureaucratic hang-up) to get to the falls. Don't try to do it yourself -- a waste of time, really -- just arrive in Cao Bang the night before you plan to see the falls and have your hotel make arrangements (for a small fee). The cost for the permit is $10 per group, whether the group is of one or 20.
Pac Bo (Ho Chi Minh's Hide-Out) -- Most sights dedicated to Ho Chi Minh are geared to Vietnamese tourists and are of little interest to Westerners. Pac Bo follows the party line. Pac Bo is the site where, returning to Vietnam after more than 30 years of exile, a fired-up Ho Chi Minh began planning the revolution in 1941, living in caves and protected by local people. The approach to the site is lined with big concrete pavilions and walkways. An open parking area gives way to paved paths along the picturesque Lenin River at the foot of the Karl Marx Mountain (Ho Chi Minh named them himself). Paths take you to some small cave sites, and signs lead the way to places where Ho wrote, slept, and ate; but the real business at Pac Bo is family swimming and picnicking. It's a great place to meet Vietnamese tourists.
Getting There -- Cao Bang connects directly north of Hanoi on Route 3. Local buses leave from the Long Bien Station and are pretty uncomfortable. Best to go by motorbike or hired car. The road from Ba Be is quite spectacular.
150km (93 miles) N of Hanoi
The city of Lang Son is connected to Hanoi by a broad, flat highway, and is more or less a sleepover stop after the stunning ride from Cao Bang, before you make your way back to the capital. Dining and accommodations options are many, but only the few that are acceptable are listed below. The city is known for being overrun, repeatedly, by the Chinese over the centuries -- most recently in 1979 as retribution for Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. Things are quiet now -- so quiet, in fact, that you'll just use this as an overnight, whether going back to Hanoi or to the border town of Dong Dan and on to China. (Important: You must have a prearranged Chinese visa to travel to China.)
There is no ATM service in Lang Son, but the Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (1 Tran Hung Dao St.; tel. 025/371-7246) can exchange money. You'll find Internet storefronts throughout the city. The post office is at 49 Le Loi St.
Getting There -- The road from Cao Bang, Route 4A (though never marked as such) is a stunning drive. Route 1 is a wide highway that runs straight north from Hanoi (better to trade with China, my pretty).
There are two trains connecting Lang Son with Hanoi daily. The train station is on Le Loi Street. Most go by the highway, however.
Onward connection to or from China is via the town of Dong Da, some 3km (1 3/4 miles) north of Lang Son. A motorbike taxi will run you there for about 25,000 VND.