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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.