After a trip to Hanoi, and having previously taken the overnight train to from Vietnam (Hanoi) to China (Pingxiang), I was invited to a town named Cao Bang. It being on the way to China, I decided to give this no-thrills town a crack.
Cao Bang is famous for nothing, except perhaps the fact that the French got their arses kicked there. Tourists rarely, if ever, go there. It was the perfect kind of crap town I love to check out.
How to get in?
Having been in China for 12 years means I forget how much the place has changed. Things have gone upmarket. Vietnam is much more like going back to old Asia, especially where the buses are concerned.
Getting to Cao Bang involves going to the bus station at My Dinh, out by the airport. The minibus then fills itself up with as many people as possible, with their luggage being placed in the walkway for the 7 hour journey. At the numerous stops, you are then required to do acrobatics to get off the bus for a piss.
Travel is all about the journey, but I was all about this journey being over.
Coming the other way, it’s only a 3 hour drive to Dong Dang on a much nicer bus from the border with China.
Remember that time before the interwebz was invented? That was what booking.com looked like when I looked for hotels in Cao Bang. This made it kinda cool as I had to arrive and look for a hotel like the old days.
In fact there was a whole street of hotels, all of about the 2-3 star standard from $20-$30 a night. I went for the “Sunny Hotel” Cao Bang, very nice aside from my bed breaking and the 24-hour construction going on outside.
What to see?
There’s very little to see in Cao Bang, which in some ways gives it more attraction. You’ll see very few other foreigners.
Cao Bang is a real Vietnamese tough northern city, which is cool in itself, but it can also be used as a springboard to get to the Chinese border, the numerous ethnic minorities and the karst mountains not dissimilar to Guilin and Yangshuo.
Ban Gioc waterfall, the largest in Vietnam that straddles the border with China, is also reachable from here, and well worth a lot from either side of the Chinese or Vietnamese border.
What to eat?
Cao Bang has a ton of great restaurants to suit all budgets, mostly having a northern Vietnamese flair to them. But better still, half the city seems to jump into life and become street food as soon as the sun sets – by far the best dining option.
Like any Vietnamese city there’s coffee shops, bars of a sort, and at least one “club”, but to truly enjoy the place it’s all about street food, Hanoi beer chilled with ice-cubes and shooting the shit with the locals.
Worth a visit?
There’s nothing extraordinary about Cao Bang by Vietnamese standards, but to me it’s a great stop off on the way to China, or in reverse back to Hanoi. It’s cheap, it’s slow paced, and the locals are really friendly. You could do worse things than travel to Cao Bang.
If you’re heading north to China its only 3 to 4 hours to the border with Pingxiang. Back into Vietnam there are buses to My Dinh and Hanoi. It’s also well connected if you are planning to explore more of the untapped northern part of Vietnam.