Cao Bằng is the capital of Cao Bằng province in northern Vietnam. While unremarkable in and of itself, Cao Bằng is an easy-going gateway to the surrounding lakes, minority villages, karst peaks, caves, and the Ban Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border. Just 30km from China, it is an excellent stop for travelers coming from or going to the Pingxiang border crossing. For those tired of the tourist circuit of coastal Vietnam, Cao Bằng is also a refreshing glimpse into a city that exists solely on its own terms.
There are no rail connections, making buses the most convenient way to get to Cao Bằng. A bus from Lạng Sơn on the China-Vietnam border take 4-5 hours and costs 90,000 dong. There are also buses from the neighboring provinces in northern Vietnam. You can rent a bus from Hanoi to CaoBang , about 5 hours on road, cost around 15 USD
Cao Bằng is easily navigated on foot, but xe ôm (motorbike taxis) are convenient and cheap.
The Bằng Giang River splits the city into two. The bus station is on the eastern side of the river; cross the bridge to find the main street, Kim Dong (parallel to the river), the market, and most of the hotels.
Many minority tribes live in the area surrounding Cao Bằng, and their village markets make fascinating places to visit. Markets take place according to the lunar calendar, and the early morning is the best time to go. Hiring a motorbike is the only way to get there.
There are two fruit and vegetable markets on the western side of the river. The more organized one sprawls under a roof just north of the bridge along Kim Dong. It also sells some cooked foods and household goods. The second market stretches along the river south of the bridge and is only in the morning. Women from the countryside spread their fresh fruits and vegetables on blankets or in the baskets used to transport them.
There are few restaurants in Cao Bằng, and those that exist are expensive by backpacker standards. Fortunately, eating on the streets is delicious, easy, and cheap. For breakfast, look no further than bahn mi, toasted baguettes filled with cuts of pork, egg, cilantro, and a sweet-spicy sauce. A woman on Pho Hoang Nhu, a few minutes' walk north of the Bac Lam Hotel, makes particularly tasty bahn mi. Pho shops line the street facing the bus station (around 12,000 dong per bowl).
By dinnertime, certain areas become temporary food markets, with each area specializing in a certain dish. Walk south down Kim Dong from the bridge to find chao (rice porridge) and stir-fried instant noodles. On Kim Dong just south of the bridge there are several stands that serve pho and fried rice. For a sweet dessert, in the evening women set up small tables on the streets, where they cook up sticky rice balls in a sweet ginger soup. Served with crumbled peanuts on top, this is the perfect way to end a day of eating on the streets.
Buses and minibuses leave frequently in the morning for the various bus stations in Hanoi (70,000 dong), about 7 hours away. Buses leave less frequently after 10am, and there are only a few buses in the afternoon. Hanoi buses stop at Thái Nguyên and often include a stop for food if running during meal times.
You can reach China through the border crossing at Lạng Sơn, five hours away by bus. Another daytrip possbility is Ba Be National Park, between Cao Bằng and Hanoi.