From destroyed rocky roads to muddy and wet ones, through ice-cold winds and heavy rain, I somehow found myself nearing a place that only few spoke of. A place that has formed over thousands of years and has been the subject of myths and legends that have been shared within the local Vietnamese and Chinese settlements. Almost 300km from Hanoi in Vietnam lie the waterfalls of Thac Ban Gioc, which straddles the international borders between China and Vietnam, offering some of Southeast Asia’s most scenic views.

Marc Casolani

When travelling around the north of Vietnam, locals always mentioned  Thac Ban Gioc, but whenever I expressed my interest in visiting the place they called me dien, which is Vietnamese for mad. Despite the beauty of these falls, locals struggle to recommend tourists to visit due to the rough roads that lead to them. When I got to an area called Cao Bang, I decided to go forward with my plans to visit Ban Gioc.

Before I set off I got stuck into the planning stages. This trip needs a little more planning as accommodation along the route is very limited. There is a Chinese resort near Thac Ban Gioc and a Vietnamese family offering rooms for rent in a small village close to the falls.

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It took me four hours to reach the small village, but I made it. Definitely one of the harder roads I’ve had to pass through, made worse by rain and road works. A tough challenge to take, on a 130cc 1970’s Honda WIN, with 40kg of backpacking equipment to the back.

The countryside was absolutely stunning, and the people were all too curious and inviting. This made the struggles of the journey acceptable. Once you start to ride you connect to the environment around you, be it a village amongst the rice paddies, a village set under the mountains or the mountains themselves.

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Somewhere about 30km from the small village where I was to make camp, I came across two tiny old ladies. They were both sitting and smiling, having a laugh together whilst watching over what looked like a shed with some goods inside. The younger of the two came up to me with a big grin and barely any teeth. Both were somewhat amused by this young foreigner, solo-travelling around Vietnam, on an old motorcycle, without even a wife! Both over 90 years of age and the youngest spoke Russian. They were selling goods whilst their children worked the land. A small crowd of interested children and locals gathered around. Moments like these with the locals are more common when travelling alone, making them some of the best moments of the trip. I bought some water and with the kids running in my trail I rode off for the last bit of the journey, towards accommodation.

When I got to Cho Trung Khanh it was almost dark and I went around in circles a few times to find the place. I finally found this tiny two-storey building. It didn’t have any signs but that didn’t make the family any less accommodating and I drove up into the living room. This was just a simple family house that offered three rooms to travellers upstairs. While the whole family occupied the two rooms downstairs; parents in one room and children and grandparents in the other.

Next day I rode off to get a glimpse of the magnificent Thac Ban Gioc waterfalls. I had to cover another 20km in a whole day. That way I could enjoy the ride and take it all in. Once I arrive I could set up all the time lapses I want whilst taking photos and exploring. This is exactly what I did; I captured some amazing images on the way in with a couple of early morning time lapses. As I drew closer to the waterfalls I came upon this temple on the top of a mountain. My bike struggled but she made it. I was breathless, this felt like a monastery on top of the clouds.

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I set up two time lapses for an hour and a half, took a few photos and just spent half an hour doing my own sort of meditation. There was a sense of pure peace in the monastery and only two monks wandering around doing their thing and the few times we made eye contact, we all just smiled. But before I left, I went to pay my respects and say thank you. From that we ended up playing a bit of takraw, which is a Southeast Asian sport of footvolley.

After riding 90km from Cao Bang and spending that night in the village, I was finally on the doorstep of Ban Gioc. The largest of the waterfalls is 60 metres in height and the views are spectacular. The karst topography is formed by the dissolution of the soft limestone and creates multi-level terraces of waterfalls and pools. Local fishermen cast off the treacherous edges of the pools to catch local trout, whilst few locals and foreigners wandered around in awe.

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The majority of visitors are made up of Chinese, whilst I and a handful of others made up the rest. I lingered there for hours, taking it all in and capturing what I can. Then I swam, spoke to a local old lady who sold souvenirs and items such as fishing tangle and gems. There were a few small stalls of basic local nibbles which I ate and had my photo taken with many local Vietnamese and Chinese people. It made me feel like a star for the afternoon.

This was quite an action-packed journey and I am very thankful for all the people who mentioned Ban Gioc to me. After a full day exploring, I stayed at the Chinese resort close by, got a full meal and coffee for just €10. Then I made my way back just before sunset to Cho Trung Khanh. I had to prepare for the next 22 days I had left on the road around Vietnam.

Until next time, let the world be your playground.

© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Marc Casolani
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