There is no way to avoid a long drive on this tour and, honestly, 3 days is quite rushed. If you can spare more time for this, you will have much more enjoyable trip.
Cao Bang is a long way from Hanoi and you just need to make the distance. There are two choices of day trips, once you are in Cao Bang and then a suggestion to head over to Ba Be Lake. You could choose to skip the lake and this would mean there is less distance to cover on the tour. This will depend on a lot of factors, so use your own judgement for this.
You could also choose to head straight to either Ban Gioc Waterfall or Pac Bo Cave and then over to Ba Be Lake, avoiding Cao Bang altogether. These are decisions that you can take on the road. After studying the maps and reading the descriptions, you will be better placed to make the judgement.
Distance / Duration
The assumption here is that you will be averaging around 40km/h once you factor in time for pit stops. Also, no time is included for how long you choose to stay in any one location to do ‘tourist’ stuff.
Hanoi to Cao Bang via Bac Kan is just under 300km and it will take about 8hrs
Cao Bang to Ban Gioc Waterfall is anywhere from 90 to 110km and will take around 3 hrs driving time.
Cao Bang to Pac Bo Cave is around 50km and it will take a bit more than 1 hr to get there.
Cao Bang to Ba Be Lake is roughly 120km and will take about 3hrs. However, this route is very scenic so you may choose to take longer.
Ba Be to Hanoi is 220 – 250km and will take 7 or 8 hrs.
All of the roads here are generally good tarmac roads. They will vary in size, how much traffic and the amount of wear and tear.
The route to get to Cao Bang via Bac Kan is on pretty large highway. It is dull but fast and it gets you where you need to get to. Watch out for the larger trucks. They often can’t see you.
The smaller roads to Ban Gioc Waterfall and Pac Bo Cave are much more pleasant and interesting to drive on. However, there is still some border traffic so don’t get complacent.
To get from Cao Bang to Ba Be, you could either take the QL3, which you already have experienced, and then the QL279. This is mostly larger road. Or, you could take the QL34 and then the DT212. These are smaller more winding roads that take you over a huge mountain. It is a no brainer in my opinion and the second choice is by far the best.
You can take any road legal bike on this trip as the roads are tarmac and easy enough to deal with. Yes, there are areas that are a little bumpy or potholed but these pose no problems at all. That said, DO NOT take a Honda Cub on this kind of trip as it is woefully underpowered, so cold be dangerous on the bigger roads, and will definitely not be very comfortable.
I would recommend anything from a Honda Wave up, particularly the Honda Future. If you want to use a manual bike, then the Honda Master or the Honda XR 150 would be a good choice.
Remember a lot of the areas that you will be visiting border China. So, if you fancy ‘sneeking’ over to take a picture, do it in a place where no one is around, unless you like police stations.
For the most part, you will be driving a LOT on this tour, so it is for more experienced riders.
Full Route Map
Day 1: Hanoi - Cao Bang
280km / 7 - 8hrs
This day is a long day. As you can see, Hanoi to Cao Bang is around 280km and you might choose to go straight to either Pac Bo or Ban Gioc Waterfall. This would add 1 to 2 hours to the journey.
Be careful and choose wisely when you are in Cao Bang. As you progress, the roads will become smaller and slower, you will be getting tired and it may be getting dark. You could find you are driving slower or are under time pressure to get to your destination.
The first leg, up to Thai Nguyen will be on highway and will be quite fast but crowded. This is not much fun but getting out of Hanoi just isn’t. Make sure not to take the CT07 as motorbikes are not allowed on this road. After Thai Nguyen the road will become a little quieter and more pleasant. It is still quite fast and you will make good time. Stopping in Bac Kan for a snack, Brunch maybe, is a good idea.
Then, up to Cao Bang is quite simple. You follow the QL3 and it is a pleasant and fast drive. You are still on the highway but you need to be so that you can make good time. There are more choices of things to do/eat and hotels in Cao Bang so you may choose to set up base here. However, you will have to do this VERY early if you are to have enough time to get to Ban Gioc Waterfall or Pac Bo Cave and back. You need at least half a day to do this, but you will be missing the crowds.
Cao Bang to Ban Gioc Waterfall
Around 90km - About 2.5 hrs
From Cao Bang you can head for Quang Uyen and then Trung Khanh. The road is easy to follow and it is not too busy. There are some trucks that are heading to the border with China so you do still need to be careful. Once you get to Ban Gioc, you can take a look at the falls, visit the small pagoda on the hill nearby and perhaps visit Ngo Nguom Cave. There are several homestays nearby which are all of similar standard and there is also the Saigon Tourist Resort. Staying near the falls is probably the best idea.
If you decide to return to Cao Bang, then it is best if you take the same route. There is an alternative option but it is too slow and tricky to do in the dark.
Cao Bang to Pac Bo Cave
About 50km - Roughly 1.5hrs
This is quite a quick, easy drive and there is a way that you can make a loop of it. if you do get to Cao Bang early this is potentially a quick trip that you can take. Pac Bo will close at 6pm so be aware of that.
Take the QL3 out of Cao Bang and get on to the TL 203/204/208. This road changes name several times but it is unimportant, you just need to follow the milestone markers to Pac Bo.
As you can see on the map, you have the choice of taking an out and back, or you can loop around on the T208. This loop is simple enough to follow and easy to drive.
Day 2: Cao Bang - Ba Be
130km / Around 5 - 6 hrs
To get from Cao Bang to Ba Be You have two main choices of route. These are either the QL3 or the QL34. I would take the QL34 any day as it is much quieter, more scenic and has a lot of interesting places to stop. It is, however, a little slower.
You will have already taken the QL3, so unless you are very short of time there is no real need to do that again.
So, head out of Cao Bang on the on the Ql3, past the bus station and make sure to turn right at the junction with the QL34. This first section of the road will be quite ‘average’. It is a small road with a little traffic and so is easy to drive.
Once you get to Nguyen Binh and take the DT212 you will start to be on the much more interesting road over to Cho Phia Den. This is a small winding mountain road that is great fun to drive. It also has several locations to stop with some information plaques to tell you about them. Phia Oai National Park is here also and this is one of the few places to see SNOWin Vietnam.
You will see on the map that there are two options for getting off the 212 and on to the 279. The small route through to Na Khao is a bit small and you may question yourself on this, however, the main road to junction at Ha Hieu is very clear and easy to follow. Take your pick.
From then on, you can follow the 279 to Cho Ra and then Ba Be. This road is not impressive but will get you to the park quickly. There is a chance to take a small detour about 4km after Cho Ra, but I have never done this so proceed with caution. The road looks to be easy enough to follow and there is a 500m elevation gain of around , with some switchbacks so it could be fun.
If you leave early enough in the morning, you can make it to Cho Ra for a late lunch and can be at Ba Be Lake for an afternoon paddle or swim.
Day 3: Ba Be - Ha Noi
200km / Around 6 - 7 hrs
These are the places that you will head for on the route . You can follow the route on the map or you can plug these place names into Google Maps and go from there.
- Ba Be Lake
- Cho Don or Bac Kan (then to Thai Nguyen)
- Cho Chiu
- Thai Nguyen
The first thing to say is that the direct route from Ba Be past Cho Don and Thai Nguyen is the best route. However, you might wish to pass through Bac Kan, so I have included this detour.
You leave the south of the lake and head towards Cho Don (also called Bang Lung) on the DT254. This road is quite small and there is not much traffic. You will pass through a lot of small villages and there are plenty of places to stop off. It is quite scenic, too. I suggest you stop and regroup at Cho Don, which is about 50km / 1.5hrs away.
Anyone, that wishes to take the DT257 over to Bac Kan and then to Hanoi down the highway can. Those wishing to carry on along the 254 can do so. The route that I mark on the map is a smaller more fun road, but you might find that you lose network connection in this area. If this makes you nervous, you should continue on the 254. It is an easy road to follow and it is not much longer in terms of time.
From there, you head for Cho Chiu and then Yen Do. Both of these places are good for a stop but perhaps Yen Do, just before getting on to the main highway is a more logical place to rest.
After this, you head along the main highway, QL3, down to Thai Nguyen and back home to Hanoi. The road at this point, Yen Do, is still not too busy but it is a highway. It will get more crowded as you get further along towards Hanoi until you are about 60km from town. At this point, it is busy and unpleasant but you have to take it to get back home.
In a Nutshell
Hanoi to Cao Bang - 3 Day Tour
Cao Bang and the Northeast in general is a great place to visit. There are plenty of interesting places and much fewer tourists. If you do not enjoy crowds of tour buses, then this could be the area for you. The roads are generally a little quieter except for the main routes to the border crossings and the people are a little more interested in meeting new faces.
A 3 day tour does not really allow you enough time to do the area justice but you can get to a few of the more well known places, easily.
You can see more itineraries on this route or plenty others on our site. Look below for some suggestions.