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Cao Bang province is located in northern Vietnam, sharing its border with Ha Giang, Lang Son, Bac Kan, and China. Cao Bang 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 Bang is also a refreshing glimpse into a city that exists solely on its own terms.

Cao Bang Legend

There is a legend that is narrated to the first rulers of Vietnam, dated to 2838-2698 BC which corresponds to the Phung Nguyen culture traced to a small settlement in Bac Bo (North Vietnam). According to this legend, De Minh, the great grand son of the Chinese emperor Shen Nung, married an Immortal in Honan Province. Their youngest son, Loc Tuc, was appointed to rule over Xich Quay which included, apart from territory in China, North Vietnam. Loc Tuc's son then married the daughter of King De Lai, Princess Au Co.

They had 100 sons, and, as per the prevailing societal custom of the Vietnamese which was matriarchal, the 100 sons were under the care of Au Co, while her husband lived with his own mother. Suddenly one day Au Co's husband announced to her that he belonged to the race of dragons and she to the race of the Immortals and that henceforth they could not live together. He thereafter moved south with his 50 sons; his wife moved to the hills in China with the other 50, thus ushering a shift in the social culture of Vietnam, from matriarchal to patriarchal.

This separation is said to have been the first divorce in Vietnam. It is conjectured that the hundred sons who were thus “scattered across the south of China were the Pai Yueh (Hundred Vietnamese)”. The sons of Lac Long Quan who inherited the kingdom took the title of "Hung Vuong" ("Brave King") and founded the Hong Bang Dynasty, which lasted from 2879 BC to 258 BC. The name of the kingdom was changed to Van Lang, a tribal totem. The kingdom went through a series of changes with turbulent history, having changed hands a number of times and Au Viet came to existence with Cao Bang as its capital. This legend is linked to present day Cao Bang, which is at the border with China.

The History of Cao Bang

Cao Bang's proximity to China has meant that it has had a somewhat turbulent history, having changed hands a number of times. The Au Viet were a conglomeration of upland tribes living in what is today the mountainous region of northernmost Vietnam, western Guangdong, and southern Guangxi, China, since at least the 3rd century BC. Their capital was located in what is today Cao Bang Province of northeastern Vietnam. What are now the Vietnamese provinces of Cao Bang and Lang Son were known as chau Quang Nguyen during the time of the Ly and Tran Dynasties. Quang Nguyen became part of Dai Viet in 1039, when Emperor Ly Thai Tong expelled Nung Tri Cao, a Nung leader, from the area.

Cao Bang history can be traced to the Bronze Age when the Tay Au Kingdom flourished. They had shifted their capital to Co Loa in Red River Delta but the Vietnamese culture dominated. The Kings fortified their territory around the 10th century due to its proximity to the Chinese border. The feudal dynasties that ruled the area were Tay lords, Be Khac Thieu and Nga Dac Thai. In the 1430s, the Le Dynasty had many rebellions. Royalty faced strong revolt during the 16th and early part of 17th century – Mac Dang Dung initially occupied the territory and the Le throne in 1527. However, the Le kings were reinstated in 1592. Still, the war for control of the region continued and Mac family had the upper hand as they declared it an independent region and ruled for 75 years. As witness to this period, here lie ruins of a temple, which was also the palace of the Mac Kings. It can be seen in the town of Cao Binh, which is located about 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) north of the town of Cao Bang. Cao Binh was a prominent administrative town until the French occupied the territory; the capital was shifted to the Cao Bang peninsula when the French conquered the area in 1884. They fortified the town with a fort on a hill overlooking the town (ruins of this fort are seen even now). This fort area is now a high security zone of the People’s Army of Vietnam.

Cao Bang has a long history of revolutionaries and nationalists. The significant history of the peninsula to the present regime is recorded from the 1920s when it became the “cradle of the revolutionary movement in the north”. Many pro-independence groups based themselves in the mountains. The Communist Party of Vietnam chose the province as a base, using the rough terrain as protection. Its historicity was further accentuated when Ho Chi Minh, on his return from China in exile in 1941, made his headquarters at Pac Bo, in Truong Ha commune, Ha Quang district, 56 kilometres (35 mi) north of Cao Bang for the decisive revolutionary movement between 1940 and 1945.

In 1950, the province had 10 districts: Bao Lac, Ha Lang, Hoa An, Nguyen Binh, Phu Thach, Phuc Hoa, Quang Uyen, Thach An, Tran Bin and Trung Khanh. In 1958, Tran Bien was renamed Tra Linh. The district of Thong Nong was created out of part of the district of Ha Quang by Decision 67-CP on 7 April 1966. The districts of Phuc Hoa and Quang Uyen were merged to become Quang Hoa by Decision 27-CP on 8 March 1967. The district of Ha Lang was abolished and integrated into the districts of Quang Hoa and Trung Khanh by Decision 176-CP on 15 September 1969.

In December 1978, the two districts of Ngan Son and Cho Ra were transferred from the province of Bac Thai to Cao Bang by a decree of the congress of the Communist Party. This meant that Cao Bang had 11 districts: Bao Lac, Ha Quang, Hoa An, Nguyen Bình, Quang Hoa, Thach An, Thong Nong, Tra Linh, Trung Khanh, Ngan Son and Cho Ra. The district of Cho Ra was renamed Ba Be by Decision 144-HĐBT on 6 November 1984.

On 27 February 1979, during the Sino-Vietnamese War, Chinese infantry entered the city of Cao Bang and occupied it, inflicting a "scorched earth" policy by levelling most of the city, including places of worship. The historical areas near the Pac Bo caves in the commune of Truong Ha in Ha Quang district were mined and bombed, demolishing most of the cave mouth where Ho Chi Minh based his guerrilla activities in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1996, the districts of Ngan Son and Ba Be were transferred into the newly-created province of Bac Kan. The district of Bao Lam was created by carving out a portion of Bao Lac district, in accordance with Decree 52/2000/NĐ-CP on 25 September 2000.

Cao Bang Geography

Cao Bang Province located in the northern part of the country has borders with Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang, Bac Kan, and Lang Son provinces within Vietnam. It also has a common international border (322 kilometres (200 mi) long) with the Guangxi province of the People’s Republic of China. The main town is also named Cao Bang.

The geographical setting of the province is mostly mountainous, with land available for habitation thus being limited. The average temperature reported in the province is 22 °C (72 °F). Winter temperatures in some areas occasionally experience freezing conditions and some amount of snowfall. The Ban Gioc Waterfall which is on the border with China is a well known natural feature in the province. The western side of Cao Bang borders Tuyen Quang and Ha Giang Provinces. The southern side of Cao Bang borders the provinces of Bac Kan and Lang Son. The north-west expanse of the province is 80 kilometres (50 mi), from Trọng Con in Thạch An district to Duc Hanh in Bao Lam district. It stretches170 kilometres (110 mi) from east to west, from Quang Lam in Bao Lam district to Ly Quoc in Hạ Lang district. Cao Bang has an area of 6,724.6 square kilometres (2,596.4 sq mi) (2008 figures). Mountainous forests take up more than 90% of the province.

The Peninsular valley of the Cao Bang Province is formed between the Bang Giang and Hien rivers. The two rivers confluence to the northwest of the town. In the war with China the town was damaged in 1979 and has been since rebuilt. The market in Cao Bang town is believed to be the largest in Vietnam. Cao Bang town is located on Highway 3 and is 270 kilometres (170 mi) from Hanoi. The road from Nao Pac to Cao Bang passes through the Cao Bac Pass. Since the elevation of the town is 300 metres (980 ft) it has salubrious temperate climate throughout the year.

Travel to/from Cao Bang

There are no rail connections, making buses the most convenient way to get to Cao Bang. A bus from Lang Son on the China-Vietnam border take 4-5 hours. There are also buses from the neighboring provinces in northern Vietnam. You can rent a car from Hanoi to Cao Bang, about 5 hours on road.

You can drive from Meo Vac to Cao Bang, and do a stop over at Bao Lac town (about 70km from Meo Vac, the road is nice,by the end a bit underdone and shaky). It's a nice small town by the river, a bit dusty, but has its charm.

Xe om (motorbike taxis) are convenient and cheap. 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.

Buses and minibuses leave frequently in the morning for the various bus stations in Hanoi, about 7 hours away. Buses leave less frequently after 10:00, and there are only a few buses in the afternoon. Hanoi buses stop at Thai Nguyen and often include a stop for food if running during meal times.

Overnight sleeper buses from Cao Bang to Hanoi's My Dinh bus station depart at 20:00 and arrive in Hanoi at 05:00 the next day.

You can reach China through the border crossing at Lang Son, five hours away by bus. Another day trip possibility is Ba Be National Park, between Cao Bang and Hanoi.

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