by Minh Huong
To escape Ha Noi's summer heat, I imagine that many people are like me and think about the thick green forest and high mountains of Cao Bang Province, 300km north of the capital.
|Rock of the ages: Evocative rock formations attract a number of tourists to Nguom Ngao Cave. — VNS File Photos
Although a car or bus can get you there in about seven hours, many people choose to take their own motorbikes which leaves them free to experience the winding roads that snake through these stunning mountains at their own pace.
Some of the best vistas can be enjoyed from the three-kilometre long Ma Phuc mountain pass, where views speckled with rice terraces rising between massive green-covered limestone mountains delight travellers. This is the scenery that Cao Bang is famous for.
Three kilometres west of the pass lies Nguom Ngao Cave, the most well-known destination in the province after Ban Gioc Waterfall.
The cave, which runs for more than two kilometres beneath the giant mountain, has three main entry points. It is said to be one of Viet Nam's most amazing caves, full of rare and unique rock formations. We climb up and down a small hill covered with maize before getting to one of the entrances where a plaque indicates that some French colonials and Vietnamese mandarins discovered the cave while visiting Ban Gioc Waterfall in 1921.
|Keep on turning: Cao Bang is quite unique for its water wheels everywhere in the province.
Tay ethnic guide Nguyen Van Khoan said the limestone cave was formed nearly 300 million years ago. In his language, Nguom Ngao means Tiger Cave. Legend has it that in the past, many dangerous tigers lived in this cave. Their resounding roars lead to the name.
In reality, the roaring sound comes from a fast-flowing underground stream which creates gusts of wind and loud echoes in the mountains.
Once we get inside the cave, the discomfort of the hot afternoon goes away as the temperature hovers around 20OC.
According to our guide, it is cool in summer and warm in winter thanks to the underground stream system.
I was not very fond of mountains nor caves before the trip but I think my mind changes the moment I see the amazing array of stalactites and stalagmites which resemble all manner of objects such as tree trunks, animals and even an angel combing her hair.
One enormous stalactite stretches ten metres high and looks like a giant lotus bulb in the centre of the cave while another formation nearby looks like a ship.
The light system in the cave is not very bright but is sufficient enough to enable visitors to see and imagine stories about the stalactites and stalagmites.
Khoan shows us another famous feature of Nguom Ngao, the terraced rock formations on the cave floor that look like terraced rice fields, and can be seen throughout the cavernous expanse.
Though I know that they are formed by the water that falls from the ceiling to the floor, I cannot help but be fascinated by their resemblance to one of northern Viet Nam's most common features, the terraced rice fields.
Near the end of the cave, a unique stalactite sparkles gold and silver because of the natural minerals that lie within, which Khoan calls Silver Stream.
We leave the cave through another entrance, called Ban Thuon, which lies near a village of Tay people who graze their cattle in the surrounding mountain fields.
Though the sun is falling lower and the sky darkens, we are hesitant to head back to Cao Bang Town because we are captivated by an amazing water wheel that looks like a giant wheel moving in circles to irrigate the fields.
The water wheel operates in a similar fashion to a bicycle. It is about one metre wide and operates non-stop, as the current propels paddles which sit at a 45-degree angle against the direction of the rotation. These water wheels dot the agricultural landscape of Cao Bang and are a unique feature that I have not seen anywhere else in my travels in the North. — VNS