One of the most beautiful places in Vietnam is also one of the least visited. The area around Cao Bang, northeast of Hanoi near the Chinese border, is filled with stunning mountains and forests, pristine lakes, historical caves, and the most beautiful waterfalls in the country. It is also an area of great historical significance and the birthplace of an independent Vietnam.
After the Japanese invaded Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh decided it was time to return to Vietnam and seek freedom from the French. He had been in exile for over 30 years, had sought independence from France in Paris, where he was not recognized, had formed the Vietnamese communist party, had jumped ship in 1913 to live in the United States, and had gained many valuable insights about people and governments. One thing he knew for certain. “Colonialism breeds cruelty.”
By 1940 he knew the French Vichy government, working with the Nazi government, would allow the Japanese to invade Vietnam without a fight. The Japanese would then attack the British and the Americans and war with them would be declared. When that happened Ho might gain a new ally, the United States. Because of his time in America, he understood the people to be a freedom-loving people who might offer assistance is his own fight for freedom.
He returned to Vietnam on January 28, 1941, and set up his headquarters in a cave at Pac Bo, in Cao Bang Province. He knew that the Nung tribesmen were hostile to the French and he felt they might help protect him. There, sleeping on a bed of twigs and grass, he started his long struggle for independence. He had several goals.
- Build a guerrilla base in the area
- Establish himself as leader of the Vietnamese people
- Start training 50 guerrillas at a time and send them out to train others
- Expand his forces from villages, to countries, to provinces
After building his first small force he traveled to China to offer Chaing-Kai-Shek his help. Even though his army was small he felt it was a good time to establish relations with the allies. In return he asked for weapons and finances. The Chinese immediately arrested him as a spy and kept him in prison for over a year before being released.
Meanwhile, his friends Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap stayed busy expanding the communist party and building the Vietnamese army. Of all the Vietnamese leaders, Giap probably had more reason to hate the French than any one else.
In 1944 Giap was 33 years old, 20 years younger than Ho, and people said that he never smiled. People knew him as an intelligent man of action. He constantly studied the campaigns of Napoleon and understood the teachings of Clausewitz and had studied at a guerilla warfare came in China. He returned with Ho to the caves at Pac Bo with 40men and their families.
Giap was born into a family for French militants. His father died in prison. His sister died shortly after being released from prison. His sister-in-law was arrested after a visit to Russia, sentenced to death and shot. Giap studied for his final school exams while in jail then attended law school but failed to pass the bar. He became a teacher of history. His luck did not change as he grew older. His wife was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in Hanoi Central Prison. She died there while Giap was training his forces near the caves.
Ho Chi Minh’s chance to work with the Americans came when Lieutenant Randolph Shaw experienced engine trouble in his airplane over Vietnam and bailed out. Some of Giaps’ soldiers brought him to Ho.
Ho realized this was his opportunity to make contact with the Americans and he personally escorted Shaw to China. Ho refused money for rescuing Shaw and he waited patiently at the Dragon’s Gate café to be contacted. What he wanted was American recognition for his League of Independence, medicine, and arms. An agreement was soon worked out and Major Allison Thompson and several soldiers returned with Ho to Vietnam to establish an American unit named the Deer Team.
Ho moved from the cave to the small village of Tan Trao near the provincial capital of Thai Nguyen. While there he fell gravely ill. More soldiers arrived for the Deer team including a medic named Paul Hoagland. He examined Ho and found him suffering from either malaria, dengue, or dysentery (he was not sure because he was not a doctor) and near death. He treated Ho with quinine, sulfa, and other drugs for several days. Ho was soon back on his feet and ready to resume work. In a small bit of irony it is possible that an American saved the life of Vietnam’s leader.
Major Thompson and his small force of Americans help General Giap train a specialized force of 200 Vietnamese. Together they attacked and beat the Japanese at Thai Nguyen. With this victory Giap had the confidence to launch a general insurrection throughout Vietnam. Ho and Thompson parted as good friends and hoped for a long, supportive, and friendly relationship between their two countries.
Today, tourists can visit the cave of Ho Chi Minh at Pac Bo. It is one of many caves in the area and it has a small and informative museum. The main town in the area is Cao Bang, 168 miles from Hanoi, where most visitors stay. From there they book hikes and excursions into the surrounding area.
Ho’s cave (Water Wheel Cave) is not the only piece of history near the town. The area was once the home of the 16th century Mac Dynasty.
Ban Gioc, fifty miles from the town, is the most beautiful waterfall in Vietnam and separate the country from China. The falls are wide and gentle and form many beautiful pools. A special permit from the police station is required to visit the falls.
For history and culture, Cao Bang is the place to visit. What makes it even more inviting is that it is still untouched by tourism. The people are friendly and the prices are not inflated. It is truly not a place to be missed.