Lai Chau

Itinerary Route Map

After passing through one of Vietnam’s remotest regions, the new eight-lane boulevards and monumental government buildings of Lai Chau appear like some Vietnamese El Dorado. The reality is more prosaic.

Formerly known as Tam Duong, this remote town was renamed Lai Chau when a decision was made to flood ‘old’ Lai Chau (now called Muong Lay). ‘New’ Lai Chau is split between the old town, with its market full of hill-tribe people, and the concrete new town 3km to the southeast.

Most visitors stop for a lunch break between Dien Bien Phu, Muong Lay and Sapa. The drive from Lai Chau to Sapa along Hwy 4D, threading through the Fansipan Mountain Range near the Chinese border, is a beautiful stretch of road.

WORTH A TRIP

SINHO VILLAGE

Sinho is a scenic mountain village that’s home to a large number of ethnic minorities. It should attract more tourists, but when you visit, there is a ‘you ain’t from around here’ look on the faces of many locals.

However, a decent hotel and improving road access means it’s an excellent detour if you’re keen to see an authentic local market very different to the markets at Sapa and Bac Ha, which are now firmly on the tour-bus route.

Sinho has markets on Saturday and Sunday; the wildly colourful Sunday market is the more impressive of the two. Just don’t expect trendy ethnic handicrafts: you’re more likely to be confronted with a full-on mix of bovine moos and porcine squeals.

The best (only!) place in town that accepts foreign travellers is the welcoming Thanh Binh Hotel (0231-387 0366; Zone 5, Sinho; r US$25-27), a surprisingly comfortable spot comprised of 17 spotless rooms with mountain and rice-paddy views. Rates include breakfast, and lunch and dinner (120,000d) are on offer in cosy bamboo gazebos. Treks from 3km to 10km can be arranged to nearby White H’mong and Red Dzao villages.

Note there are no ATMs or banking services in Sinho, but there is internet access at the Thanh Binh Hotel.

A bus to Sinho leaves Dien Bien Phu daily (120,000d, six hours) at around 5.30am, transiting through Muong Lay around 8am. These times can be flexible, so check at the Dien Bien Phu bus station the day before you want to leave. From Sinho, buses then trundle downhill to Lai Chau (80,000d, three hours) at 7am and 1pm. Heading south from Lai Chau to Sinho, there are two buses per day at 6.30am and 12.30pm (80,000d, three hours), and a daily departure (120,000d, six hours) to Dien Bien Phu. Note that the road linking Sinho to Lai Chau was very poor at the time of writing, but major roadworks were planned to be completed by around September 2014.

It’s definitely slow getting to Sinho by public transport, but achievable with patience and a flexible attitude.

If you’re travelling on two wheels, the turn-off uphill to Sinho is 1km north of Chan Nua on the main road from Muong Lay to Lai Chau. Definitely ask about the state of the road from Sinho to Lai Chau before you leave Hanoi.

Sleeping & Eating

Cam Tu Hotel 

(0964 444 6555; 330 Ɖ Tran Phu; r 200,000-250,000d) Colourful decor and friendly dogs in reception give way to more prosaic but clean rooms, and the Cam Tu is well located, with good restaurants just across the road.

Phuong Tanh 

(0231-387 5235; Main Sapa Rd; d US$27) Part of a burgeoning mini-empire (the owners also run a nearby restaurant of the same name – mains cost around 150,000d) the Phuong Tanh overcomes a drab reception area with clean and well-lit rooms offering big bathrooms. On the 2nd floor, Café Phan Xi Pan is a brightly coloured oasis with wi-fi, cold beer and tasty variations on rice and noodles.

Information

There’s an Agribank and ATMs in the old town’s main street.

Getting There & Away

The bus station is 1km out of town, on the road to Sapa. A xe om from the bus station to hotels is around 10,000d and a taxi around 20,000d.

Buses from Lai Chau:

Destination

Cost (d)

Duration & Frequency

Dien Bien Phu

150,000

7hr; frequent 5am–1pm

Hanoi

from 320,000

12hr; 5am, frequent 4–8pm

Sapa

100,000

2½hr; frequent 5am–6pm

Muong Lay

90,000

3hr; frequent 5am–1.30pm

Sinho

80,000

3hr; 6.30am, 12.30pm

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