Lao Cai is right on the Vietnam–China border. The town was razed in the Chinese invasion of 1979, so most of the buildings are new. The border crossing here slammed shut during the 1979 war and only reopened in 1993. Now it’s a bustling spot fuelled by growing cross-border trade.
Today Lao Cai is also a destination for travellers journeying between Hanoi and Sapa, or further north to Kunming in China. With Sapa just an hour or so away, Lao Cai is no place to linger, but it offers everything China-bound travellers will need for an overnight stay.
Sleeping & Eating
(020-383 5111; 342A P Nguyen Hue; r 180,000-300,000d) On a corner opposite the train station, this family-run spot is slightly kitsch, but the rooms are clean and colourful, and there’s a good tea house on the bottom floor.
( 020-383 5470; 342 P Nguyen Hue; r 250,000-300,000d) Right across the square from the train station, this is a good spot for an early breakfast or a filling meal. Rooms are very clean and tidy, with frilly decorative touches.
( 020-383 5939; Pha Dinh Phung; meals 80,000-125,000d; 7am-10pm; ) A stylish Sapa-esque cafe. Try the full English breakfast or a salad, pizza or baguette. Walk down the street in front of the train station for around 100m.
(65 Pha Dinh Phung; meals 65,000-180,000d; 7am-10pm; ) Viet Emotion is an offshoot of the successful Sapa cafe, celebrating a handy spot midway between the train and bus stations. Good breakfasts, pizza and pasta are popular choices.
Be wary of being short-changed by black-market currency traders, especially on the Chinese side. If you do need to change money, just change a small amount.
Getting to the border The Chinese border at the Lao Cai–Hekou border crossing is about 3km from Lao Cai train station, a journey done by xe om (motorbike taxi; around 25,000d) or taxi (around 50,000d).
At the border The border is open daily between 7am and 10pm Vietnam time. Note that China is one hour ahead of Vietnam. You’ll need to have a pre-arranged visa for China, and border-crossing formailities usually take around one hour. China is separated from Vietnam by a road bridge and a separate rail bridge over the Red River. Note that travellers have reported Chinese officials confiscating Lonely Planet China guides at this border, so you may want to try masking the cover.
Moving on The new Hekou bus station is around 6km from the border post. There are regular departures to Kunming, including sleeper buses. Buses leave at 7.20pm and 7.30pm, getting into Kunming at around 7am. There are also earlier departures.
Getting There & Away
Bus & Minibus
Lao Cai is about 340km from Hanoi. Nine daily buses make the journey to Hanoi (250,000d, nine hours), leaving from outside the railway station. Most travellers still prefer taking the train, but the completion of a new road linking Lao Cai to Hanoi in a few years should increase the popularity of the bus option.
Minibuses for Sapa (50,000d, one hour) wait by the station for trains that arrive from Hanoi, and also run regularly from the minibus terminal next to the Red River bridge. Minibuses to Bac Ha (60,000d, 2½ hours) also leave from here; there are seven daily services at 6.30am, 8.15am, 9am, 11.30am, noon, 2pm and 3pm. There are also departures to Ha Giang, Haiphong and Bai Chay (for Halong Bay) from here if you’re travelling further east.
A taxi to Sapa costs about US$25; it’s around US$50 to Bac Ha.
Virtually everyone travelling to and from Hanoi uses the train. There are several trains and also private rail carriages that hitch a ride on the main train. Hotels and travel agencies in Hanoi can book you tickets, or you can book at the station yourself. The journey takes around eight to nine hours. There are five daily departures in either direction, with prices ranging from 135,000d for a hard seat to 515,000d for a soft sleeper. Note that Thursday, Friday and Saturday departures from Hanoi, and Sunday, Monday and Tuesday depatures from Lao Cai are from 50,000d to 80,000d more expensive than than prices quoted above.
Several companies operate special private carriages with comfortable sleepers, including affordable ET Pumpkin (www.et-pumpkin.com), midrange Livitrans (www.livitrantrain.com) and the luxurious and expensive Victoria Express (www.victoriahotels-asia.com), only available to guests at the Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa.
See www.seat61.com for the latest information on all trains between Hanoi and Lao Cai.