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Lao Cai


020 pop 35,100 elevation 650m

Lao Cai, the major town at the northwestern and of the train line. Is right on the Vietnam-China border. The town was razed in the Chinese invasion of 1979, so most of its buildings are new. Needless to say, the border crossing here slammed shut during the 1979 war – it reopened in 1993.

 Today, Lao Cai is a major destination for travellers journeying between Hanoi or Sapa and Kunming in China. But Lao Cai is no place to linger – don’t bother spending the night if you don’t have to.


Orientation & Information

The border town on the Chinese side is called Hekou – you would have to be an enthusiast of Chinese border towns to want to hang out here.

 There is a bank on the Lao Cai side of the river, opposite Song Hong Guesthouse, that will handle foreign exchange, but it’s cash transactions only. It’s best to have a ready supply of US dollars handy just in case. Be wary of black marketeers, especially on the Chinese side – they frequently short-change tourists. If you do black-market dealings. It’s best to change only small amounts.


Places to Stay & eat

Song Hong Guesthouse(   83004; rooms US$10) is closet to the border gate. Some of the 14 fairly grubby rooms have air-con. Ask for a room upstairs for a good view of the river and China.

 Binh Minh Hotel(   830085; 39 Pho Nguyen Hue; rooms 100,000-150,000d) is a standard state-run place with surprisingly friendly staff. Some rooms were being upgraded when we visited, and will probably be fine for the price.

 Huyen Trang Guesthouse(   832199; 27 Pho Nguyen Hue; rooms 120,000d) is near Binh Minh. It’s tatty, but OK. Go for a room on a high floor, away from the loudspeakers and music in the lobby.

 Gia Nga Guest House(   830459; rooms 80,000-120,000d) opened in late 2001 and it’s still looking clean and new. The enthusiastic owner, who doesn’t speak a word of English, has sensibly set aside a shower (15,000d with towel and soap) and luggage room behind reception, for travellers who want to freshen up after the night train from Hanoi.

Viet Hoa Restaurant(Pho Nguyen Hue), clean and with an English menu, is the best restaurant. It’s close to the border crossing.


Getting There & Away

Minibuses to Sapa (25,000d, one to t wo hours depending on roadworks) leave regularly until mid-afternoon. Minibuses to Bac Ha (40,000d, two hours) leave three times daily; the last service is around noon.

 Lao Cai is 340km from Hanoi. Buses make the run (53,000d, 10 hours), leaving from the train station (yes, the train station) at 4.30an and, but most travellers prefer to do the journey by train.

 See Getting There & Away in the Sapa section for details on train travel between Hanoi and Lao Cai.


Chinese Border The border is open daily between 7am and %pm. China is separated from Vietnam by a road bridge and also a separate rail bridge over the Red River. Pedestrians pay a toll of 3000d to cross.

 The birder is about 3km from Lao Cai train station. This journey is easily done on a motorbike, which costs around 10,000d

 The Friday and Sunday Hanoi-Kunming train, NO LC1, leaves Lao Cai at 9.40am on Saturday and Monday after a three-hour stop to complete border formalities.

 There is also a separate Lao Cai-Kunming service on Saturday and Sunday, train NO 5121, that also leaves at 9.40am. for some inexplicable reason, the Lao Cai-Kunming fares are quoted in Swiss francs! At current exchange rates, this amount works out at about 300,000d.

Vietnam Guide Book

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