Lai Chau

This small town is nestled in a beautiful valley carved from spectacular mountains by the Da River, and, with Tam Duong, is one of the lunch and/or overnight stops for people traveling between Dien Bien Phu and Sapa.

Beneath Lai Chau’s beauty lies a difficult existence for locals. Despite a marked increase in tourist numbers, for most of the local people it’s a hard living. Far from busy trade routes, normal commerce is limited and the town has only been really successful in harvesting particularly valuable cash crops. These include opium and timber. Needless to say, opium harvesting does not find favour with the central government, which has been trying to discourage the Montagnards from producing opium poppies.

If the opium business is falling on hard time, the same must be said for the timber industry. In recent years the forest cover has been reduced and flooding has increased dramatically. Around 140 people lost their lives in 1990 in a devastating flood on the Da River that swept through the narrow valley.

An even worse flood in 1996 killed 100 people and cut all roads into town for two months, the ruins of the flooded former cultural hall can be seen in town.

It seems that this kind of flooding could become a permanent feature of Lai Chau.

There are government plans to place a dam just above the current Song Da Reservoir, and this will fill the Lai Chau valley with water. (This is the reason that the provincial capital was transferred from Lai Chau to Dien Bien Phu in 1993). If and when this comes to pass (not before 2010), this will be the largest hydroelectric station in Southeast Asia. It also could mean that in the future the only way to visit Lai Chau will be by submarine.

Being underwater, however, would at least keep things cooler. Odd as it might seem, in summer Lai Chau is one of the hottest places in Vietnam. June and July temperatures can soar as high as 40 C. This has something to do with the southeast simmer monsoon blasting in from the Indian Ocean, and the surrounding mountains enclosing the heat. It’s an interesting phenomenon for budding climatologists.

Places to Stay & Eat

Lan Anh Hotel (/fax 852370; twins in concrete wing or basic stilt house US$8, in stilt houses US$10-20) is the best of Lai Chau’s hotels. The wooden Thai-style stilt houses are pretty, with wide fan-cooled verandas. There is a good restaurant here and the hotel owners can provide travel advice and arrange boat trips and private tours.

Song Da Hotel (852527; twins 150,000d) is another decent option with basic rooms but with hot water and air-con. It’s on the road to Dien Bien Phu.

Nam Lay Hotel (852346; rooms 100,000d), on the way to Lai Chau, is set slightly above the main road and is very basic.

Getting There & Away

Most travelers will arrive from Dien Bien Phu (three hours, 103km), although there’s also the road option of Hwy 6 from Tuan Giao (four hours, 96km). the road from Lai Chau to Sapa and Lao Cai (eight hours, 180km) is one of the most beautiful drives in Vietnam, but it’s bumpy. Remember that all of the travel times listed here are pretty much hypothetical – it only takes a single landslide to cause considerable delays.

Public buses make the run to/from Hanoi, as well as to points in the northwest like Dien Bien Phu, Son La and Sapa, and if you’re bent on the thrill, the folks at the Lan Anh Hotel(/fax 852370) will happily provide destination and schedule information.