If travellers are headed anywhere north of Hanoi in Vietnam, it's likely to be Lao Cai province and the hilltribe town of Sapa. The province is geographically diverse, bordered to the east by Hoang Lien Son mountain range, part of which is Hoang Lien national park, which includes Mount Fansipan (Phanxipan), Vietnam's highest peak, at 3,143m above sea level.
Lao Cai town, located along the Hong River, would be considered a fine destination in its own right if Sapa had not stolen its thunder. Goods and services are in ample supply, eating and lodging is of decent quality, it's a transport hub, and it's crossed by leafy, sleepy side streets that are good for a wander. Plus it's typically a few degrees warmer than Sapa, and less beset by mist and rain.
Lao Cai is a border town, but without that typical remote 'outpost' feeling you get with such spots. It's just a short walk away from its sister city Hekou on the Chinese side — you'll pass through here if you are headed to or from the Chinese city of Kunming, 470km to the north. The train line from Hanoi terminates here too, making it the gateway to Sapa for most travellers.
If Lao Cai looks kind of new to you, that's because it is. The town was largely flattened by the Chinese during their invasion of 1979 and the international border crossing here did not re-open till the early 1990s. What you see today, including many of the glorious concrete egg-carton-style buildings, is just 25 years old.
One of Lao Cai's selling points is its fleet of little white electric cars. Easily recognisable as the white buggies that roam golf courses the world over, in Lao Cai they've rolled off the greens and onto the streets in a somewhat touching attempt to lure tourists to linger longer than a few hours.
Crossing the border
The Lao Cai / Hekou border is open every day from 07:00 to 20:00. Although in theory some nationalities can get their visas on arrival, there is precious little information or assistance available at the gate so it makes sense to arrive with a visa in your passport in any case — and British and American certainly need to be prepared. Going the other way, (travelling to Vietnam), no visa on arrival is available.
Text and/or map last updated on 23rd November, 2010.
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