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 3,143 metres above sea level.
Lao Cai town, the provincial capital, is both a border town to China – the westernmost crossing open to foreigners via Hekou -- and the gateway to Sapa. If it 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 30 years old.
Most visitors spend no longer than an hour or two in Lao Cai town itself, waiting for the train back to Hanoi or a bus out to elsewhere in the province, although an overnight stay may be a welcome break if coming in from China or embarking on a long bus journey. It's a pleasant enough town but there's little reason to plan a longer stay; the fleet of electric white cars that run around the streets are a somewhat touching attempt to lure tourists to linger.
If you are spending time in Lao Cai you won't want for much: goods and services are in ample supply, eating and lodging is of decent quality, and it's crossed by leafy, sleepy sidestreets that are good for a wander. It's typically a few degrees warmer than Sapa and less beset by mist and rain. If Sapa didn't exist it might well have established itself as the perfect base from which to explore the region, but as it stands it's solely a transport hub.
Crossing the border
The Lao Cai / Hekou border is open every day from 07:00 to 22:00. 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. Going the other way, (travelling to Vietnam), no visa on arrival is available.
Text and/or map last updated on 13th October, 2013.
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