The scenery of Lai Chau province is some of the most spectacular scenery you can see in the far northwest of Vietnam. There is plenty to amuse the eye on the journey from Lao Cai, from the striking limestone mountains which reach into the distance in misty shades of green and green, to the plentiful waterfalls and village life. On a clear day you can even spy some of the larger peaks rising from the Chinese side of the border. As it is off-limits to casual travel, the area around Lai Chau town is as close as you're likely to get to the Chinese frontier in this part of the country. The border crossing is not open to foreigners.
Unfortunately the surrounding vistas are characterised as much by brown dirt as they are green hills, as mountain slopes are scooped away to create flat land for future development.
Renamed from the original Tam Duong, the new Lai Chau town is a good place to break up the trip between Sapa and Muong Lay or Dien Bien Phu, but few would choose to overnight here otherwise. It's a functional hub for both the local Montagnards, who come to buy and sell, and for those involved in all the various construction projects going on in the area.
There's a cave nearby, Dong Thieu Duong, accessible by a one hour hike, that's a good day-trek if you happen to stay longer.
The area has a large number of ethnic minorities, and new roads have made the mountain-top village of Sinh Ho a good destination for a day trip, or a a stop-off on the way through.
Due to the geography of the region, Lai Chau is at the top of a herring-bone turn in the highway through town. From Sapa, you'll be approaching from the southeast, and from Muong Lay via either Phong To or Sinh Ho, from the south west. The town centres around the local market, with most of the accommodation to be found on the Sapa side, and most of the services on the Phong To side. There's little need to wander far from the main street through town for anything you're likely to be looking for.
Take note that power outages are very common in Lai Chau—. The ATM at the BIDV bank is on a generator, but your internet options will be non-existent at those times.
The Agribank is across the street from the post office — there's an ATM here, but it's frequently out of cash so don't rely on it. As elsewhere in the Northwest of Vienam, it's safest to start with enough cash in your pocket to get you back to civilisation.
The post office is across the street from the bank, a bit down the hill. Internet is available at 3,000 per hour.
The bus station is just under a kilometre from the town centre, along the road to Sapa, on the left.
Agribank: Main Road, opposite the Post Office, Lai Chau. T: (0231) 387 6603 F: (0231) 387 6603. firstname.lastname@example.org
Lai Chau Post Office: Main Road, Doan Ket Ward, Lai Chau. T: (0231) 387 5278, F: (0231) 3875 242. Hours: 06:30 to 21:30.
By Sarah Turner.