Photo: Impressive setting.

Introduction

Our rating:

Sprawling and sparkling Lai Chau feels like it has been dropped into the countryside from outer space. Boulevards, as enormous as they are devoid of traffic, slice through the centre of this provincial capital which, by and large feels almost deserted even at peak hour.



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Why should you go to Lai Chau?

Lai Chau is the natural spot for an overnighter for those travelling to or from Sapa to the east, or Muong Lay or Sin Ho to the west. Despite the half deserted feel and enormous size, this is a clean and well manicured city—probably the cleanest spot we saw in all of the northwest. The overall setting is stunning—in the distance mountain peaks surround much of the city, and the centre has a large and pretty public park (hemmed in by more boulevards), along with a pond with a few spots to eat.

The water at Thac Tac Tinh falls is as cold as it looks. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

The water at Thac Tac Tinh falls is as cold as it looks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Sight wise, aside from the boulevards, there is an impressive waterfall near Tam Duong to the south of town (on the way to Sapa) and in the opposite direction, heading towards Muong Lay, a cave complex with absolutely lethally slippery floors. In town there is a decent wet market and there are enough spots to fill your stomach or grab a drink—including one with a terrific evening view over the city. While we list just the one place to stay, there are a few mini-hotels to choose from, many bookable online.

When to go to Lai Chau

As with the rest of the northwest, June through to September is wet season. Expect heavy rainfall and misty weather. Landslides are common and will slow you down outside town. Visibility wise, late September to October and March through May are the best bet. Evenings and early mornings can be cool to cold year round. If motorbiking, be sure to dress accordingly. The temperature can be cold on high passes yet hot in the valleys.

Orientation

Lai Chau is very easy to navigate, but it is huge (around 5km top to tail) and little is within walking distance. If you don’t have your own transport and are not too bothered about exploring, we’d suggest picking a hotel near the bus station and leaving it at that.

Lined up like wedding cakes. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Lined up like wedding cakes. Photo: Stuart McDonald

ATMs are scattered around town, making Lai Chau a good spot to cash up before heading further west. The primary post office is in the centre of town, opposite the large lake (and yes, on the boulevard).

Lai Chau’s bus station is in the southern reaches of town, on the south side of the boulevard to the east of the General Hospital. Note that where Google Maps marks it (at least at the time of research in September 2019), is incorrect.


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Where to stay in Lai Chau

Lai Chau has plenty of mini-hotels, many of which can be booked online, mostly clustered towards the northern end of town and a couple strung out along the boulevard. We’ve listed just the one, a simple budget hotel, primarily due to the location and that the manager speaks good English and is handy for food and attraction tips. If you’d prefer something more midrange, take a look online.


Chieu Tan, Lai Chau
Under US$10

Doan Ket 1 Guesthouse
# Chieu Tan, Lai Chau T: (0988) 669 366

The Doan Ket 1 is an unassuming guesthouse opposite a wet market towards the northern reaches of Lai Chau, and while it is simple fare, the setting ticks a lot of authenticity boxes.

Bright blue and easy to find. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Bright blue and easy to find. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Right opposite is a sprawling wet market which gets going early in the morning and rolls on till late afternoon. A stall selling dog meat sets up in the morning outside the foyer. We didn’t realise what they were selling out of the large styrofoam boxes till we accidentally bumped one with our motorbike, toppling it off the table and spilling an entire dog onto the pavement. If dog isn’t your thing, there are also a couple of decent noodle shops and, in the even, BBQ pork places within metres. In a town as sprawling as Lai Chau, here everything is within easy walking distance.

Rooms (100,000 to 140,000 dong) are moderately sized, and while staff may try to steer you to a rear one on account of noise from the market, we preferred to have an upstairs front one looking down over it—and the noise wasn’t that bad. Facilities include a private hot water shower (the bathroom is small), a desk and free WiFi throughout. The bed veered towards being a bit lumpy.

A slightly lumpy bed but plenty of light. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

A slightly lumpy bed but plenty of light. Photo: Stuart McDonald

While staff speak no English, the manager has good English and will do his best to convince you to prolong your stay in Lai Chau. He volunteered to take us out to a dog restaurant (we declined), but is also just as happy to head out for a few cold beers or just furnish you with a few tips on where to go eat yourself. He also has plenty of information on the surrounds and can also arrange motorbike hire if you don’t have your own.


Map of where to stay in Lai Chau

Map of where to stay in Lai Chau

Map legend

Click on the hotel name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Where to eat

Like everything else in Lai Chau, the eating options are all over the place, and having your own transport can be helpful in getting around.


This bowl was almost as big as my head. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

This bowl was almost as big as my head. Photo: Stuart McDonald

For coffee, we liked The Moon Coffee, by the intersection of the two largest boulevards in the centre of town. Grab a pavement table and laze away commenting on the lack of traffic on the boulevards.

For a simple but super-sized bowl of pho, Bien Cuong Quan is just down from Doan Ket 1 in the northern part of town. No complaints, and the restaurants is pretty clean and well kept. In the evening out the front of here, stalls set up selling BBQ pork for takeaway and there are a couple of other simple places within walking distance.

Greasier than it looks. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Greasier than it looks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

By the smaller pond (not the grandiose lake) you’ll find Kim Ngan Banh Xeo. Now banh xeo are always a bit on the greasy side, here, moreso. If that doesn’t do it for you, walk around the corner and you’ll see a row of semi-open air BBQ meats and snail cafes that also serve up cold drinks in a relaxed setting.

Talking cold drinks and food, on the main drag, Nha Hang Chau Tuan is easy to spot (by a cinema), and can dish up cold drinks and simple one plate dishes. Open lunch and evenings only. For something more substantial, towards the bus station, on your right on the boulevard is Quan 25, a BBQ suckling pig place—be warned the staff here can be very curt—get there by 19:00 to avoid missing out.

Bright lights big city. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

Bright lights big city. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Last but not least is the viewpoint restaurant on a rise to the southwest of town. Head here for a brilliant sunset. The main affair is hotpot, but we’d recommend just coming for sunset and eating elsewhere. A Tam Duong Tea outlet is on site. To get here, head southwest at the enormous roundabout on the enormous boulevard and when the road tapers off turn left and just keep going. The sunset and evening views are as excellent as the service is terrible.

Map of where to eat in Lai Chau

Map of where to eat in Lai Chau

Map legend

Click on the restaurant name to open its position in Apple or Google maps.


Restaurant contact details and addresses

Bien Cuong Quan Chieu Tan, Lai Chau.
Kim Ngan Banh Xeo 6-7 Rd, Lai Chau.
Nha Hang Chau Tuan 30/4 Rd, Lai Chau.
Oc & BBQ cafes 6-7 Rd, Lai Chau.
Quan 25 30/4 Rd, Lai Chau.
The Moon Coffee Le Loi, Lai Chau
Viewpoint restaurant Southwest of town, Lai Chau

Bien Cuong Quan
Chieu Tan, Lai Chau. Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
Kim Ngan Banh Xeo
6-7 Rd, Lai Chau. Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
Nha Hang Chau Tuan
30/4 Rd, Lai Chau. Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
Oc & BBQ cafes
6-7 Rd, Lai Chau. Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
Quan 25
30/4 Rd, Lai Chau. Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
The Moon Coffee
Le Loi, Lai Chau Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2
Viewpoint restaurant
Southwest of town, Lai Chau Lai Chau, Northwest Vietnam
Under $2

What to see and do

Around Lai Chau

20km south of town

Aside from sitting around the lake or popping up to the viewpoint restaurant, Lai Chau proper doesn’t have much to offer on the sights front. Around 20km south of town though, near Tam Duong, Thac Tac Tinh waterfall is well worth seeking out.

The falls in the distance. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

The falls in the distance. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The multi-level Thac Tac Tinh falls can be seen from the main road (QL 40) between Lai Chau and Tam Duong and the signposted turnoff is around 20km from Lai Chau proper. Once you turn off, follow the road for around 2km till you reach a parking area and from there it is about a thirty minute hike along some very slippery stairs through the forest, to the base of the falls.

While at the base you can’t see the upper falls, at the base there is a large swimming hole which more than compensates. We were told it was possible to climb to higher spots on the falls but we couldn’t see anything that even remotely looked like a trail so we just settled for catching our breath with our feet dangling in the icy waters of the swimming hole.

A swimming hole just for you. Photo taken in or around Lai Chau, Vietnam by Stuart McDonald.

A swimming hole just for you. Photo: Stuart McDonald

If travelling under your own steam, the falls are straightforward to reach and are signposted from the main road. The rice terrace scenery along the way from Lai Chau is well impressive. If you don’t have your own transport you could get a bus from Lai Chau to Tam Duong and then hike or arrange local transport to the falls—if the latter, arrange for them to wait to avoid a long walk back.

The other primary attraction is Pu Sam Cap Caves, which sits in the opposite direction from Lai Chau (heading towards Sin Ho and Muong Lay). The caves are on the main road, around 7km from Lai Chau. Be warned that if you plan to visit here, the floor of the caves is almost lethally slippery—take extreme care. After a bad fall not even twenty metres in, we retreated and saved it for another visit when the floor has been coated in non-slip! To get here from Lai Chau, either ride here yourself (the caves are signposted) or any bus to Muong Lay will pass by the entrance. There is no admission charge.

Location map for Around Lai Chau

Click on the map to open its position in Apple or Google maps.



Getting there and away

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Bus

Lai Chau bus station is towards the southern end of town and is a well-run spot with clear signboards and even a comfortable waiting area. Sample destinations include the following.

Dien Bien Phu: Multiple morning departures, passes through Muong Lay, costing 145,000 dong and taking about 6 hours.
Hanoi (via Sapa and Lao Cai): Overnight (circa 12 hours) service. Multiple evening departures around 21:00 costing 300,000 dong.
Hanoi (via QL 32): Overnight (circa 12 hours) service. Three departure around 17:00 costing 300,000 dong.
Lao Cai (this passes via Sapa): Multiple departures through the day 90,000-100,000 dong, taking about 3 hours.
Ninh Binh: Overnight service. Departs at 20:00 costing 350,000 dong.
Sin Ho: Multiple morning departures costing 50,000 dong and taking about two hours.
Son La: Departs at 05:30 and 14:15 costing 170,000 dong and taking about eight to nine hours.
Vinh: Overnight service. Departs at 16:30 costing 500,000 dong.




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