Lao Cai is the capital city of the province of the same name, in the Northwest region of Vietnam. Most visitors only pass through here on the way to Sapa. Train enthusiasts know it as the place to disembark and then walk across the border to China to get the train to Kunming.
This year during the pandemic I’ve been visiting provincial capitals of Vietnam as a travel quest, so after my visit to Sapa I spent a night here instead of getting the bus straight back to Hanoi.
Lao Cai Map
Here is a map of Lao Cai, with places marked out that are mentioned in this article.
[Map of Lao Cai, Vietnam.]
Notes on Lao Cai
Even without the quest, I wanted to visit Lao Cai. I’m intrigued by border cities, and I was also interested in their history in relation to the Yunnan railway from Kunming to Haiphong.
From the limited information online there didn’t appear to be a central square or main shopping street to stay in, so I figured that staying near the river on the border would be a good idea. The Google Map of Lao Cai is completely scrambled on the border. It looked like there were canals in the city, and it was hard to tell where the border was. Perhaps this has something to do with Google Maps being blocked in China.
This has happened to me before in Phu Yen province, where a peninsula was missing on the map. The satellite image at least shows the reality.
I booked a hotel on the river, and it turned out that my room had a view of China.
This was in September 2020, and at that point it had been over 6 months since I had crossed an international frontier. I haven’t worked out the last time I was in the same country for over 6 months, but it was probably Australia in the mid-2000s. I looked longingly at this international frontier wondering when international travel will start again.
I’m instinctively drawn to borders, so the first thing I did after checking in was walk towards the border gate.
Of course the border was closed due to the pandemic, so there wasn’t activity here. You can walk along the river and see the city of Hekou in China on the other side. From here I could see some propaganda billboard with the slogan:
“China’s opening door will not close, but only will open wilder and wilder.” Ok, sure thing China.
There was no one else along the riverfront, and I was mindful that taking photos near a border crossing could get me in trouble. I saw that a guard noticed me and he looked like he was contemplating coming over, so I made my way to a nearby cafe to work out what to do next.
I found a temple to walk to, and on the way there I passed the decommissioned railway bridge.
There has been talk of a unified railway that would connect Kunming to Hanoi. China has built a new standard-gauge railway that replaces the old metre-gauge railway. China wanted to build a new railway to Hanoi and Haiphong as part of a three-pronged railway that would extend from Kunming into Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The proposal hasn’t gained traction in Vietnam, so if you want to do the train trip you have to cross the border by foot to continue your journey.
At the entrance to the Den Thuong Pagoda is a zodiac circle featuring the animals of the lunar calendar.
And there is the rat, who is having a terrible year of it. To be fair, the trouble started in 20(COVID)19 when it was the year of the pig (and my lunar year animal).
The temple has one of the most amazing temple trees you will see anywhere.
It’s such an impressive tree that I thought it should be mentioned in guide books.
There is a sign here declaring it a heritage tree, so it wasn’t just me who was impressed.
The temple itself is small but worth the diversion.
On the way back I found a coconut vendor selling coconuts all the way from Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta. Ben Tre is famous for its coconuts, and at 20,000 VND ($0.85 USD) for a large coconut, I thought it was a reasonable price given the journey it had to make to get here.
Around the city I saw the logo for Lao Cai, which looks similar in concept to the Sapa logo.
When I don’t know what to see in a new Vietnamese city I will look for some kind of war memorial. The Lao Cai Martyrs Memorial did not disappoint.
The highlight here is the tiled mural that faces the main road. The mural shows different points in history over the course of the twentieth century. Judging by the hats there is an American and Frenchman under fire.
There is also a homage to the ethnic minority hill tribes of the Lao Cai region.
The elephant in the room though is the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. I was wondering if there was any kind of monument to the invasion of Lao Cai by Chinese forces in 1979. It’s a war that both sides are now embarrassed to commemorate, so it not surprising that there is no direct reference to it.
When looking for a site to see in a new city, the other obvious starting point is the central market.
Near the market is Coc Leu Church, and the street market and trees made for a scenic area. Scenes like this make wandering around provincial cities worth it.
At the corner of Kim Dong and Hong Ha I found what looked like to be the oldest looking building in Lao Cai. The city was badly damaged in the war, though I couldn’t find any resources for old photos.
There are no cafe chains here yet, let alone any kind of hipster cafe. Like the coconuts of Ben Tre, the Cafe Saigon had me longing for the sticky heat of the deep south.
I’m collecting pictures of tall and skinny buildings in Vietnam, and I found this beauty at 28 Phan Dinh Phung.
Back near the hotel, there is a nice park that overlooks the Red River. To the left is China, and to the right is Vietnam.
At night the apartment blocks in Hekou are all lit up like most modern Chinese buildings are. If I ever get round to doing the train to Kunming I will spend a night there.
The most famous way to get to Lao Cai is the overnight train from Hanoi (there are no day services). You might also see this advertised as the train to Sapa, though the train doesn’t go there. The train has regular seat and sleeper options, and there are private cars attached by various tour operators which sell sleeping cabins.
Search for Hanoi – Lao Cai trains.
There are numerous buses and vans that travel from Hanoi to Lao Cai throughout the day. Search for Hanoi – Lao Cai buses.
The local bus to Sapa is conveniently located next to the train station. It also goes through the city before making its way up the mountain.
Where to stay in Lao Cai
My room with a view was at the Thien Thien Thanh Hotel – a regular budget hotel with an unusual international view. There are a bunch of budget hotels along this stretch of the road facing the Red River.
Nearby is the 4-star Muong Thanh Grand Lao Cai Hotel. If you are travelling to China and just want to roll out of bed to the border crossing, then the Sapaly Hotel is for you. Search for more hotels in Lao Cai here.
Great post , as usual, James. Thanks for the link explaining the circumstances behind the 1979 Sino-Viet conflict & loved the Cay Di San and the cross-border views!
James Clark says
Thanks! Yes the cross-border views will have to do while international travel is off the cards.
Tom Byrne says
Thank you James,for the non touristy photos of Lao Cai.The Vietnamese do not seem to cut down as many street trees as in Europe.A visit to Sapa is planned,hopefully for ’21.Looks like a stopover in Lao Cai is on the cards.
Are there good Chinese restaurants in Lao Cai?