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.
What you Expect
Crossing the border
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. 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.
Buses to Sapa
Leavingfrom outside the train station but all other buses leave from Lien Tinh bus station, which you can literally see straight ahead of you, if you look down the street standing on the front steps of Quoc Te Lao Cai train station. You’ll also notice that this street, Phan Dinh Phung, is packed with places to eat and sleep, so if you’re not staying long, you might as well stay here.
ATMs that accept foreign cards are scattered throughout town. There’s a convenient BIDV ATM near the station, next to the Pho Nui Guest House and an Agribank a stone’s throw from the border.
Internet is in ample supply: the nearest place to the train station is a few doors down from Le Bordeaux on Nguyen Hue and charges 5,000 per hour.
The main post office is on the west side of the river and not very conveniently located for visitors. Those next to the train station or near the border are likely to be better options. All have long distance phone services available.
The state ticket office times at Lao Cai train station are 08:00 to 10:00 and 14:00 to 16:00, although the desks appear to be open until the last train departs. Tickets to Hanoi can be bought at the station or from one of the private operators, such as Livitrains on Phan Dinh Phung. If you’re on a trip from Hanoi then it’s best to get a return ticket sorted in Hanoi as trains get busy and you might find yourself stranded or paying big money for a private carriage. Note though that even buying at the train station in Hanoi won’t guarantee you the ticket you want — we’re guessing that travel agents buy up all the tickets so those of us not willing to pay the commission might not have much luck.
These prices are for the regular, public cars, not the ones run by private companies — and unless you buy direct from the station you will end up paying quite a lot more.
Special express trains
SP2 departs at 20:15, arrives 04:55
SP4 departs at 21:00, arrives 05:15
SP6 departs at 21:30, arrives at 06:55
SP8 departs at 19:30, arrives 04:20
LC2 departs at 18:40, arrives 04:05
LC4 departs at 09:15, arrives 20:15 (numerous stops)
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