In far Northern Vietnam, bordering China’s Yunnan Province, Lao Cai City is the capital of the Lao Cai Province and a hotspot destination for travelers who are exploring this remote area. A popular stopover for visitors going back and forth between China and Vietnam, the city sits at the junction of the Red and Nanxi Rivers.
Mountainous Capital in Northern Vietnam
Built into the mountains of Northern Vietnam, Lao Cai City’s main industries are driven by the Lao Cai Railway, timber, and tourism. Although in a remote province, much of the city has been modernized and updated. In the past, Lao Cai had closed its border with China after Chinese forces attempted to take the city in 1979, but in 1993, the border was reopened.
Lao Cai City. Photo: k t
Since then, Lao Cai City has thrived as an international destination, especially since it’s a 1-hour drive from Sapa, which is another popular destination nearby. However, most of the travelers throughout Lao Cai Province will come from either China or Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, which is 286 km (178 mi) away. The Lào Cai International Border gate is less than ten minutes from the city.
Throughout the centuries, Lao Cai City’s proximity to China and its location in Northern Vietnam has made it an important trading post. First established in 1463 by Viet Kings, the city was once the capital of the Hu’ng Hóa region. More than 400 years after its creation, Lao Cai would come under the influence of the French.
The French began occupying the city in 1889, using it as both a strategic point and tourist destination. Called “Lao Kay” by the French, the name was adopted by the locals and changed to “Lào Cai”. For years, the city was inhabited by the French, and traces of their occupation can still be seen in the local architecture.
By the end of World War II, the relationship between the French and locals began to disintegrate. Resisting foreign occupation, many colonial buildings were destroyed, and for this reason, Lao Cai City does not feature as much French colonial architecture as places like Sapa.
The river border between China and Lào Cai City. Photo by: Joe Coyle.
In more recent years, the re-opening of the border in 1993 allowed Lao Cai City to gain international recognition. Closed for 14 years, when the border reopened, it allowed international trade and visitors to once again flow through Lao Cai. Since then, the capital has industrialized and expanded its tourist sector.
- Lao Cai was first established as a city in November 2004.
- There are 130,671 permanent residents living in Lao Cai City.
- Officially, Lao Cai City has 17 communes, 10 wards, and 7 rural communities.
In all truth, most travelers skip over Lao Cai City, using it as a one-night stayover destination on their way to China or Spa. However, there are a few attractions that are worth a stopover and tourists should schedule some time to spend a few days in the city. Lao Cai’s most popular attractions include the Den Thuong Pagoda, the Lào Cai Martyrs Memorial, and the Main Market.
View of Lào Cai City. Photo by: .
Den Thuong Pagoda
A heritage site, Den Thuong Pagoda is one of the most beautiful areas in the city. Impressive trees line the temple, and their vine-like appearance only adds to the magic of the pagoda. In the garden, there is also a large zodiac circle featuring sculptures of the various animals of the Vietnamese lunar calendar. Although small, the gardens are guaranteed to impress.
Lao Cai Martyrs Memorial
Facing the main road is the Lào Cai Martyrs Memorial. At the memorial, there is a small statue and sculptures of lotus flowers. However, the main feature of the memorial is a mosaic mural that tells the history of Lao Cai throughout the 20th century. Intricate, colorful, and absolutely stunning, travelers can visit the memorial on their way in or out of the city.
Close to the Coc Leu Church, Lao Cai City’s Main Market is lined with trees and vendors. A great place to eat, explore goods, and interact with the locals, most of the items sold in the market come from the province or region, however, there are occasionally vendors from southern cities.
With hotels across the city many of which are affordable and have been remodeled to suit modern travelers, tourists will have a decent selection of accommodation options in Lao Cai. Most hotels are small but are a few 4-star options available. The three most popular places to stay are the Thien Thien Thanh Hotel, Muong Thanh Grand Lào Cai Hotel, and the Sapaly Hotel Lào Cai.
Sapaly Hotel. Photo: Sapaly Hotel Lào Cai
Sapaly Hotel Lào Cai – Within walking distance to the border crossing, Sapaly Hotel Lào Cai is one of the most popular places for travelers. There are 116 rooms in the hotel and each one features a sitting area, desk, private bathroom, AC, and TV. Facilities at the hotel include a fitness center and bar. Staff are friendly and have been well-rated for their quality service.
Thien Thien Thanh Hotel – Overlooking the Red River, Thien Thien Thanh Hotel has been highly rated for its large rooms and abundant natural lighting. Guests can book private rooms, that have single, double, or triple beds as well as a bathroom. There is not a restaurant on-site, but the hotel is on a popular street where there is a variety of restaurants.
Muong Thanh Grand Lào Cai Hotel – A 4-star hotel in Lao Cai, Muong Thanh Grand Hotel offers guests quality accommodation at a reasonable price. Rooms are spacious and include complimentary tea, Wi-Fi, and a welcome drink. Guests also have access to the fitness center, outdoor pool, and spa. The staff is available 24/7 to assist guests with their needs.
To refuel, travelers can head to any one of Lao Cai City’s tasty restaurants. Scattered along the riverbank, there are quite a few places where travelers can find quality service and a good meal. Moderately priced and frequently featuring seating terraces, the best restaurants are the Ôc Chao 477 Quán, Hoang Lien Restaurant, and Café Saigon.
Neon lights at night in Lào Cai City, Vietnam. Photo by: Biggs.
Ôc Chao 477 Quán – Offering dine-in or takeaway, the Ôc Chao 477 Quán Restaurant is one of the highest-rated establishments in the city. A large menu features mostly locally sourced ingredients including fish, shrimp, and meat. Plates have large servings, so it is easy for travelers to share amongst themselves. Open only for dinner, the restaurant runs until the late morning hours.
Hoang Lien Restaurant – Serving meals throughout the day, the Hoang Lien Restaurant is a popular place for tourists to stop on their way in or out of the city. The food is well-rated, and prices are very affordable. Outdoor seating is available. Guests may also choose to have their meal packed to go. Tasty dishes include rice, noodle, meat, and vegetable options.
Café Saigon – Sitting right on the Red River, guests at Café Saigon can have their meal with a view. Modern and luxurious, the Café Saigon serves a mix of local and international favorites. Pizza is one of the most popular dishes on the menu, but guests can also indulge in some of Vietnam’s traditional rice-based meals too. Open all day, the restaurant also offers takeaway and delivery.
Frequently, the biggest celebrations in Lao Cai City are for national holidays like Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. During New Year, streets are filled with dancers and many ceremonies take place to usher in good health and prosperity. Regionally specific events like the Love Market in Sapa or the Bao Ha Temple Festival, mostly take place outside of the city.
View of the train station in Lào Cai City, Vietnam. Photo by: Robert Brands.
Even though Lao Cai City is remote, it can still be difficult to travel around the city by walking. Spread throughout a valley in the lush mountains, parts of the city are hilly. Although there are certainly small neighborhoods or areas where tourists can walk around, sometimes a taxi might be needed to get to another destination.
Tourists could also look at renting a bicycle or motorbike for the time that they are in Lao Cai City. Hotels are also a great resource for arranging for local transportation.
As a northern destination, Lao Cai City is somewhat unique because its mountainous terrain has more than the typical two seasons. Though a wet and dry season are both prominent in the city, snow and cold temperatures are very common during winter. Avoiding the rain and the extremely low temperatures, the most popular months are the spring and fall months.
Gateway into Lào Cai City, Vietnam. Photo by: .
For most travelers, disembarking in Lao Cai City is normally means staying one night in a local hotel as travelers seek other destinations. However, it’s worthwhile to spend some time in the city and explore its limited attractions. With a beautiful riverside location, comfortable accommodations, and good restaurants, Lao Cai City is a seriously underrated destination.
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Keyword: Lao Cai City, Vietnam