how to go from lao cai to hekou

Lao Cai to Hekou – Vietnam to China Border Crossing

Today we walked across the Vietnam-China border. Literally.  From Lao Cai to Hekou.  Actually, we traveled from Sapa to Hekou, China, crossing the border at Lao Cai Vietnam to Hekou, China.

This is an easy crossing between Northern Vietnam and the southwestern China province of Yunnan at the junction of the Red River and the Nanxi River.  There’s just not a lot written about it.  This guide aims to advise on how to get from Sapa to Lao Cai, and then from Lao Cai to Hekou Yunnan.  We’ll cover border opening times, visa requirements, what you can expect in Hekou China, and details on onward travel from Hekou.

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Popular options for moving on from Hekou are taking the train from Hekou to Kunming, or a bus to the Yuanyang Rice Fields.

However, the first thing that you’re going to want to do is read this guide thoroughly – ask any questions you might have and plan out your onward travel from Hekou.  This is especially the case if you do not have a VPN.  China is currently blocking access to all HTTPS websites ( so that means this site as well as all the sites where you’d book your accommodation, trains, and other onward travel ) Read more about VPNs and other things you should do BEFORE you get to China in our article.

How to Get from Sapa to Lao Cai

Most travelers will spend some time in Sapa, the old French hill station set up in 1922, before crossing the border.  However, the border crossing takes place in the Vietnamese town of Lao Cai into the Chinese town of Hekou.  The Lao Cai border crossing is about 2 kilometers from the Lao Cai train station.  However, we have also included the instructions on how to get from Sapa to China.

We left from Sapa at 09:30

We stayed in the top part of the town for our last night in Vietnam, at the Sapa Cozy – check out the prices and availability of places to stay in Sapa.  It’s close to the Church, which is where the buses leave for Lao Cai.

Where to Get the Sapa to Lao Cai Bus

The bus from Sapa to Lao Cai leaves near the church in Sapa. I’ve marked it on the map for your reference.

The Tourist Bus from Sapa to Lao Cai

We headed to the Church at 09:15 to catch the 09:30 tourist bus to Lao Cai – 28k VND.

From the Lao Cai train station (Ga Lao Cai) we planned to catch a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) each for 20k VND (US $1) to the China Vietnam border. Alternatively, we could walk the remaining 2km in about 40 minutes.  You can also take the Lao Cai to Sapa bus in the opposite direction.  You’ll find it going from the Lao Cai train station to Sapa (there are also many minivan shuttles that will cost about the same).

Sapa to Lao Cai Minivan

A minibus driver approached us and agreed to take us to Lao Cai for 30k.  We further negotiated to get to the border for another 10k VND each.  As the minibus was empty when we did this deal we expected to be sitting around for the next hour while he drummed up trade.  We were pleasantly surprised when we set off 10 minutes later as he had promised, even though we weren’t full.

He operates by setting off a few minutes ahead of the bus – so en route to Lao Cai, we picked up several more folks, who were also waiting for the bus.

We were dropped off just before the border, with a Vietnamese wave in the general direction of “China, China”. You can see on the map where we were dropped off in Lao Cai.

How far is Sapa from the Chinese Border?

The distance between Sapa and the Chinese border at Hekou isn’t really the question, you need to know how long will it take from Sapa to the China border?  The answer depends – but it will usually take you around an hour (60 minutes) to get from Sapa to Lao Cai to the Chinese border.

Hekou Border Crossing Map

The Vietnam-China border map on Google Maps IS confusing.  This is mainly because both Google’s border line is in the wrong place on the map AND the rivers look as though they run into the streets.  It looks like, for instance, that Binhe Lu in Hekou is in the river.  It’s not.  

Because Google Maps isn’t exactly accurate here – I’ve drawn the details of the locations of the China Vietnam border crossing on the map later in this article.  The Lao Cai to China crossing is quick and easy. The map below shows you all of the major points you need for the border crossing.

Lao Cai to Hekou Border Crossing

Vietnam & China Border opening times

China is one hour ahead of Vietnam.  Vietnamese immigration is open at 07:00 (that’s 08:00 Chinese time).  Then you need to walk across a bridge to Chinese immigration.  Chinese immigration is open from 8 am until 11 pm (Chinese time).  That’s 7 am until 10 pm Vietnamese time, because of the time zone differences.

Vietnamese Immigration at Lao Cai

The entrance to Vietnamese immigration is through the exit, because,  you are exiting Vietnam.  It’s a simple process, you stand in a line and get your passport stamped.

Lao Cai to Hekou Vietnamese Exit

Vietnamese Immigration at Lao Cai, Vietnam  – what to expect

There were four folks in front of us, all looked like regular visitors, and we were the only Western tourist.  We were through in less than 5 minutes.  That included standing by the sensor that checks your body temperature! We were normal apparently and passed through without problems.  Most of the folks crossing here at the Lao Cai China border are locals, not tourists.

Chinese Immigration at Hekou Yunnan, China – what to expect

Then, it was a short walk across the Friendship Bridge over the river and we were heading into the Hekou – Chinese immigration building.

Walking Across the Friendship Bridge Lao CAi to Hekou

There was NO ONE here. Apart from the immigration staff.

Chinese Immigration Hekou

First of all, we had a stop at the quarantine section and a passport check. Then it’s onto a small station where your passport is scanned by a helpful guy.  He also inputs the requested visa number into the machine, which then prints your entry and exit cards.  There is no visa on arrival here, you must obtain your Chinese visa prior to the trip.  This is just one of the things that you must do before you arrive in China -there are others!  And there are recommendations for apps that you should download before you go too – read about that here.

Our helpful guy didn’t speak any English, but sign language is universal and, face it, if a man in uniform points and pushes, you just go.

You sign the cards and then head to the Immigration notice and booth.  This is all within 8 meters of each other. There was now no one in the line, so we went quickly through there.   Then you put your bags through the airport security-style scanner and you’re out.

Filling in the Immigration Form in Hekou

Time to Cross Vietnam – China Border

Vietnam to China in 16 minutes. Pretty darned good. This was late morning by the time we arrived at the border (11:44 on a Saturday).  We had no bus to catch on the other side that day, our bus goes at 06:00 or 09:00 tomorrow.  So we plan to stay in Hekou for the night.

Hekou, Yunnan

There are multiple locations in China named Hekou.  You are traveling to Hekou, Yunnan.

Facilities in Hekou

There’s not a lot to see.  It’s a typical border town, but you’ll find places to stay and eat (More on Hekou Food here), even if you don’t speak or read any Chinese.

Hekou Hotels

There are lots of hotels in Hekou within easy reach of the immigration building.  Be sure of your accommodation in Hekou and book ahead.  The Chinese site Trip is great for booking accommodation in China and has more choices than other sites.

Hekou Accommodation Recommendations

Huaning Hotel Kawaguchi – Renovated in 2023. Luggage storage facilities and 24 Hour front desk. Free wifi, air-conditioning and private bathrooms. Get the best prices and a reservation here.

Yujingtan Oriental Hotel, Kawaguchi – Easy location, within walking distance of the border. Luggage storage and restaurant  Big rooms with private bathrooms.  Reserve your room now at a great price.

Asia Theme Hotel – Free in-room wifi, 24-hour front desk, and an entire NON SMOKING FLOOR!  Secure your room now

Map of Crossing the Border from Vietnam to China at Lao Cai Hekou

You can also see the full map for crossing the Lau Cai to Hekou border here

Lao Cai to Hekou Border Crossing map

Getting Chinese currency in Hekou

ATMs in Hekou

If you don’t have Chinese Yuan (often marked as RMB or CNY), then there are several ATMs that a foreign cardholders can use.  Not all Chinese ATMs will accept foreign cards.  We found the Bank of China easy to use throughout our 60 days in China.

The ATM does actually speak to you in English.

You can find a Bank of China ATM that’s available 24 hours and that works with foreign cards at the corner of BINHE LU – see the notation on the map.

How to Leave Hekou

If you want to leave Hekou straight away, then then you will want to get to either the Hekou Passenger Transportation Centre (for buses) there are details on this below –  or the Hekou North Train Station (which opened in December 2014).

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Want a train in China? You’ll need to book ahead of time, this is a big country with a lot of people who travel by train. Get your dates sorted and book early!

Hekou to Kunming Buses

It is possible to get from Lao Cai to Kunming (or Sapa to Kunming) in one day, as there are lots of buses throughout the day. They go from the Hekou Passenger Transportation Centre – or bus station.  Take the little green bus to get there (see details below).  You will need, though to get to the border early in the day.

Hekou to Xinjie for Yuanyang

Read more about getting to the Yuanyang Rice Fields here

Where to Get Buses in Hekou

Long-distance buses in Hekou leave from the Bus Passenger Transportation Centre.  The building is about 2.5 miles (4km) from the border.  The Hekou Bus Passenger Transport Centre is also where you buy a ticket.  We bought our tickets the day before we traveled, to be sure of having a ticket to our next destination.

I’ve included on the Map where the Hekou Passenger Transportation Center is

How to get to the Hekou Bus Passenger Transportation Centre

NOTE: in 2024 there are no longer little green buses available, you will have to take a taxi to the transport center.

Hekou’s bus station is easily accessible by the “little green bus”. The little green bus runs from 06:30 – 22:00 right along the river road, BINHE LU.  Each trip costs 2 yuan. The trip takes about 15 minutes. Simply put your money in the box as you enter the bus.

Hekou Little Green Bus

There aren’t many seats, but there is plenty of space for standing.

Hekou Little Green Bus inside

Getting to Hekou Train Station

The Hekou train station is about 4.5 km from the immigration building.  It’s known as Hekoubei (in Chinese it is 河口北火车站 ).  It is sometimes also known as Hekou North Railway Station.  You will want to get a taxi.  Write the Chinese characters down, and show it to a taxi driver.  Agree on a price before you get in the taxi.

You should try and book your trains before you arrive in China – you can do this online with Trip.com – And be sure to do it in plenty of time, as trains book up quickly.  Take a look and find availability for your trip NOW.

A taxi from the border area to Hekou train station should cost 10-20 Yuan for four people with luggage – it’s a fixed price and drivers will refuse to turn on the meter.

What & Where to Eat in Hekou, China

Hekou is a typical border town.   There is a good selection of hotels of varying sizes and prices and several that you can book ahead of time.   There’s also a reasonable number of places to eat, but you’re going local when eating in Hekou.  You left all the Westernized joints behind when you crossed the border from Vietnam. That said, there is a Dico’s, which promised chicken burgers and fries, and a frozen yogurt place. Here’s where to eat in Hekou, what to eat in Hekou, and how to find it.

There are lots of small plastic chair places to eat near the market.  If you walk straight on from the immigration offices, you’ll find it off to the right.  There’s also a street of small plastic chair restaurants nearby with a specialty of insects and bugs. The staff were most keen to tempt us to eat something. Nothing doing. There’s plenty of other stuff to eat first for me at least, despite what the World Health Organization might think.

Hekou - Eating Cheap and Local
It’s busy!

We picked a busy spot on the corner of BINHE LU near the border. There wasn’t another Westerner in sight, so we watched how it worked for a while and then dived in.  We did have to work at being served, I’m sure they were more frightened of us than we were of them!

There was a queue of 10 baskets when we added ours to the pile  We ordered our two portions of noodles (in retrospect, one would have done).  A couple of beers and two bottles of water kept us busy until our food arrived.

There are several large metal cauldrons, or metal buckets, filled with some type of broth, simmering away. Your basket of foodstuff is emptied into the cauldron, in the relevant order for cooking, while still on the sticks.  The sticks are removed throughout the cooking. It’s all remarkably quick.

Hekou - Food on sticks when Eating Cheap and Local
Meat/Tofu Selection

Your noodles are added to a metal sieve on the side and then when it’s all done, it’s dumped into a large metal bowl.  Then it’s handed off to another member of staff.

Hekou - Eating Cheap and Local spicy options
Spicing it Up

It’s then taken to the spice and condiment table.  It’s here that a spoonful or more of a variety of spices and chili and other gorgeous-looking, fabulous-smelling concoctions are added to your bowl. A handful of herbs are added to the top and it’s all yours!

Delicious. If we’d been able to communicate we would have asked for a bit more spice and heat, but it was still really good. Really good to the tune of 40 Yuan. That’s about 4 GBP, or US $6.00.

Perfect. Now we’re to tackle those stairs to the seventh floor again to the Hua Yua Hotel because we’re off to the rice fields of Yuangyang tomorrow.

Before you cross into China

Before you set off across the border into China there are some key things that you must do.  We’ve put together a checklist – be sure to read and do them before you set off!

Most importantly – Download a VPN

Without a VPN you are unlikely to be able to access sites like Gmail (even from your phone apps), Google Maps, and Facebook.  Since August 2018 the Chinese government has been blocking access to HTTPS sites – which include most booking, accommodation, and even ASocialNomad.  Download a VPN – virtual private network – and install it BEFORE you get to China.

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Travel Tips for Exploring China

Final Words on Going from Lao Cai to Hekou

This border crossing is one of the main ones between Vietnam and China. And while it’s a relatively easy border crossing to do, you will need to be organized. You’ll need your visa, a VPN, and a plan of where you’re going next. If you want to take a train you MUST prebook it. A bus ticket can only be bought from the bus station. And good luck!

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