Today we walked across the Vietnam China border. Literally. From Lao Cai to Hekou. Actually we travelled 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 south western 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.
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 esepcially he 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 VPN’s and other things you should do BEFORE you get to China in our article.
How to Get from Sapa to Lao Cai
Most travellers will spend some time in Sapa, the old French hill station set up in 1922, before crossing. 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 kilometres from the Lao Cai train station. However, we have included the instructions oh how to get from Sapa to China in total.
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 prices and availability of places to stay in Sapa. It’s close to the Church, which is where the buses leave from for Lao Cai.
Where to Get the Sapa to Lao Cai Bus
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 an 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 a myriad minivan shuttles that 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 getting 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”.
How far is Sapa from the Chinese Border?
The distance between Sapa and the Chinese border at Hekou isn;t really the question, more 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
Google isn’t exactly accurate here – so I’ve drawn on the details of the location of the China Vietnam border crossing map. The Lao Cai to China crossing is quick and easy.
The Vietnam China border map above is from Google (with my additions) and 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. This Hekou – Lao Cai Vietnam map is to show where we were dropped off. This Vietnam China map is still relevant and hasn’t changed in 2020.
Lao Cai to Hekou Border Crossing
Vietnam & China Border opening times
China is one hour ahead of Vietnam. Vietnamese immigration is open at 0700 (that’s 0800 Chinese time). Then you need to walk across a bridge into Chinese immigration. Chinese immigration is open from 8am until 11pm (Chinese time). That’s 7am until 10pm 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 simply process, you stand in a line and get your passport stamped.
Vietnammese Immigration at Lao Cai, Vietnam – what to expect
There were four folks in front of us, all looked like regular visitors, 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 apparently 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.
There was NO ONE here. Apart from the immigration staff.
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 metres 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.
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, our bus goes at 06:00 or 09:00 tomorrow. So we plan to stay in Hekou for the night.
There are multiple locations in China named Hekou. You are travelling to Hekou, Yunnan.
Facilities in Hekou
There’s not a lot to see. Its 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.
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 choice than other sites.
Hekou Accommodation Recommendations
Shared terrace and lounge, free wifi. English spoken here. Dorm beds and private rooms available. Get best prices and a reservation here.
Easy location, walking distance of the border. 24 hour desk, restaurant Big rooms and very clean. Reserve your room now at a great price.
Asia Theme Hotel
Free in room wifi, 4 hour front desk and an entire NON SMOKING FLOOR! Secure your room now
Leave a Deposit if you’re paying in Cash!
If you’re paying cash for a budget room in China then you need to leave a cash deposit, which is returned as you leave (assuming that you didn’t wreck the room of course).
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 ATM’s that a foreign card holder can use. Not all Chinese ATM’s will accept foreign cards. We found 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) and there are details on this below – or the Hekou North Train Station (which opened in December 2014). > Book your Chinese trains online with Trip.com
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, 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 book and buy a ticket from. We bought our tickets the day before we travelled, to be sure of having a ticket to our next destination.
Map of where the Hekou Passenger Transportation Center is:
How to get to the Hekou Bus Passenger Transportation Centre
Hekou’s bus station is easily accessible by the “little green bus” . The little green bus runs from 0630 – 2200 right along the river road, BINHE LU. Each trip costs 2 yuan (2020 prices). The trip takes about 15 minutes. Simply put your money in the box as you enter the bus.
There aren’t many seats, but there is plenty of space for standing.
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 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. (November 2020 prices) – its a fixed price and drivers will refuse to turn on the meter.
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 includes most booking , accommodation and even ASocialNomad. Download a VPN – virtual private network – and install it BEFORE you get to China.
The Chinese government frequently blocks access to sites that it sees are potentially against their communications policy. A VPN both secures your internet traffic and masks your location. A VPN also makes it safer to input your credit card details and passports when you’re on public wifi networks.
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