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 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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You can take a train from Hekou to Kunming, or a bus to the Yuanyang Rice Fields.
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 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 on 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 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 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 myriad minivan shuttles that cost about the same.
Travel in Vietnam is relatively easy. There are heaps of comfortable buses and some great trains that are easy options. For all your transport in Vietnam, use 12goAsia for online booking and make life a lot easier! Get timetables for Vietnamese buses and trains, plus book online and get instant confirmation here.
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”.
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.
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 times). 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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
READ THIS POST
Why You Need a VPN in China
Hekou Accommodation Recommendations
Shared terrace and lounge, free wifi. English is spoken here. Dorm beds and private rooms are available. Get the 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, 24-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 ATMs that a foreign cardholder 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). > 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 traveled, 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. 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 – it’s 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 its communications policy. A VPN 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.
Read our NEW Common Sense Guide to VPNs here – or get a VPN for US$6.67 a month with ExpressVPN.
We left China by walking across another bridge, this time in Shenzhen onto Hong Kong, here’s how.
Travel Tips for Exploring Vietnam
- Considering travel insurance for your trip? World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and more.
- Download and install a VPN BEFORE you travel to Vietnam > discount coupon here
- Book the best Vietnam tours and guides on Klook or Get Your Guide
- Rent a Motorbike or a Scooter in Vietnam
- Book Buses in Vietnam with 12goAsia
- Book accommodation in Vietnam with Booking
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40 thoughts on “Lao Cai to Hekou – Vietnam to China Border Crossing”
Hi guys, I did the same trip a few days ago in the opposite direction. From Kunming to Lao Cai, Sapa and Hanoi. You should know that since the beginning of 2015 the train line from Kumning to Hekou is running again (6 hours journey). More informations on seat61.com.
You are right, the border crossing in both direction is to much easy ; 20 minutes from China to Vietnam, no queue and helpful officers. For a nice place to stay in Hekou, but still affordable, I recommand Xin Du Hotel, Binglang road N°1, close to the center. Typically chinese hotel with no english speaking ; the room is about 120 RMB (20 $).
Great, thanks for letting us know! The train would have made it much easier!
I’m about to do this trip tomorrow. Thank you so much for the info!
No worries! good luck and enjoy China, it’s amazing there.
Hello from Thailand,
We are looking for the info on travelling from Vietnam to Kunming by train (also how to cross the border), and your blog is really helpful.
I have read it thoroughly.
Thanks for the kind comments, I hope your trip goes well. We bought our train tickets in Vietnam from Hanoi railway station and our train tickets in China in person from railway stations. CTrip now allows you to buy train tickets online (what a HUGE relief – as the lines are huge in China, and you usually end up in the wrong line!). It also helps with planning your travel, as we never quite knew if we’d be able to travel on the day we wanted to, or on the train we wanted!. Let us know if there’s anything else we can help with!
Thank you guys, this post is super helpful and written with great detail (appreciate the humour too heehee) so appreciative of your effort in doing this – I am planning to make a border crossing and hope it will be just as smooth! BTW the exit/entrance cards (for rest of China) are yellow-coloured and i wonder if that’s the same for this crossing too? Thanks again xx
Hi ! thanks for the comment – we actually found all our China border crossings easy – Mongolia > China, this one and China > Hong Kong too (although I guess that doesn’t count so much!). I’m pretty sure out entrance/exit cards were white, but I’m going to dig back through photos and see what I took – just as soon as this internet connection winds up above walking speed!!
I surfed into your blog as I was researching the Vietnamese border crossing with China and this was extremely helpful and detailed! I live in China (Kunming) and know southern Yunnan quite well. Thanks for the accurate information!
Your blog is fantastically helpful. One question, which website did you buy your online bus ticket from Hekou to Kunming on?
We’re planning to go by train but it seems like they only allow 20 days booking in advance, which is too risky for us as we’re applying for visa 1 month prior our departure. Again, thanks for your blog!
Hallo there and thanks for your comment – when we used the bus from Hekou we went to Xinjie and booked the bus at the bus station the day before we travelled. For train travel you can use Ctrip – but the you can’t book Chinese trains more than 30 days ( some overnight sleepers are 20 days) in advance. I’ll comment separately on how to deal with the visa. Sarah
We need some train/bus booking documents to apply for a visa first so we really need some kind of itineraries ha ha. Look forward to your reply <3
Hallo! When it comes to your visa for China you will need an accommodation booking and travel and sometimes (depending on where you are applying from) your transport in and out of the country even back to your home country. But don’t worry, the details that you submit for the visa do NO have to be the trip that you take. View this as a paperwork exercise. Get the visa by creating an itinerary that you can book, print the bookings to PDF and then cancel those bookings that you do not want. Once you have your visa NO ONE checks that you are doing the route that you put in your visa application and it is Not referenced on your visa. We used booking.com to make bookings ( go for 4-5 nights in places it makes booking for the visa process easier ) and be sure to pick ones that have free cancellations. Write a letter to accompany your visa application detailing your (fake) route and submit it with your application. Stare that you will be booking a train / bus from x to y as soon as the bookings open. We’ve applied for and Received long stay tourist visas so far using this method. BUT we also had to include a “flight ticket” back to our home country – even though we planned to leave China overland. So we did this http://asocialnomad.com/travel/proof-of-onward-travel/ – we used the free option in there. And it worked both times ( and in other countries too). Getting a Chinese visa is a painful process but that’s all it is – just jump through the hoops and follow their rules. The country is fabulous. Drop us an email [email protected] if we can help further and Good Luck!
Thanks – just what was needed !
Thank you for all this very useful information. I’ve just bought my tickets to Xinjie at Hekou bus station for tomorrow and knowing about the green buses to get there was very helpful. The green bus fare is now 2 yuans. As for the Hekou-Xinjie bus timetable, it hasn’t changed: the only two daily buses leave at 6.10 and 9.00. Best regards, a fellow X-gen traveller
Thanks so much for the update! I will update the post – and its great to hear from another Gen Xer on the road!
I think no one knows how important is to have a good VPN in China. I used to live in Beijing, and I remember I had a hard time finding a well-performing service. So, please remember, if Facebook, Google or other social apps is essential to you – do some digging on reviews online and make sure to purchase a service before leaving. If someone would want my opinion, I managed to get the best results with NordVPN. One thing, their price could be lower, but I purchased it with discount deal75, so it reduced about 3-4 times. Hope that helps.
A massive thank you for such a detailed guide. We are currently in Sa Pa and cross the border tomorrow so it’s extremely helpful to have such a detailed guide available to help.
Good Luck! Hope you love that part of China as much as we did!
Thank you for very detailed information. This blog is really suitable for one who wants to go and visit Vietnam. Hope that you will provide us the more interesting articles about this beautiful country. looking forward to reading your others blog <3
thanks. the little green bus was the missing piece.
Just did this in March 2019. All accurate information here. Well done. However, it cost only 20 Yuan to take the taxi from the border to the Hekou train station. Fixed price. The cabbies will not use the meter.
Great, glad it was useful! I’ll update the taxi fare, thank you1!
I’m so glad I stumbled across ASocialNomad!
I have a question..
I plan on entering China from Vietnam (via Lao Cai) and flying out of China (from Beijing).
Would it be okay If I showed a train ticket (from Hekou to Kunming) and a flight ticket out of Beijing for my visa?
Do i Have to book a flight from Hanoi to China even though I have proof of departure (flight out of Beijing)?
Hi there! Remember that the visa process is a paper exercise – and that they want you to show that how you will get in and how you will get out. (and preferably they prefer you to show that you are flying to your home country (!!! – I guess the paperwork process doesn’t understand people don’t just travel from their home country!!) – for your outbound that sounds ok. It depends on where you are applying for your visa from – we applied in London, (twice), which is VERY strict, but have had readers apply from all over the world, it appears to be less strict in the countries around China. They do, in all cases, appear to want to know how you are getting in – so you can book a cancellable flight in and out – the US carriers do a 24 hour no fee cancel deal. I would recommend something like this. Book it, PDF it and cancel it. There does not need to be any correlation at this time between what you say on your visa and what you actually do! Good luck and let us know how it goes!
Lao Cai is the central tourist area of the North with scenic Sa Pa town in the clouds, charming market, the top of Phan Xi Pang and Lao Cai International Border Gate. Lao Cai has many historical places, natural caves, specialties and is a place bearing the unique cultural characteristics of many ethnic groups.
A very helpful entry as we are planning on crossing border on Feb 2020. Very informative. TQ in advance. Hope our journey will be smooth. By the way, is there any bus or train direct from Hekou to Lijiang ? Or we still have to transit in Kunming?
Hi there – for Hekou to Ljiang you’ll still need to go via Kunming.
Hello. Is anyone aware if the border is over right now due to the coronavirus? We know air travel from Vietnam is not possible but is the road border still possible?
It seems that the Vietnamese government has ordered open the Chinese-vietnam border crossings that were closed for Tet (although LaoCai Hekou was not one of those), so it seems likely that they border IS open. However, you’ll need to be aware that virtually ALL the countries surrounding mainland China are either imposing a 14 day quarantine on people coming over the border, or not accepting foreigners. the UK Government has advised “only essential travel to mainland China” and have evacuated all but essential embassy staff – so you’d also want to check if your travel insurance would be valid if you travel into the country.
Hi..your write up is very useful to those who want to do the vietnam/ china border crossing.
Thanks so much for the relevant informations.
We want to travel to China from Vietnam by train. But the problem is how to get China visa without a Flight ticket.
You can book a ticket that has a full refund, or some airlines have the ability to book a ticket and cancel for free within 24 hours. All you need for the visa is to get a print of the ticket or booking to go with the visa application. There is no checking when you enter China that you are entering China or doing the itinerary that you said on your visa aplication in the way that you said.
With the difficulties of obtaining green health code to travel via air, can I cross into China through the land border at also Cai – Hekou right now in 2022 thanks.
The best source for the current border crossing details is the Chinese Embassy in Vietnam (or indeed the country from where you want to travel from) – http://vn.china-embassy.org/eng/lsyw/202109/t20210913_9990665.htm – they’re pretty strict on where you’ve been recently (and by recently, they mean in the last month!) The embassy also says “1. Given the potential risk of Covid-19 and travel cost, please stick to the principle of Do Not Travel Unless Urgent or Necessary. If you must go to China via flights, please avoid unnecessary outdoor activities after medical tests, be aware of personal hygiene and self-protection, thus lowing the risk of getting infected before boarding.”. There were several reports of the border being closed in January (https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/vietnam-urges-china-urgently-reopen-border-gates-trade-stalls-2022-01-02/) – but also check with your country of citizenship to see what they say about whether you will be allowed in. Sorry it’s not better news!
Can you cross the border now? I have a visa for China that is a work visa. If I cross the border can I quarantine there before heading back to Shanghai?
Hi.thanks for the info.
Its the border open now.? With the new updates of restrictions maybe will be open for early january??
Hi there – I’d expect the land border to open when the other borders do, this has been an important border for Vietnam/China trade. I’ll update when I hear more
Hi I have read today that its is going finally reopened for January 8.
Anyone can confirm.