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Lao Cai

300km (186 miles) NW of Hanoi

The access town for visitors to Sapa and Bac Ha, Lao Cai is really just a stopover, a place to catch the bus to the hills or to catch the train back to Hanoi. You won't find much to see or do, but you should know a few things in case you get stuck here for a while. The train station is in the heart of the town, and you can buy onward tickets here easily, though it's best to book sleeper berths a day in advance. There's one helpful tour office in Sapa, the ET Pumpkin Tours (Quang Truong Ga, Lao Cai City, Vietnam; tel. 020/383-6074; fax 020/383-6074; www.et-pumpkin.com). ET Pumpkin Tours is based in Hanoi but also has this office, which you'll find just across the main square at the train station.

A few basic minihotels are also near the station, if you miss your train or want to get a jump on travel to Bac Ha from Sapa for the weekend market there. Stay near the Chinese border at Hoa Lan (82 Nguyen Hue; tel. 020/383-0126). Don't expect anything fancy, but you can be reassured everything is neat and tidy. Ask for a room with a view of the river. For dining and information, the best place to visit is the family-run Hai Nhi Restaurant (337 Nguyen Hue St.; tel. 020/383-5901), which is on the left just as you exit the station. This is the town's traveler central, where shuttle buses drop off groups of tourists waiting to board the night trains back to Hanoi. If you're passing through, stop in for a good meal; the friendly young proprietor and his family can help out with any detail (they helped me empty the gas out of my motorbike, and even took me to their house for dinner).

Lao Cai is also a gateway to China, and many travelers make this their last stop before going on to the Middle Kingdom. Important note: You must have a prearranged visa for China before crossing at the checkpoint. From Lao Cai, it's a short walk or ride on a motorbike taxi to the border area and on to China. Once across the border in China, you can catch an onward train or bus into the heart of the country (but that's another story for another guidebook).

Onward transport to Sapa leaves regularly from just outside the station. When the train arrives from Hanoi in the morning, you have your pick of transport, and friendly touts will tug and pull you to their rickety shuttle buses. The 1-hour trip costs just $2. Buses to Bac Ha are a little trickier, and it's best to arrange your way to Bac Ha Market with a tour company. Contact Topas or Handspan in Sapa, or make arrangements with a tour operator in Hanoi before boarding the train for Lao Cai.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.