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China-Vietnam: how to cross the border between Hekou (河口) and Lao Cai

In this travel guide I explain how to cross the border between China and Vietnam from Hekou (河口) to Lao Cai.

canola flowers fields

If you are looking for information about crossing the border between China and Vietnam you won’t find much. One reason is that the border has been closed for many years. Another reason is that that’s not the most common way to enter Vietnam (or China).

However, since I personally did crosse the bridge that separates these two countries, I can give you some useful info. This article explains how to get from China to Vietnam but you can obviously do the same thing in the opposite direction.

How to get to Hekou (河口)

train hard seat china

When talking about China and Vietnam borders I’m referring to the cities of Hekou in China and Lao Cai in Vietnam. To get to Hekou there are two possibilities: getting there by bus or by train. The train is definitely cheaper and faster.

It would take a completely separate article to talk about all the different trains in China, how to buy the tickets, which kind of ticket it’s better to buy, etc… To summarize you can go to this site and choose the city of Hekou (河口) in Yunnan. The site will charge you a fee of approximately RMB 50 per route but is the only way to buy a ticket from abroad.

The official website of the Chinese railways does not accept foreign credit cards.

If your city of departure is not too far from Hekou (no more than 2/3 hours) then you can buy a ticket for a Hard Seat. To get an idea of how these seats look like you can see the picture above. If the distance is greater, I recommend a Hard Sleeper ticket (basically a ticket for a bunk bed). This is because the seats of old Chinese trains are very uncomfortable. You definitely don’t want to sit there for more than a couple of hours. As of now there a no fast trains connecting Kunming to Hekou.

The good thing about traveling by train is that you’ll see some of the countrysides that is really beautiful (check out the first picture of the article).

You’ll be surprised by the numerous security check you’ll have to undergo before actually getting on the train: Chinese are obsessed with safety. It is literally impossible to get on the train without tickets. If the Italian railways were to adopt the same system, the problem of passengers without tickets would be definitively fixed.

When you arrive in Hekou, get outside of the small train station and avoid the taxis. Then look for the numerous green buses that will take you straight to the border. Their destination in Chinese is 越南 (Vietnam). The price is 2RMB.

China-Vietnam border crossing

exit vietnam border

The first thing to do is to enter into the small building with the big “Exit” text. Remember to bring the immigration ticket you filled in when you entered China.

If you lost it, hopefully, they can give you a new one. Don’t forget to check if you need a Visa to enter Vietnam. Every country is different and you can’t get a Visa on arrival from this border. If you need one, you can request it from this agency.

There is always a lot of confusion when it comes to visas and their validity. Is it often hard to understand when you can start counting the number of days your Visa is valid for: from the date on the stamp or from the following day? In China and Vietnam, the visa is valid from the day after the date of entry into the country.

Once you have passed the security checks in China, you can cross the bridge that separates China from Vietnam.

china vietnam border

This is the Chinese side of the border

vietnam entrance from china

This is the Vietnamese side of the border

After a few hundred meters you will be on the other side of the bridge and you will be able to enter the building where passports are checked by the Vietnamese authorities.

how to cross the china vietnam border

There are usually very few people and it shouldn’t take long for the authorities to check your passports

Once you cross the border, you’ll be approached by a crowd of Vietnamese people that will ask you if you need to change money. Avoid them and walk to the ATM nearby, at the end of the big square, if you need some local money.

Lao Cai (the city bordering China) does not have much to offer. If you still want to rest from the trip you can find some cheap hotels with Booking.com.

Usually, tourists continue their trip and visit Sapa or Hanoi. If you have to go to Sapa you can take one of the minivans in the square just outside the border or (even better) take the public bus that costs much less and offers the same service.

If you are wondering if it’s better Sapa or Yuanyang, in China, check out my article.

sapa rice paddies

If you are heading south and want to visit Hanoi or any other place, you can take a train or a bus from Sapa. You can book the train from this website.

As a last reminder, some websites are censored in Vietnam, as well as in China. Please remember to get a VPN before you get there. If you don’t know what a VPN is you can read this article. Here 5 reasons to always use a VPN when traveling.

Here you can find some pics I took in Vietnam. Here an article about Shenzhen the Chinese silicon valley

5 thoughts on “China-Vietnam: how to cross the border between Hekou (河口) and Lao Cai”

  1. tony

    Ended up here after looking for Taiwan postal delivery information as per the rabbit hole of the Internet! I’ve travelled extensively around Asia but have still to include Vietnam for some reason, I always end up being distracted by that bus going in the opposite direction!

    Having spent two months in China I’d advise more than one VPN, I had five different versions loaded on my phone but over time they each got shut down. Make sure you set up the vpn before you leave, that way you’re not using Chinese servers. In my last two weeks, I was travelling blind, though by then I’d grown accustomed to the routine of getting around. If you don’t speak/read Chinese it can feel quite intimidating on arrival and frankly exhausting getting anywhere, though there will usually be an English speaker at the main transport hubs. Most older people speak no English, but many younger students will be looking for an opportunity to practice theirs. You’ll need their help getting a taxi as none will pick you up off the street due to the language issue. It’s a challenging country for sure but one worth experiencing, though as we’re all currently locked down with Covid a little abstract at the moment!

  2. Jacob Brougham

    Hey Fabio, can I apply for a visa at the border? On the websites for Americans applying for visas the airport of entry is required, and I will be just walking across. Thanks for all your great tips!

    1. Hi Jacob. Sorry but I’m not sure. When I crossed the border Italian citizens didn’t need a visa. It might be a better idea to call the consulate to avoid bad surprises. Safe trips!

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