Prior to crossing the Vietnamese border at Lao Cai to He Kou, China, my Vietnamese friend was very concerned that I will not be able to return back to Vietnam. Vietnamese has to obtain visa and approval from their immigration department to do the border crossing.
However, as a Singaporean, I'm do not need a visa to entering both Vietnam and China. But it being a fairly remote frontier border, where immigration officers may not be familiar with Singaporean, I double checked with the Vietnamese immigration officer on their immigration policies. They confirmed that I do not require a visa on my return. So I made the crossing over the bridge to the Chinese side.
As I entered the Chinese Immigration checkpoint, two women immigration officers immediately approached me, asking where I’m from, and where I’m going and why. The other asked for my passport. I thought I was in for some trouble, but they were surprising friendly and helpful, once they figured out that I was a tourist, they provided me with the declaration form and started chatting about my recent visit to Kunming where one of them was from.
Clearing the custom and returning back to Vietnam were a breeze, and the services of immigration staff was one of the best that I have encountered. They obviously take service standard seriously, because there is a four-button panel in front of each immigration clearance counter for visitors to rate the service of the officer serving them.
He Kou is a frontier trading town with a blend of both Chinese and Vietnamese culture. Wholesales trading houses are clustered just outside the Chinese immigration building. There are some minorities like the Red Zao on the Chinese side of the border. That is not surprising as many of these tribes had migrated from Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Tibet to the South East Asian region.
My observation is that the trade is primarily one way in favor of China. Even the handicrafts you bought from the villagers in Ta Van, Ban Ho or Bac Ha are all imported from China…..sorry to spoil your perception that the stuff you bought are authentic H’mong’s tribal handiworks.
Bus fare from Sapa to Lao Cai cost 40K dong (30K dong for local, but my return to Sapa cost only 35K – perhaps I looked Vietnamese). Just ask the driver to drop you at the Vietnamese immigration building to He Kou (no extra charge). If you are coming from Lao Cai train station, it cost 10K on motorbike. From He Kou, one can travel up to Kunming and else where in China.
Instead of going to the packed of tourists trek that passes trougth the Black H´mong and Dzay ethnic minorities villages, choose the trek to the Red Dzao minority village wich is less crowded more authentic.
To see anything approaching normalcy in this area of Vietnam you need to get out of town. Do it and do it quick as you may soon go mad within the suffocating confines of the town itself. So, get out of town. Run, dont walk. Rent a moto (do'nt waste money on a guide) and head for the pass.
Not sure if this should fall under here though. I haven't tried this, but do let me know if you have done it and show me the pictures.
There are transport that can bring you to the bridge that connects Vietnam and China. You can get the local tour to arrange the transportation for you.
It's probably where most of technology gadgets arrive to Northwest Vietnam. I had spoken to quite some people in the hotel. They have been in and out of China through this route (they probably find nothing interesting about this place). Trading activities probably takes place here. I see the TCL televisions, Chinese brands of socks, clothing etc. in Sapa, maybe the computers which you use to surf net probably comes from there as well.
You may need to pay for "visa" or "a passport to China" if you decide to get across to the other side. It's probably the Yunan provice is is closest.
Please plan ahead as i don't think you want to be stranded on the other side and not being able to return back to Vietnam or go back to your home from China.
I would think that to get there from Lao Cai is nearer as compared Sapa.
On the way down to the waterfalls at Cat Cat, we went past this small clinic which, my young Black Hmong guide mentioned to me, was just 7 years old, despite looking much older from the outside. We went inside where there is a baby delivery room, office, 2 beds in another room and a doctors consultation room. It was good to see but it didn't look all that hygienic inside or out.
At Lao Cai, take time to go and see the Chinese border. At least now, I can say I have seen China. Its across the other side of the river.
Although Ta Van is pretty limited in things to do, there are still things to see. Just get out and have a walk, wear a smile and you'll find some sights.