Crossing the land border between China and Vietnam

Crossing the Borders of He Kou and Lao Cai

During my stay in Yunnan (China), I crossed the land border between China and Vietnam, passing through Hekou (Yunnan, China) and Lao Cai (Vietnam). It had been five years since my first visit to Vietnam, and I was eager to return.

We spent two weeks visiting Vietnam and returned to China via the same border, but in reverse. Here, I share my experience and provide some tips that might be useful if you ever decide to cross this land border between China and Vietnam, in the area of Yunnan and northern Vietnam, near Sapa.

Puente entre Hekou (China) y Lao Cai (Vietnam)
Bridge between Hekou (China) and Lao Cai (Vietnam)

Crossing from He Kou (China) to Lao Cai (Vietnam)

Trip from Kunming to He Kou

Since we lived in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, we bought a train ticket to He Kou, the last Chinese border city before crossing into Vietnam. Unfortunately, there is no direct train to Hanoi. From Kunming to Hekou, or vice versa, there are three daily trains: two that take four hours to arrive (18 euros for the ticket) and one that takes six hours (13 euros).

The Hekou train station is far from the city center, and since the taxi drivers were asking for exorbitant prices to take us to the center, we opted for a bus that dropped us off in the center for 2 yuan (10 cents). We arrived in the afternoon, so we stayed overnight in Hekou. Border towns usually don’t have much charm, so we went to bed early to cross the border the next morning.

Land border between China and Vietnam

Just before reaching the Chinese border crossing, there are always people offering to exchange Chinese yuan for Vietnamese dong. We found someone who offered us an exchange rate very similar to the official one, so we exchanged some money.

Before crossing land borders, if possible, it is always better to have exchanged some money in advance or carry dollars, which are always easy to exchange. This is important because sometimes, just after crossing the border, you might not find any ATMs or exchange places (as happened to me crossing the Vietnam-Laos border), leaving you suddenly without money in an unfamiliar country.

Once at the Chinese border crossing, everything is very straightforward; they ask for your passport, stamp your exit from China, and the exit from the building leads you directly to the bridge that separates China from Vietnam.

A large open gate with the words “China – Hekou” written in Chinese marked the exit line. On this bridge, I found it very curious to see many people, presumably Vietnamese or Chinese traders, crossing the border pushing old bicycles loaded with packages. I assumed they weren’t all moving and that these were Chinese goods/products to sell in Vietnam.

Upon crossing the bridge, we entered the offices of the Vietnamese border crossing. Everything was quite quick; we didn’t pay anything, had no problems, filled out a small form with basic information, and were given a two-week tourist visa. Currently, they give a 45-day visa.

Frontera terrestre entre China y Vietnam - Puerta de Hekou
China-Vietnam Land Border – Hekou Gate

Beware of Taxi Drivers and Scams

This is where things get complicated. Upon exiting, taxi drivers swarm the entrance and ask for exorbitant prices to take you to the center of Lao Cai or the Lao Cai bus station. Some even insist that you can’t walk, that it’s too far, or that there is no bus station in Lao Cai, when in reality, the station is only 2 km from the border.

They also offer to take you to Sapa, but for about 100 euros. This is ridiculous, as in Lao Cai you can take a one-hour bus to Sapa for 3-4 euros. If you want to go directly to Hanoi, it can cost between 5 and 15 euros, depending on the bus you take, although they all take about six hours to arrive.

So my recommendation at borders, if you haven’t researched beforehand and aren’t sure, is always to ignore the taxi drivers, politely say no, even if they are persistent, and walk, discreetly following the locals, to take the bus, which there always is.

If not, be prepared to pay a lot, and although it may seem cheap for a taxi when you first arrive in Asia, after a couple of days you’ll realize how you were scammed. But don’t worry, we’ve all been scammed at some point! In our case, we walked 30 minutes calmly to the Lao Cai station and took a bus to Hanoi.

Paso fronterizo de Lao Cai (Vietnam) a Hekou (China)

After two weeks in which we visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and Sapa, we returned from Sapa to Lao Cai to cross the border back to Yunnan, China.

The return was quite similar. Fortunately, from Lao Cai to the border crossing, there is no problem finding a taxi and they usually don’t overcharge. Still, you always have to haggle.

Another tip: try to arrive with your Vietnamese money already exchanged (or spent). I tried to exchange what I had left at the border crossing and was offered very little, so I had to take the Vietnamese dong to exchange them in China.

This time, we said goodbye to Vietnam and entered China without any difficulty. In China, they checked that we had a work passport, so we had no problems re-entering.

Frontera terrestre entre China y Vietnam - Puerta de Lao Cai
China-Vietnam Land Border – Lao Cai Gate

¿How many days of visa do you get when you arrive to China?

 If you come without a visa, it is important to know that for citizens of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Malaysia, from December 2023 until November 30, 2024, holders of ordinary passports from these countries can do business or travel to China visa-free for up to 15 days. After that date, they will evaluate whether to make it permanent or revert to charging for the visa as before.

The land border between China and Vietnam seemed very safe and orderly to me, as far as borders go. If you are traveling through Vietnam and feel like visiting China, don’t hesitate to cross this border and delve into my favorite Chinese province, the exotic province of Yunnan.

By the way, if you visit Yunnan, we organize trips from here! You can check out the post about “Organized Trip to Yunnan: 14 Days with Driver and Guide” or “The 8 Best Places to See in Yunnan. If you liked the post, feel free to leave a comment or share it. Thank you very much and have a great trip!

Puente entre Hekou y Lao Cai
Bridge between Hekou and Lao Cai

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