What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of northern Vietnam? Some may answer Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, while others may think of the natural world wonder, Halong Bay. Those that have traveled even further north will most likely tell you of mountainous Sapa. A place that you don’t hear of is Lao Cai City, the capital of Lao Cai province.
Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Lao Cai city until recently, when we accepted a job teaching with Apax. It only took a few Wikipedia searches to convince us of the natural beauty surrounding the area and then once again, we were on a bus moving our lives to a place that we had little to no idea about. I came here with little to no expectation of what life would be like, because aside from a few websites, there is limited information of this city in English.
About Lao Cai:
Lao Cai is situated in the far north of Vietnam. It’s sister city, Hekou, China, is located across the junction of the Red and Nanxi River. This border crossing was opened in 1993, from which point its population has steadily grown.
During the six hour bus ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the landscape slowly transforms revealing lush green mountains. Nestled in a cozy valley at a higher altitude, it experiences four seasons. The winter’s are cool (hat weather) and the summer’s are hot (really hot!).
Lao Cai City is a unique city of the province in that it is developed and on the rise. One could even think of it as a mini Vegas of the north. In the night, An Duong Vuong Street lights up revealing a number of karaoke bars and restaurants. It even has a casino, which draws in a large volume of Chinese tourism. On a more cultural note, Lao Cai province is home to 25 ethnic minorities that live more in the rural area of the province. Just outside the city, they can be spotted in the rice fields working or selling their fresh produce.
Why move to Lao Cai?
Some may ask what on Earth the appeal is to living in this remote city. Aside from the lack of traffic that I painfully endured in Hanoi, there are a number of draws to this beautiful city.
One of its largest appeals is its natural beauty. The lush mountains surrounding the city make for a perfect backdrop to my morning coffee. Moreover, in comparison to Hanoi, the air is clean! Those of you that have experienced breathing in the toxic air of Vietnam’s capital city can attest to why this would be such a large relief to my lungs. Beauty aside, there are other things that make this city an appealing place to live.
It seems as though every day there is another cafe opening along the river. Of these cafes, Memory Cafe is one of my favorites. This outdoor haven is a tropical paradise! A small stream runs through the cafe with little bridges as crossovers. The trees and birds that surround the bamboo tiki huts are transcending. In the night they play soft jazz and have a wide array of cocktails to choose from. On the cooler days, Time Coffee, which looks like it came out straight of a Pinterest post, is also a nice option. Ultimately, there is no lack of cafe selection here.
Coming here, I did not expect there to be much of a nightlife. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the nights can actually be quite lively. A local bar/cafe names 1985 has become a favorite of mine. Here, one can enjoy some shisha, a pizza and a couple of cocktails all for under 10 dollars. Wednesday’s at 1985 draw in a crowd with open mic. Music seems to be the central theme of 1985.
A popular activity among the locals is to hit up one of the many karaoke clubs, which there is no lack of here in Lao Cai. At these clubs, you can rent out a private room to enjoy to some drinks, music and signing with friends (and yes, there are English music options!).
I had mentioned in a previous post that the Vietnamese have been very welcoming. Lao Cai is next level: I am absolutely floored by how warmly we have been received in the community. We have been invited on excursions by a surprisingly large number of people since we have arrived, all of whom are proud to show us their culture and way of life.
A coworker invited us to have dinner with her and her family. We were welcomed into her home for a wonderful meal. The main dish was hotpot and it was hands down the best meal that I’ve had since having arrived in Vietnam over three months ago. We were told to think of this family as our Vietnamese family and that we were welcome into their home anytime. This level of hospitality is, from my experience, unique to Asia. There is such a strong sense of community and responsibility for those that surround you here: your family, your neighbors, your friends and even strangers. This is something that I plan on bringing back with me to Canada. I hope that one day, I can make a person feel as welcome as I have felt here.
Coming to Lao Cai, I was worried that I would have a hard time maintaining my vegetarian diet. Thankfully, I have found a number of restaurants that serve vegetarian hotpot and other vegetarian dishes. A favorite of mine is a mushroom hotpot restaurant (the broth is to die for!).
Sapa, which is famous for it’s soaring mountains and cultural hikes, is one of northern Vietnam’s biggest tourist hot spots. Being a mere 1.5 hour motorbike ride away, Sapa is a nice place to visit on days off. Sapa City is absolutely charming and is a wonderful place to go and wind down. The views from almost any hotel are breathtaking. But what I| find most gorgeous about this area is the valley. The valley is home to several ethnic minorities. The woman of these ethnic minorities are artists and sell their hand woven crafts along the streets. For a more cultural experience, a homestay is a excellent option.
A two hour motorbike ride away from Lao Cai is Bac Ha, which is famous for its Sunday market. At this time, I have been told that local men gather to enjoy rice wine and the woman to socialize and sell their goods. I have not had the opportunity to visit Bac Ha as of this point, but it is high on my list.
A few minute motorbike ride outside the city!
The towns that I just mentioned are excellent trips for days off, but on work days, a nice cruise outside the city is what I do to zen out. The further you drive out of the city, the more beautiful the landscape becomes. Pick a direction and you’re off into the mountains.
Thanks for stopping by!