Most people pass through Lao Cai on their way to Sapa, but this city has got more to offer than just its historic train station

6am in Lao Cai and the mist is rising over the river. The night could have been cold, but from the warmth and comfort of the overnight train it's difficult to tell. Out in the fresh December air, the city is starting to rise.

Following Nguyen Hue along the river we come out to the Friendship Bridge, the thoroughfare between Vietnam and its northern neighbour. Here, the most influential waterway of the north, the Red River, splits in two. The Lam Thi River runs along the border before heading into the Highlands. The Red River also separates the two countries, but it's at Lao Cai that this great river finally starts flowing south in its arduous passage towards Hanoi and then onwards through to the sea.

We follow the Lam Thi River. What starts as an unkempt, paved promenade turns into manicured gardens with palm trees, sub-tropical foliage and a path with chrome railing.

“Everyone in Lao Cai speaks Mandarin,” says a woman taking an early stroll along the river. It's not the local dialect of the town on the other side, but it is widely understood. She adds: “We're Vietnamese, so we can cross over the bridge. [Foreigners] need a visa.”

Despite the fact that Lao Cai is a city, the vegetable and fruit gardens still remain, as do the forested mountains. We find a woman tending her crops on the muddy banks of the river. She is filling up her can and then watering her plants. But she is dressed well, without the garb of the countryside peasant. Her gardening, it seems, is a hobby.

We leave the spot to discover later that behind us sits Chua Thuong, the city's best-known pagoda. Built around a giant, age-old banyan tree and facing the Lam Thi River, part of the complex is being restored while the kitsch stone and marble renderings of the 12 signs of the zodiac remain open to the public.



Striving to the Future

At first sight, little seems to have changed in Lao Cai over the last decade. It is still a sleepy border town flanked by mountains on either side. But the construction has started. A few high-rises like the Biti Tower now fill the skyline and the bridge over Song Hong to Coc Leu is being widened. Work is ongoing here and a completion date seems ominous.

Back in town the tourism madness has taken hold, too. With Sapa so close by, Lao Cai has become a magnet. Hotels, restaurants and more have sprung up from out of the mist. Le Bordeaux sits on one corner, selling western and, we guess, French fare including the ubiquitous "buger". Further on the Emotion chain is at work. They now have an Emotion hotel, an Emotion cafe and, we think, even an Emotion spa.

But how many tourists actually make it beyond the confines of the station car park is a mystery. Most get off the trains, take in the mixed Soviet-style Vietnamese architecture of the station, and then head up to the hills. We ask the station guards when the train we travelled on was built. After some consultation they decide on the year 1985. There's history here, but everyone misses it.

We found some more history on the forested mountain that runs behind the city. Up here a couple, Van and Hoa, live with their 10 dogs, vegetable patches and youngest son. Van was born here and the land has been in his family for generations, and except for a 12-year period where security considerations meant he had to vacate the land — they moved to Yen Bai — they have been here ever since.

Van, like most other residents, has seen the city change. Originally built on the confluence of the rivers, it has now been moved back to the train station on one side — now called Pho Moi — and Coc Leu over the river. Much of Coc Leu, its highways and multi-storey buildings, are new.

And in this area of Lao Cai is probably the best mural we've seen in Vietnam. The equivalent of Vietnam's Guernica it charts everything from roots of the country through to recent conflict and even the arrival of backpackers to the area surrounding Lao Cai. It's something for the city to be proud of.

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