Lai Chau province, especially between Muong Lay and Lai Chau town is some of the most spectacular scenery you can see in the far northwest of Vietnam.
The limestone mountains are striking, making it yet another 'Halong Bay on the Land', with abrupt peaks reaching into the distance in misty shades of green and grey, and on a clear day you can spy some of the larger peaks rising from the Chinese side of the border. As it is off-limits to casual travel, the area around Lai Chau town is as close as you're likely to get to the Chinese frontier in this part of the country. The border crossing is not open to foreigners.
Renamed from the original Tam Duong, the new Lai Chau town is a good place to break up the trip between Sapa and Muong Lay, but few would choose to overnight here otherwise. It's a functional hub for both the local Montagnards, who come to buy and sell, and for those involved in all the various construction projects going on in the area.
The surrounding vistas are characterised as much by brown dirt as they are green hills, as mountain slopes are scooped away to create flat land for future development.
The contrast with nearby Sapa is stark in terms of the natural beauty of the place, though, of course, wandering a couple of kilometres in any direction improves the situation dramatically, and there are still plenty of mysterious limestone cliffs to gaze at on the horizon.
A more welcome difference between here and Sapa is that the locals don't attempt to sell everything they have to every tourist they spy.
You can skip right past Lai Chau without regret on a non-stop bus ride between Sapa and Muong Lay, but cyclists and most motorbikers will want to make it their home for the night. There's a cave nearby, Dong Thieu Duong, accessible by a one hour hike, that's a good day-trek if you happen to stay longer.
The area has a large number of ethnic minorities, and new roads have made the mountain-top village of Sinh Ho a good destination for a day trip, or a a stop-off on the way through. The region is particularly popular with cyclists, which is starting to make the unassuming town of Phong To, 30 km east of Lai Chau town, a place to park for the night. The new Lai Chau town doesn't have a whole lot to offer, and is the site of a lot of development which is impinging on the scenic views, but it's perfectly-positioned for an overnight between Sapa and Muong Lay.
The Name Game
As a result of the massive dam construction, the landscape of Lai Chau is set to change substantially when a number of towns and their surrounds are submerged. As a result of this, the Vietnamese government has changed a lot of the names of towns in Lai Chau province, or rather has switched a lot of the names around, leading to confusion. Many people still show up to the old Lai Chau expecting to arrive in the old one, and vice versa. Most of the maps we've seen, even some very good ones, are outdated on this score and yours is likely to be as well.
For those traveling between Dien Bien Phu and Sapa, this is a beautiful place to rest for an hour or two. Situated on high mountainous region in the north west of Vietnam, Lai Chau is blessed with views of the Da River, China to the north and Laos to the west.
Surrounded by natural beauty, Lai Chau is a good place for hiking and trekking. As you explore you will discover caves, springs and friendly villagers from Myanmar's ethnic groups. Although this is a good place to take a break, accommodation is scarce and it is better to continue traveling after taking an hour or two to explore.