Lao Cai Province General Information

Lao Cai province, Northern Vietnam
Region: Northwest
Capital: Lào Cai
Area: 6,364.03 km²
Population: 730,420 (2019 Census)
Density: 115/km²
Demographics: Vietnamese, H’Mông, Tày, Dao, and Thai
Calling code: 214

Lào Cai is a province of the mountainous Northwest region of Vietnam bordering the province of Yunnan in China. The province covers an area of 6383.9 square kilometres and as of 2008, it had a population of 602,300 people.

Sa Pa and Lao Cai are two important cities within the province at the border with China. Lao Cai is a key trading post while Sapa is a hill station famous for tourism, in northwestern Vietnam. Lao Cai is also the capital of Lao Cai province and borders Hekou of Yunnan province. This border town was closed after the 1979 war with China. However, since reopened in 1993, has become a major tourist centre between Hanoi, Sapa, and Kunming (China). Sapa is notable as a hill resort, a market town for timber, and known as the “queen of mountains”

Lao Cai province has many historical sites, natural caves, and agricultural specialties such as Bac Hà plums.


The noun “Lào Kay” has been used by the French since the colonial era in their writing, pronounced “Lao Cai” to Vietnamese. The latter became official usage and spelling after November 1950.

The origin of the province’s name is unclear and there are several explanations. The area in the ward of Coc Leu was the site of an old commercial district that developed into a market town. Because of this, it was called Lao Nhai. After this, a new market town was developed and named Tân Nhai (today Pho Moi, New Town). The word Lào Cai is sourced to “Lao Kay” which appeared in 1872 (the name of a boat of Jean Dupuis, who led a naval expedition up the Red River. According to Professor Đào Duy Anh, it derives from the word “Lao Nhai”. While making maps, the French wrote it as “Lào Kay” and this word was used by them in documents. When reading, the Vietnamese pronounced it Lào Cai and this has persisted since.

Geography and Climate

Lao Cai province is in the north of the country and has an area of 6,383.9 square kilometres (2,464.8 sq mi). It borders the provinces of Hà Giang, Yên Bái, Son La, and Lai Châu, as well as the province of Yunnan in the People’s Republic of China.

There are ten major soil groups under 30 categories in the province, under the following land groups:

– The Alluvial group (1.47% of the land area) along the Red River is good for growing food crops and trees.
– The Oxisol type which occupies 40% of the land area has generally reddish-brown soil, below the altitude of 900 metres (3,000 ft), is a fertile land suitable for the annual and commercial crops.
– Team Red Yellow soil humus covers 30% of land area in the Sa Pa, Muong Khuong, Bac Ha, Bat Xat districts of the province suitable for medicinal plants, fruit trees, and vegetables.
– Humus soil on the mountain occupies 11.42% of the land area mostly in Sa Pa district which has a rich canopy of mixed forest.
– The Oxisol colour altered by rice in 2% of the land area is formed into a landscape of terraced fields, as seen in Bac Ha and Sa Pa districts.


As the province is mostly mountainous, it experiences a dry cold climate from October to March, while the tropical monsoon is the rainy season which lasts from April to September. The annual average temperature is 23°C (73°F). The temperature generally ranges between18°C (64°F) and 28°C (82°F) in the mountainous region, with the lowland areas showing a temperature variation of between 20°C (68°F) and 22°C (72°F). In Sapa town, however, the temperature drops to less than 0°C (32°F) with snow conditions. Fog and frost are common phenomena in the province.

Water resources

Lào Cai is a mountainous region. In the northwest of the province is Phan Xi Păng (also called Fansipan; elevation 3,143 metres (10,312 ft), snow-covered during winter season), Vietnam’s highest mountain. It is located in the Hoàng Liên Son and the Hoàng Liên National Park. The Sa Pa Mountains form the western part of the province. While the province is drained by over 100 rivers, the main river that bisects the province is the Red River, (Song Hong), the most significant river of northern Vietnam, which flows out of China towards the capital Hanoi. It flows through the province over a length of 130 kilometres (81 mi). Other rivers of significance are the Chay and Nam Ti Rivers. Much of the province is heavily forested.

Groundwater resources have been estimated reserves as 4448 million cubic metres out of which good quality water is estimated as 30 million cubic metres. In addition, there are four mineral water sources.

Mineral resources

Lao Cai province has rich mineral resources, 30 types have been identified with good reserves. The major valuable mineral reserves are Copper (53 million tons), molybdenum (15 million tons), apatite, and iron (2.5 billion tons). There are 150 mines in the province exploiting various minerals.

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Lao Cai has been known since ancient times as a historic trading post. Here, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and the ethnic minorities of the region fought to gain control of the region. In 1463, the Viet Kings established Lao Cai as the capital of their northernmost region, then named Hung Hoa. It came under French colonial rule in 1889 and was their administrative town, and also served as a military garrison. In the early 19th century the first railway line was built from Hanoi to this region. It took 7 years to complete but at the cost of 25,000 lives of Vietnamese conscripted labour.

Vietnam – China war

In late 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. In retaliation, the Chinese, as allies of Cambodia, countered and invaded North Vietnam with the sole aim of “teaching the Vietnamese a lesson”. The attack was launched by 60,000 strong Chinese Army from several fronts. They occupied territory from Paso (previously known as Phong Tho) in the Northwest to Cao Bang and Lang Son in the Northwest.

The Chinese were ill-prepared for such a massive campaign, and within two weeks their attack crumbled, they lost 20,000 troops and withdrew from Vietnam but still boasting that they had won the battle. The Vietnamese had won a decisive battle on all fronts. It has been inferred that the border town, 295 km from Hanoi, with good rail, road, and river traffic provided the impetus to the invaders to threaten Hanoi and the Red River Valley and that the “attacks here were intended as distractions to prevent their Vietnamese defenders from moving to reinforce the defense of Lao Cai.”

After the province was invaded by the Chinese in 1979 from its border town Lao Cai, the border with China was closed for several years. In this war, the city of Lao Cai was destroyed by the Chinese. Remnants of the war in the form of land mines are reported to pose threat to people along the border with China.

The Lao Cai town at the border town on the bank of Red River as the provincial capital has now prospered in view of large trade with China and is a booming city with a community of many rich millionaires. Since 2006, Lao Cai has the status of a city, is the largest town in the region, and strategically very important. An airport is planned to be built by 2020.

Lao Cai Province Administrative Divisions

Lào Cai is subdivided into 9 district-level sub-divisions:

Lào Cai city
Bac Hà District
Bao Thang District
Bảo Yên District
Bát Xát District
Muong Khuong District
Sa Pa town
Si Ma Cai District
Van Bàn District

They are further subdivided into 8 commune-level towns (or townlets), 144 communes, and 12 wards.


With more than 20 ethnic groups, Lao Cai province is a melting pot of cultures and history. Ethnic Vietnamese are the majority, especially since 1960 when the North Vietnamese government followed a policy of settling communist party cadres from lowland areas in upland areas, then predominantly occupied by tribes. According to the General Statistics Office of the Government of Vietnam, the population of Lao Cai province, as of 2008, was 602,300 with a density of 94 persons per square km over a total land area of 6,383.9 square kilometres (2,464.8 sq mi) of the province. The male population during this period was 303300 with females accounting for 299,000. The urban population was 125,900 against an urban population of 476,400 (about 25% of the rural population).

The province has 25 of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups accounting for 64.09% of its population. The distribution of the ethnic minorities comprises: Kinh – 35.9%, Hmong – 22.21%, Tay – 15.84%, Dao -14.05%, Giay – 4.7%, Nung 4.4%, and the others belong to Phu La, San Chay, Ha Nhi, and the La Chi groups.

Languages spoken in Lào Cai province include the following.

Hmong-Mien languages

Kim Mun

Tai languages

Tày (Tày Sa Pa, etc.)
Giáy – Bát Xát District, Muong Khuong District, Bao Yên District

Tibeto-Burman languages

Phula – Bát Xát District, Muong Khuong District, Bac Hà District
Laghuu – Bát Xát District, Sa Pa District, Văn Bàn District, Bao Thang District

Hoang Lien National Park

The Hoang Lien National Park is located in the province and was upgraded from a nature reserve in 2006. It covers an area of 24.66 square kilometres (30 km2 is also mentioned in some references). The peak is Fan Si Pan, which, at 3,143 metres (10,312 ft) – the highest peak in Vietnam. In fact, the park contains heavy forests and rich biodiversity. Due to the agricultural production of ginger and other land uses, today only about 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) of the park has the forest. 1884 migrating raptors have been recorded in the national park. Raptors are a rarity in terms of numbers and species varieties.

French biologist Delacour made a survey in 1929. In addition, Theodore Roosevelt accompanied him on his expedition in Southeast Asia. In fact, he collected 48 mammal species for the Chicago Natural History Museum although most were shot. Sediments in the park date back to the Mesozoic era, whilst the granite is a Palaeocene intrusion. The northwestern boundary of the national park is made with a rugged boundary of marble and metamorphosed calcium carbonate.

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