Are you thinking about taking the bus from Vietnam to Laos? Here’s my account of the journey by bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang plus some tips and considerations for planning your journey.
The most adventurous among you will attempt the journey with the motorcycle you’ve bought in Vietnam, and that has taken you South to North or North to South in the Land of the Ascending Dragon. Others will go on a series of local buses to cross near Dien Bien (coming from Sapa) or Lao Bao (coming from Hue). While all of this is very exciting, I decided to mix the convenience of a flight with the adventure of an overland bus and bought my bus ticket from one of the myriads of travel agencies around Old Town Hanoi.
I shopped around for an afternoon and found two things:
Eventually, I purchased my ticket for $45 from Incredible Travel on Cau Go Street. Everybody quotes US Dollars and then converts with a phony (i.e., unfavorable) exchange rate. But Incredible Travel agreed to sell me the ticket for the official USD – Dong rate as per my Oanda app, which means I paid 1 million Dong.
I asked all the agencies I inquired at for the location of the bus station the bus would be leaving from and the border post we’d be using. None would go more into detail regarding the bus station than “It’s not far.”, and all agreed that the bus would go North and cross near Dien Bien.
I drop my bags at Incredible Travel at 3:30 pm, go and buy some supplies and have an early dinner. I had foolishly googled “Hanoi to Luang Prabang by bus” over breakfast and found this harrowing blog post suggesting there would be no food available until the late morning of the next day.
When I return an hour later, with a bag full of popcorn, soy milk, and peanut brittle, and a stomach full of Nom Bo Kho and Nem, the manager announces “The moto was just here to pick you up! I’ll call him to come again.” I was surprised since I had been told to come to the agency at 4:45 pm and we are a few minutes off.
I use the time to give my phone a little bit of extra charge and for a chat with the manager about his travels to Russia.
A few minutes before five, the moto driver returns and with big hoopla loads me onto his bike.
About 200 m later, we stop outside a hotel to pick up two other passengers. Pick up, in this case, means all three of us walking through the busy old town trying not to lose sight of the moto somewhere in front of us.
After 10 minutes, we reached a quiet street near Tran Nhat Duat, the highway running along the old town side of Song Hong river. A giant King Crab decorates the door of a restaurant at the next corner. Two blonde girls are sitting on the curb, a Japanese woman squatting next to them, intently staring at her phone. We wait for half an hour, the 5 pm departure time long passed. Whenever a large bus approaches, we excitedly stretch our backs just to see it ignore us.
Then, a small bus pulls up on the other side of the street, the driver frantically waving at us: “Quick! Quick!”
This is definitely not a sleeper bus.
I walk up to him: “Laos? Luang Prabang?”
I decide to trust him and motion the others to follow as I jump onboard.
For 45 minutes, we race across town, past the travel agency, past my hotel, stopping once to collect more confused looking tourists.
We stop at Duong Ngoc Hoi bus station in the far South of the city. About half a dozen large sleeper buses are waiting. The driver hurries us out of his vehicle “Lucky! Lucky!” Which is trying to say: “Take your luggage!”
There are three men outside expecting us.
Only the two blonde girls and two Japanese women join me in following the man who barks “Luang Prabang?”
We are lead to a purple bus with a Lao numberplate. It’s the standard Vietnamese sleeper bus with individual loungers that won’t recline entirely and aren’t for tall or big people but allow for a little bit of sleeping comfort for everyone else.
It’s 6:45 pm when we finally set off.
We stop once or twice to pick up parcels and loads of socks, wrapped as packs of 10, thrown in through the back window of the bus.
At 8 pm we stop for dinner at a standard pho restaurant. I dare look at my phone but I somehow feel, we’ve not been going North. It’s true. We’re South of Ninh Binh.
And we keep going South for a few more hours, picking up a few more parcels, until we’re just North of Vinh when we finally turn West towards Laos.
I doze off and wake up as the bus engine is turned off.
It’s still dark outside, and no lights are indicating a human settlement.
The driver and his logistics guy move to the back of the bus to lie down for a little bit.
The silence has me doze off again.
It’s 6 am when we move again. Just a few meters to stop next to another bus in front of a boom gate blocking the road.
The light in the bus is switched on, and music starts playing. I join the other passengers and step outside.
It’s cold, so I go back to get the long legs of my zip-off pants. A flurry of motorcycles loaded with all kinds of goods circumvents the boom gate. The logistics guy points down the road: “Border.” Some of the other passengers walk to a three-story building that looks misplaced in the middle of nowhere; some just follow the motorcycles.
I ask making a stamping motion on the palm of my hand: “Should I get a stamp? Visa?”
He shakes his head and lifts seven fingers: “Open at 7.”
I nod and enquire: “Toilet?”
He points beyond the boom gate. “Open at 7.”
So I sit down and wait.
The two Japanese women join me. One of them speaks English: “Toilet?”
I shake my head: “Only at the border.”
They venture to the three-story building to find a toilet and return disappointed: “I really need a toilet!”
The two blond girls join me. They are Brits on holiday from their studies of medicine.
At ten to seven, a big, shiny SUV appears. The border official motions to open the gate.
The bus passengers return to the vehicle. We all grab our passports and make for the border.
On the Vietnamese side, we have to stand in a slow-moving line for our exit stamps. Vietnamese passport holders not only receive a stamp, but they also have to pay. I am not sure what for as nobody asks us for foreigners for money.
On the Laos side, I deduct from the influx of people on my side of the road that the building on the other side must be the visa building. There is no information, and everything is a guessing game.
I get in line. A Vietnamese couple from our bus tells me to go to the next window and pay dues.
The official behind window 2 tells me to get my visa in another building.
I go back, turn left and find a small paper with water stains that says “Visa.”
The official at the “Visa” window shakes his head: “Please get a stamp first.”
So I shuffle back to window 1 and join the short line. The Brits have arrived, and I spare them the back-and-forth, motioning them to join me.
When asked to do so, we stack all our passports on the counter, and when the Japanese women arrive, we stack their passports on top.
I know that the visa has to be paid in dollars. So I get $50 ready. The Japanese look surprised: “Do we need money?”
I explain and they reply with a smile: “Japanese get 15 days for free.”
The Brits are more jealous than me about that revelation as they only want to stay one week but still have to buy a full-month visa.
The Brits and I receive our passports back after the official has typed our details into his computer and put an entry/exit info slip between the pages. No stamp, yet.
We return to the visa building. There is nobody else there, so the official hands us each a form to fill in right in front of his window. Turns out, we are at the Nam Can border crossing.
I hand him my form and a photograph. He checks his list and writes me a receipt: “34 dollars, please.”
I give him forty dollars and receive 48,000 Kip, the Laos currency, in change. This will come in handy for breakfast.
The Brits have to pay $39.
I return to window 1 for my stamp, which will signal that I have officially arrived in Laos, my 51st country.
The bus has crossed the border without us. So I use the walk there for a quick stop at the toilet. It’s filthy and stinky, but it’s better than nothing.
Outside the bus, a soldier asks with a smile for my passport. Apparently, some people forget to get their stamps. But he is satisfied with my ID. I apologize to the driver for the delay, by now it’s past 8, assuming that us few foreigners must be a hold-up for the bus.
The Japanese are already there, and the Brits follow quickly after me. Yet, we’re not moving. It turns out the Vietnamese couple that had told me about window #2 is missing. When they finally appear the smiling soldier isn’t pleased. So they have to go back.
It takes another half hour before everything is sorted. In the meantime, new passengers join us for the next leg of the journey.
We do not stop for breakfast. I should have eaten while we were waiting at the border. Fortunately, I have my snacks to feed me until lunch.
The landscape in Laos is wild: We move from mountain to mountain along roads meandering above the lush green valleys.
As we approach Phonsavan, the lands are flat for a brief moment.
We stop for lunch in this small town that seems to have sprung up solely to house the tourists who come here to visit the mysterious Plain of Jars.
I plug in my phone next to a big Buddha at the restaurant serving familiar Vietnamese fair, and head over to one of the ATMs outside a small supermarket to fill my wallet with even more Kip.
Within half an hour of leaving Phonsavan, we’re back to meandering the mountains. What should be a short, 4-hour ride is slowed down by turn after turn and occasional downpours of Southeast Asian summer rain.
It’s already dark when we arrive in Luang Prabang.
The Vietnamese couple with the border trouble suggests that we all share a taxi: “What does the Lonely Planet say, how much it should cost?” None of us tourists has read the Lonely Planet. But 20,000 Kip for a 10-minute shared taxi ride sounds about as fair as the $2 one pays for a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap.