Land border crossing from Vietnam to Laos on a local route
If you are an adventurous soul looking for different travel alternatives and you are not willing to pay loads of money for pre-organized boring excursions, you might be interested in my guide how to get from Vietnam to Laos on a local route.
You need a valid tourist visa to enter Laos, so first of all, you have to decide whether you will obtain a visa in Vietnam (as we did in Hanoi) or at the Laotian border. As is the problem in most Asian countries, customs officers are corrupt, and they tend to ask for a bribe.
If you are traveling on a low budget and want to be sure of getting a visa, I recommend arranging a tourist visa in advance at the embassy. Also, save 10 USD per person!
For complete information - a regular bus ticket on direct route Hanoi - Luang Prabang costs 45-50 USD and takes around 24-26 hours of your travel time.
Thus, my solution is not just cost savings, but also gives the possibility of dividing this long journey into multiple short sections. Most importantly, for the same price, you will see (and experience) much more than you would ever see through the window of a long haul bus.
How did we proceed?
Bus Hanoi - Dien Bien Phu 300,000 VND, 13h
I recommend buying Hanoi - Dien Bien Phu bus tickets at least one day before the scheduled departure.
On the main road Tran Nhat Duat, east of Old Quarter, take the bus No. 34 in the direction of My Dinh bus station. Google maps will help you to find the bus stop. It takes 1h to reach the station, and the whole trip costs 7K.
We purchased our tickets at the second counter from the left (standing at the entrance facing the counters). The information panel above the counter showed the actual price for the route, so we did not have to bargain in any way. You will receive a paper ticket with a predetermined time, date and the license plate number of the bus. The teller mentioned even the platform number on the ticket.
Several companies are operating on this route, and their touts will try hard to convince you to buy a ticket right with them. Do not let them affect your decision - there's no reason to pay up to 400K for the same route and similar bus quality. The fare we paid - 300K was the lowest of all.
This standard quality sleeper night bus departs from Hanoi between 4 AM and 5 PM. Expect a classic low-cost Vietnamese bus - leatherette (non-adjustable) seats halfway reclined, minimal room for legs, AC on maximum, that even wrapped in the blanket I was shivering because of cold. The bus randomly stops here and there, either for a break or for picking up new people waiting on the roadside.
We arrived in the Vietnamese border town of Dien Bien Phu around 5:30 AM.
Minibus Dien Bien Phu - Muang Khua (Laos) 120,000 VND, 7h
The traveling has been good so far. Despite numb and frozen limbs after the all-night ride, we still had some energy left, not knowing what is about to come. In Dien Bien Phu you can take a direct bus to Luang Prabang for 280,000 VND.
Therefore, if you are traveling through Dien Bien Phu to Luang Prabang, the total travel cost from Old Quarter in Hanoi is 587,000 VND (26 USD), which is a savings of about 20 USD per person compared to an organized tour!
Well, saving 20 USD is not bad at all, isn't it?
Why hurry straight to Luang Prabang, if you can explore the picturesque villages along the Ou River, referred to as the top places in northeastern Laos? We decided to travel further to the small yet unspoiled village Muang Khua. Only 70 km of a distance separating Muang Khua from Dien Bien Phu, including the crossing of the Vietnamese-Laos land border, took us incredible 7h! The usual travel time should be around 5h.
We started our terrifying journey at the Dien Bien Phu bus station around 7 AM. Shortly, after 300m, the driver stopped at the gas station to pick up a new batch of parcels. This time it was random sacks - that the driver adroitly attached on the bus roof. Everything had to be thoroughly set, fixed, secured so it could be reorganized again after another 2km down the road. And so it happened several times all over again. The driver always stopped in front of a workshop, a store, or a friend, and picked up new packages. It is unbelievable how many sacks, boxes, and goods can fit on the roof of such a small minibus.
As we kept driving, the landscape character was changing slowly. We left the rice fields behind and reached higher altitudes and got into mountainous terrain. The devastated Vietnamese asphalt road disappeared completely, and we continued on a desolated reddish dusty road uphill. Along the way, there were scattered stones, rocks fragments, residues of landslides, and the driver had a hard time to avoid all the pitfalls every two meters.
After one hour of an exciting off-road ride, we finally arrived at the Vietnamese border. Vietnamese customs officials are trying their dirty tricks even here. Upon entering the customhouse, you are advised (almost forced) to exchange foreign currency (USD) in the first room on the right. A short, arrogant Vietnamese guy came out of nowhere, summoned all the tourists, and in horrifying English explained how the border crossing would look like. More than in our awareness he was interested in exchanging our USD into KIP.
I recommend not exchanging anything or at least pre-inform yourselves about the offered exchange rate. Otherwise, they will rip you off. Guaranteed! This scammy official has remorselessly lied to me about the presence of ATM in Muang Khua just to get a few bucks out of me. Note, that in Muang Khua, you can find many ATM (at least 4), accepting international cards and operating 24/7. Not to mention Luang Prabang.
All foreign tourists had to wait aside until all the Asians passed through immigration, and then we were given a checkout stamp. No dollar fee for the check-out stamp was required to pay (at that time).
Our bus full of locals was impatiently waiting for us to drive us a few miles further to the Lao Pang Hok border crossing. Here the procedure was repeated. We got off the bus. Whoever did not have a visa in the passport had to apply for Visa On Arrival at the first counter (for a much higher fee than at the Lao Embassy in Hanoi).
Well, since perhaps the customs officers are poor and besides was Sunday, they charged us at least a weekend fee for the entry stamp of 2 USD per person (20,000 KIP or 50,000 VND - accepting both currencies). At the second counter, they made us pay another fee - this time a "Tourist Fund fee" of an additional USD 2 per person.
When we got back on the bus, we thought the struggle was over - we were just a few kilometers away from the finish line. However, after a short while, the driver stopped again, this time at a village restaurant, where some individuals got their lunch while the others waited outside for another hour.
After 2 PM we finally arrived in Muang Khua.
Total fare Hanoi - Muang Khua is 427,000 VND (19 USD)
From Muang Khua, I recommend going further down the river to the picturesque Muang Ngoy (120,000 KIP, 3h) or Nong Khiaw (150,000 KIP, 4h). The absolutely breathtaking scenery, pure wild nature along the river make this the most unforgettable experience from all over Laos.
With the unforgettable boat ride down the river, the total cost of transport Hanoi - Luang Prabang reaches 43 USD per person!