So, you’re heading from Vietnam to Laos by land. Congratulations! This is going to be one of the most interesting and scenic rides of your life! Don’t be put off by the horror reviews online. This doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. You can maximise your comfort by taking the trip slowly.
Break Up The Journey
If you’re planning to go straight from Hanoi/Sapa to Luang Prabang via multiple buses then bear the following in mind:
1) after the first leg you will probably be too tired to enjoy the scenery.
2) Sapa, Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam), Muang Khua and Niong Khiaw (Laos) are wonderful places that each deserve a day or two of your time.
3) you might need time to recover after a particularly strenuous bus ride and you won’t get it if you’ve booked your buses back to back.
4) rumour has it that buying the entire journey pre-booked is more expensive than doing it in stages and booking your trips as you go!
Now, if you want to know how we did Vietnam to Laos by land – Sapa – Dien Bien Phu – Muang Khua – Niong Khiaw – Luang Prabang – and thoroughly enjoyed it, keep reading!
Sapa to Dien Bien Phu
Where To Buy Tickets
Tickets to Dien Bien Phu can be booked almost everywhere in Sapa. The town is bursting with travel agents who will sell you bus tickets to almost anywhere. Your job is to negotiate the price and find the cheapest option.
Don’t be tempted here to buy a ticket across the border. Just take a trip to Dien Bien Phu, stay a couple of nights there and then buy your ticket yourself at the bus station in Dien Bien Phu. It will be cheaper and you can check out the lovely town of Dien Bien Phu.
When To Travel
You can travel by day or night although night buses seem to be the most popular. We chose a day bus for the scenery and peace of mind that our driver would have maximum visibility. Sapa’s roads are really windy and misty!
The night bus leaves at around 19.00 and arrives at about 7.00. Make sure you confirm the time when you’re booking.
We bought our tickets here: SƠN HÀ SAPA HOTEL PLUS. Actually, we approached the travel agent around the corner from this hotel and they just brought us to the hotel to purchase tickets. They were 300,000 each.
The bus leaves just up the road from the hotel near Sapa Railway Station and arrives directly to Dien Bien Phu Bus station.
We left at 7.30am and arrived at 16.00pm. Every passenger had a seat and our luggage fit inside the vehicle.
We had a lunch stop along the way but there wasn’t any information about food in English and the toilets were just a concrete hut with a drain. Also, there were huge spider webs and a used needle hanging in the webs. Make sure you bring your own toilet paper!
The drive from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu is magnificent. The green hills and valleys of Sapa gradually transform into fertile lowlands and large rivers. You’ll drive through countless local villages where tourists are scarce and life seems to have a gentler pace.
Due to the roads being in poor shape, you’ll be thankful that you’ve got a nice view with which to pass the time.
Where To Stay In Dien Bien Phu
We stayed in a small guesthouse called Bao Loc Guest House just across the road from the bus station. The rooms were clean, the atmosphere pleasant and the owner very eager to help via Google Translate. We can wholeheartedly recommend grabbing a room here for your stay in Dien Bien Phu.
What To Do In Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu is a surprisingly pleasant and lively little town. It played a significant role in the Vietnamese struggle for independence and one of the war’s bloodiest battles was fought there.
Its most prominent feature is the massive war memorial on a hill in the middle of town – Đồi D1. A decent flight of stairs will lead you right up to it and you’re sure to bump into some locals doing their afternoon exercise there. We were stopped twice for photographs and a quick chat by locals. Everyone was very friendly.
There is also a small but informative war museum, a well-kept graveyard and a decent market to check out. The smaller streets of Dien Bien Phu are peaceful so you can stroll down them at ease, admiring the colonial character of the buildings and local life that surrounds.
Where To Eat
What’s more, there is an awesome little vegetarian restaurant operating in Dien Bien Phu. It’s called Yen Ninh and has the sweetest owner and most nourishing food. There is also a great collection of books there you can browse through while waiting for your meal. Check it out HERE.
All in all, you could knock everything over in 1 day, or 2 if you like to take your time.
If you’re like us, then your acute lack of planning will leave you with no passport photograph with which to obtain a Laos visa. Fear not! You can easily get some passport shots done in Dien Bien Phu. From the bus stop, turn right onto Nguyễn Hữu Thọ Street. If you walk for 5 – 10 minutes, you’ll see a small mechanical/photography shop (there is a giant sign with passport photos standing out the front). The guys here will happily take your photos, print them off and even transfer them to your USB (in case you need a copy for your Myanmar visa). It will only cost a few dollars.
Where To Next
Your next stop is Muang Khua in Laos!
Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua (Laos)
The bus to Laos leaves from Dien Bien Phu bus station at 5.00am. Rise and shine! You cannot buy tickets until the morning of your trip so get there at about 4.30 to ensure you get a seat. On this trip you can expect to be travelling with lots of bags of rice, herbs, banh mi loaves and perhaps a few chickens.
Right now we’d like to introduce you to our “Travelling by Bus in Asia” disclaimer.
“Travelling by Bus in Asia”
After 5 months of travelling around Asia, very often by bus, we’ve come to realise that your level of comfort during your trip is most likely a matter of luck. Some journeys have horror reviews that leave you dreading your departure and they turn out to be just fine. Others will seem pretty straight forward and will end up making you shudder as you remember them.
What To Remember
The quality of your journey depends on the individual driver you get. Are they laid-back and cruisy and know how to use the brakes? Are they a gas-loving suicidal maniac? All a matter of luck. Will you be crammed into a mini-bus with local passengers filling up corridors and sitting on boxes? Will you have the entire bus to yourself? All a matter of luck.
Our policy is to prepare for the worst. Prepare for a small bus, no leg room, a frantic driver who speeds around blind corners on the wrong side of the road and passengers who have motion sickness. This way, anything BETTER than this scenario will feel like a bonus.
Back To Our Experience
We were the only passengers on the mini bus from Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua. We had one driver and one assistant who made use of all the spare room by filling it with sacks of rice. We had one stop for breakfast quite early on and arrived at the border crossing in less than 3 hours.
Tay Trang Border Crossing
Tay Trang is a really quiet border crossing. We were there on a Saturday morning and were the only tourists about. The Vietnamese side is super easy.
What To Do
1) At the first window you exchange your Dong for Kip. Not obligatory but we did it as we figured the rate was going to be better than in Muang Khua.
2) Hand over your passports at the second window and wait as the official handwrites your details into a notebook. That’s right, no computers here.
Which is why TOURISTS WITH A VIETNAM E-VISA CANNOT EXIT VIETNAM AT TAY TRANG BORDER! Beware, this happens ALL the time. You will not be allowed to exit the country here if you have an e-visa. You will be turned around and made to find your way back to the nearest town and organize your way out from there, potentially risking an overstay. Don’t expect the bus driver to help you. It’s not his job.
For us, the whole process took place in one small building and lasted no more than 10 minutes.
After that, we walked out of the building, through a boom gate where two border guards checked our passports and then we were free!
The Laos Border
The Laos border is a bit more complicated.
1) At the first window, fill in a visa application form and hand over your photo and the visa payment. For me, an Australian, it was $30 but the prices for other nationalities can be found here:
Sri Lanka: $40
And is accurate as of 27/10/2018.
There questions are typical. Where are you staying? What’s the purpose of your visit?
I didn’t know where I was staying so I left the space blank. No one cared.
2) Pay a range of service fees (including a weekend fee) that amount to less than $10. Bring some small change with you. Please Note: If you don’t have a passport photo with you, you will have to pay a small photo fee at the border. It will be less than $5.
3) Pass the ‘medical test’ which consists of someone quickly scanning your hand with a thermometer. We were spared this joy as the medical office was closed when we crossed the border.
Our bus driver waited for us patiently and after the 15-minute process had finished, we were on our way!
The Border to Muang Khua
Life slows down as soon as you enter Laos. Everything is calmer, smaller, simpler and you just feel more relaxed. The drive from the border to Muang Khua was a treat. A local lady joined us for some of the journey and we spent most of the time admiring the landscape outside our windows. Laos is simply beautiful.
We arrived in Muang Khua at about 10.00am, tired but pleased with the enjoyable 5-hour journey we had had.
Where To Stay In Muang Khua
Muang Khua doesn’t have much in the way of luxury hotels. Your best bet is to do the walk around, inspect the rooms and go from there. We stayed at Manchay Guesthouse for 80,000 Kip per night. We got a double bed and a reasonably clean room, although the walls were dirty.
What To Do In Muang Khua
There isn’t much to do in Muang Khua. The highlight of the town is a bamboo bridge that stretches across a nameless river. There is also a small market, a nice temple and a few mediocre restaurants to check out such as Sabaïdee.
The people here are not particularly friendly. More like you’re no-nonsense, get-the-job-done citizens.
One of the most exciting activities here is trekking. Due to the small number of tourists who pass through the town, many of the ethnic communities who live high in the hills are not yet worn out from foreign faces, thus giving you a more authentic experience than in other parts of Asia.
Hiking in Laos is pricey and a 2-day hike will cost about 900,000 kip per person although there may be a discount for larger groups.
A lovely local guide called Mr. Khamman met us at the bus station and explained his tours to us. Lots of vertical climbing with the chance to experience life in a real Laos village at the end. It sounded amazing! Mr Khamman has handmade posters advertising his tours all around Muang Khua so you can find his number there or try: +856 20 99 320 743
We regret that our budget didn’t allow us to take one of his treks.
You can also visit the information office which is a few metres down the road from the bus station. If the desk is unmanned, there will be a notepad where you can leave your name, contact details and enquiry.
Where To Next
Your next stop after Muang Khua is the delightful town of Nion Khiaw! You can get there by bus, but why would you when a 7-hour slow boat is on offer!
Also, travels go hand in hand with photography – who doesn’t take a lot of photos when they travel? If you are one of those people (like we are), check out our Art Photography page and let us know what you think!