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I love overland travel. It’s long and often uncomfortable, but provides the ability to see a country in a way that’s otherwise unattainable. It’s a bit funny, because you likely wouldn’t catch me on the Greyhound bus at home. But, I’ve driven those roads, I know what they look like, and I usually just want to get from point A to point B! When we’re traveling, I want to see the country.
Taking the bus from Vietnam to Laos was an undertaking, especially starting way up in the North, in Ha Giang. However, there was no direct way to get from Ha Giang to Luang Prabang. Whichever way we did it, the journey would be long.
There were 2 options.
Option 1: 8 hour bus (day or overnight) from Ha Giang to Hanoi, and then fly to Luang Prabang. This would be the fastest, but also the most expensive option. We also wouldn’t see anything new.
Option 2: Five days of travel including 22-28 hours on a bus over 4 days, an 8 hr slow boat and an overland border crossing. This was the cheapest way to get to Laos, and also allowed us to see so much more of both countries. Clearly this was the best option!!
Overland on the bus from Vietnam to Laos
Day 1 – Ha Giang to SaPa by Bus
Northern Vietnam is stunning. Large, karst mountains jut out of a green fertile basin. The mountains are covered in jungle, with the odd white, limestone face scarred into the side. The landscape is dotted with bamboo houses. A beautifully dressed minority villager will periodically walk by carrying a large load of grass on her head, or whiz by on the back of a motorcycle. It felt as though I’d landed in a different place and time.
At some point during the drive, the karst-type mountains begin to stretch upward into larger mountains, part of a bigger range. As our mini-bus wound it’s way through the mountains, I marveled at the beauty of it all. This kind of scenery just isn’t possible out the window of a plane.
Initially, we were going to ride the bus to Lao Cai. When we arrived in Lao Cai at 3pm, still in good spirits (and no one had thrown up), we decided to stay on for the extra hour to SaPa. This would shorten the next day, and meant we’d get a night in SaPa. It wasn’t exactly the SaPa experience I’d envisioned, but it at least gave us the chance to see a bit of the town.
Many people love SaPa, and it IS really beautiful. It’s often found on a one-month Vietnam itinerary, and shorter ones too! The town felt really touristy however, and not as authentic as Ha Giang province. The journey to SaPa might be easier, but I’d recommend Ha Giang over SaPa to anyone, any day.
Bus Cost: 620,000 dong (it should have been 200,000 dong per person, with the kids half price. I’m not sure where the other 20,000 dong came from!!)
Where to stay in SaPa
SaPa Honey Moon Hotel
We arrived in SaPa without a hotel reservation (because we though we’d be in Lao Cai, not SaPa!) The proprietor of this hotel approached us at the bus stop, and she wasn’t pushy or overtly in our face like many of the other hotel touts. I liked her right away, so we agreed to follow her down the road to her hotel. After a very short walk, we were shown into our room. It was perfect! We had two double beds, each equipped with heating pads (important in SaPa in the winter) and a large bathroom. She quickly arranged our next-day transportation to Dien Bien Phu, with hotel pick-up, and gave us a dinner recommendation. If we were staying in SaPa for a few days I’d put a bit more effort into finding accommodation, but for an overnight this hotel is close to the bus station and effortlessly arranged our onward travel.
You can book it RIGHT HERE!
Cost: 240,000 dong ($14 CAD) for a double room.
Where to eat in SaPa
We did not find a gem of a restaurant in SaPa! The hotel recommendation wasn’t open yet when we wanted to eat, so we just wandered until we stumbled upon a hot pot restaurant that Kacela was keen on. It wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t rush there again. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in SaPa, check out this great guide instead!
Day 2 – SaPa to Dien Bien Phu (via Lai Chau)
Any of the reports I’d read about the overland journey from SaPa to Luang Prabang described it as a harrowing journey where the traveler feared for their lives. I was picturing the bus plummeting off the edge of a cliff, or careening head-on into some sort of livestock or other vehicle on the road. Thankfully, I’d grossly over-exaggerated the journey in my head! In reality, the road was winding and steep, but no more than anything I’ve drive through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. (Although, there is one pass between Jasper and The Junction that makes my stomach a bit queasy just thinking about it!)
We booked the bus through our accommodation (you can find it here) which included pick-up at our guesthouse. This just makes life so much easier. The van arrived shortly after 8am, and we piled in. I quickly went about commandeering the front row of seats, using the excuse of the ‘babies’ getting car sick. This excuse was real, as Calais has exhibited time and time again her inability to handle winding, bumpy roads without some sort of vomit-episode. I was prepared, and had Gravol on-hand, ensuring the girls were well drugged for the trip! Being in the front added a bit more protection, and meant we were close to the door if needed.
The van drove straight to Lai Chau, and we were all hustled into a different bus. By this point, I had to go to the bathroom, and I was sure the girls did too. We quickly ran into the bus station to find the toilet, while Randy made sure the bus didn’t leave without us! The driver was a bit annoyed, but we were more comfortable.
(Our new bus was also carrying a motorbike inside!! I’ll never understand why people transport motorbikes on buses rather than just riding them!!)
A few hours down the road we stopped for lunch. After a bit of pointing and head nodding, we ended up with 2 plates of food and some drinks. The bus was small enough that they had no problem waiting for everyone to finish eating before rounding us up to continue the journey. Being Vietnam, the road wasn’t in the best condition. The driver expertly swerved around potholes, fallen branches, livestock and people to safely deliver us to Dien Bien Phu.
(Our point-and-pick lunch between Lai Chau and Dien Bien Phu. It was actually pretty good!)
Bus Cost: 760,000 dong (250,000 dong per adult and 130,000 dong per child)
Where to Stay in Dien Bien Phu
Tuan Minh Guest House
This cute little guest house was right around the corner from the bus station. The rooms were clean and well kept, and the beds were comfortable (by Vietnam standards!). They also booked our bus to Muang Khua the next day, including pick-up at the hotel. For the convenient location and price, this little guest house is the perfect place to stay in Dien Bien Phu.
You can book it RIGHT HERE!!
Cost: 230,000 dong ($13 CAD) for a double room. (At this price, we booked 2!)
Where to Eat in Dien Bien Phu
Quán Chay Yên Ninh Vegetarian Restaurant
You’ll likely only spend one night in Dien Bien Phu, and I highly recommend eating your one (and only) meal at this great vegetarian restaurant. It’s tucked away down a little alley about 1.3km from Tuan Minh Guest House. It was fun to wander through town, and stretch our legs after being cooped up on the bus all day. The owner is also incredibly friendly, and speaks great English! It’s on Trip Advisor (which is how we found it), so you’re also likely to run into other travellers on the same route.
Cost: 225,000 dong ($13 CAD) for 3 meals and drinks (water and iced coffee).
Directions to Quán Chay Yên Ninh from Tuan Minh Guesthouse.
Day 3 – Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua
This could be a short day or a long day, depending on what you decide to do. I wanted to take the slow boat down the Nam Ou river, which meant we had a short day to Muang Khua, arriving by about 1pm. Most people on our bus carried on the whole way to Luang Prabang, with an expected arrival time closer to 7pm. If we were in a hurry, it wouldn’t have been too bad to have lunch and then carry on from Muang Khua to Luang Prabang. But, we were making the journey the destination, so we stopped to explore.
We had the lovely lady at our Guesthouse book our bus from Dien Bien Phu, across the border to Muang Khua. She was incredibly helpful, and also arranged pick-up from the hotel. The bus station was only a short walk down the road, but at 8am we were happy to not have to walk anywhere!
The road was incredibly foggy first thing in the morning, and at a few points I wondered how on earth our driver knew where he was driving! It made for a bit of a mournful good-bye to Vietnam, especially since we were sad to be leaving. But, it added to the beauty of the scenery around us.
The drive to the border took about 2 hours, and we arrived mid-morning, before it got too hot. The border was a bit of a process, but other than being arduous it was pretty straight forward.
Muang Khua was about another hour past the border, and the drive was uneventful. Not much changed between Laos and Vietnam, but it just felt different. It wasn’t better, or worse, just different. The bus driver was a bit surprised when we asked him to get our bags down at the lunch stop in Muang Khua! There was another couple that got off also, so we didn’t feel too alone. It was nice to arrive in Muang Khua early enough to explore town and spend a bit of time just relaxing, and not sitting on a bus!
Bus Cost: 115,000 dong each (We paid half price for each girl)
Where to Stay in Muang Khua
One of the many basic guesthouses in town
There are many guesthouses in Muang Khua, but very few of them are online. We stayed at BoualnKok Guesthouse, just across the street from the bus stop. It was basic, but clean. The bathroom had a squat toilet, so if you don’t mind walking a bit more with your bags it might be worth heading further down the road. Everything seemed to be pretty basic though, so don’t go in expecting luxury!
Cost: 80,000 kip ($12 CAD)
Where to Eat in Muang Khua
We had a decent meal at this restaurant on the road to the boat dock. The French (owner) was friendly and helpful. There’s REAL coffee (I learned quickly that although I absolutely LOVE Vietnamese coffee…I do NOT love Laos coffee!), as well as the ability to have a glass of wine with dinner. We had rice dishes, but the Lao BBQ also looked delicious. You can also grab a coffee to go and pancakes on the way to the boat the next morning.
Laos Vietnam Border Crossing
We started by getting ourselves stamped out of Vietnam. This was relatively uneventful, because we didn’t have a Vietnamese e-Visa (Canadians aren’t even eligible for one!). However, it was NOT as easy for another couple in our group. They had eVisas, and this particular Vietnam Laos border crossing is unable to process eVisas. This poor couple was on their last day of a valid Visa, and had to wait for a bus to take them back to Dien Bien Phu, then catch a night bus to the next border crossing to the South. This had them over-staying their Vietnam Visa, and I’m sure resulted in a hugely expensive hassle for them.
If you’re planning on traveling overland from Vietnam to Laos, strongly consider getting a standard Visa rather than an eVisa. At the very least, check the Vietnam eVisa webpage for the most up to date information.
Getting our Laos Visa on Arrival was a relatively uneventful, although slightly time-consuming border crossing. There was a ridiculous number of windows to stop at, and small fees to pay.
We started by picking up and filling out the Laos Visa on arrival form. Then we changed our Dong to Kip at an exchange of 285000 dong = 100000 kip. Not the best rate, but it wasn’t a bad rate either and meant we had kip to pay all the border fees!
Our Visas were $42 US each! Us poor Canadians pay the highest Visa fee for Laos…we must’ve done something to make them mad along the way! I joked a bit with Randy at the ridiculousness of the different Visa fees. They range from $30-42, and many differed by only a dollar here or there. This just results in the need for small US$ bills! You’d think it’d be easier to have two or three different fees and call it a day, but nope!
After forking over what felt like a small fortune for our Visas, we then had 4 more “windows” to stop at. The first was a 10,000 kip Visa processing fee. Next came the Phongsali tourism fee of 16,000 kip. (The kids were free for this one!) Then there was a 20,000 kip stamping fee. And finally, a temperature check for 5000 kip. (We had passport pics with us, but if we didn’t it’s a further $5US fee for a photo!)
With our Laos Visa in hand, we finally officially crossed the Laos border and got back on the bus.
Laos Visa on Arrival Cost: $30-42US depending on nationality plus 51,000 kip in “other fees” and $5 US for picture if you don’t have a passport pic on hand.
Total Cost to Overland from Vietnam to Laos
Bus HaGiang to SaPa: 200,000 dong per person
SaPa Hotel: 240,000 dong (double room)
Bus SaPa to Dien Bien Phu: 250,000 dong per person
Dien Bien Phu Hotel: 230,000 dong (double room)
Bus Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua: 115,000 dong per person (we could’ve carried onto Luang Prabang for not much more)
Total (Transport & Accommodation): 800,000 dong ($45 CAD) per person (based on 2 people sharing a room. If you’re solo make sure you negotiate cheaper hotel rates!!)
Things You Should Know Before taking the bus from SaPa to Laos
- Carry enough Vietnamese Dong to pay for buses, food and accommodation, as well as enough to exchange for Kip at the border to pay the processing fees, etc (51,000 kip = 153,000 dong in Jan 2018).
- Have US cash (or Euro) to pay for your Laos Visa on Arrival ($35-42 US depending on citizenship)
- Bring a Passport picture with you, or expect to pay $5US for one at the border.
- Have your hotel/guesthouse arrange your next bus the night before you travel. Many will offer pick up from the hotel.
- Start from SaPa (instead of Lao Cai) so the day starts at 8am rather than 7am!
- Don’t stress about pre-booking accommodation. There are dozens of options in each town, and undoubtedly someone will meet the bus wanting to drum up business. If no one meets the bus, just walk up the street a few hundred meters and you’ll run into a guesthouse (or 4!).
- You can take out Kip in Muang Khua at the ATM just up the street from the bus station (and across the street from BoualnKok Guest House)
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