We recently travelled from Hanoi to Vientiane by bus, in October 2015.
Navigating the Agencies
We were picked up at 17 : 30 from the Old Quarter and crammed into a minibus that took about an hour to navigate through traffic to the bus terminal. There, the better seats of the sleeper bus had almost all been taken by locals, and we foreigners were made to sit in the seats at the back where the toilet should have been. There are a few problems with these seats. First, there are five seats side by side instead of the two by two seats everywhere else on the bus. This makes personal space even more cramped. Second, those on the bottom five seats (sleeper buses have two levels) don’t have windows. Third, the seats on the sides near the windows on the top can’t recline fully. These aren’t huge problems, but it helped that Squid and I could share our space. I wouldn’t want to be a single traveler on that trip. Having two seats on top near the window, the ride went by much more quickly than I’d anticipated.
Navigating the Agencies
Initially we had planned on traveling to Luang Prabang from Hanoi. But faced with 24 to 30 hours of travel, $45US per ticket, followed by another 10-hour expensive trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane for our flight, we decided to skip the beautiful Luang Prabang. We went straight to Vientiane for a much more reasonable $23US 20-hour journey. When we asked around in Hanoi, we were quoted as much as $35US, and as little as $23US. It’s possible that the $35US quote was for a bus with a toilet on it, but more expensive tickets do not guarantee that luxury. We were promised wifi and a toilet, and we felt lucky to get the wifi. It’s possible to skip the travel agencies altogether by going straight to the southern bus terminal in Hanoi (bến xe nước ngầm), but do not go to the northern terminal, My Dinh. Even if some buses depart from there, it is impossible to purchase tickets.
The bus left at 18 :30 and its air-conditioning worked well. It got a little hot in the midday sun in Laos, but it was still very bearable. Most often I had find ways to keep warm in the night. The bus made rest stops every 3 hours or so. The first stop was at 22 :00. A few hours later, we got to the border and waited for it to open. That probably means our passports were processed more quickly as we were among the first in line. There is no food at the border, and the bathroom costs 500 dongs. The whole process at the border took about an hour, and then we were on our way again. At 11 :00 we stopped for lunch. The restaurant provided a mountain of rice with three dishes and a soup, costing $3US or 25000 Kip. When everyone was done, we continued all the way to our final destination in Vientiane. We arrived 20.5 hours after our departure from Hanoi, at around 15 :00.
The border crossing was very easy. You have to pay $1US or 20000 dongs for the exit stamp in your passport. Then you have to fill an application form, pay your visa fee and $1US for the Lao entry stamp. If you don’t have a picture, you need to pay an extra $1US per required picture. Some countries need two, but I only needed one and there was no sign identifying who needed what. Everything was processed without any hassles. Visa fees vary by country, but they are posted on a window at the counter.
The Millenium Falcon Bus
The bus stopped over a bridge soon after its departure, and boxes were loaded into it. Later, at the first rest stop, those boxes were transferred to a hidden cargo hold under the seats at the back of the bus. This contraband was the source of some concern to the two-man crew operating the bus, but not too much. They appeared to have done this many times before, and it had become part of their routine. It may explain why we got to Vientiane so quickly. Perhaps they wanted some extra free time to unload their precious smuggled cargo.
The Not so Dreadful Bus JourneyIf the Luang Prabang bus is anything like the Vientiane bus, then there should be nothing to dread. I could easily have taken another 10 hours in our bus. We brought 3 banh mi (baguette sandwiches) and 1.5 litres of water with us. We finished our food, but we barely touched the water, to avoid any uncomfortable situations. We traveled through Vietnam at night, so it was only once in Laos that we could see our surroundings. The mountains near the Laos-Vietnam border are striking, but the scenery became rather uneventful thereafter.