We bought our tickets online from baolau.vn – it does charge a service fee but the website is easy to use and they send tickets through to your email so you don’t have to trek around finding a trustworthy travel agent.
Price: US$50 / £40 / VND 1,150,000 (+43 cents / 35p service fee)
Scheduled times: Depart Hanoi at 18:30, arrive in Luang Prabang at 18:00 the next day.
Actual times: Departed Hanoi at 18:30, arrived in Luang Prabang at 21:30 the next day.
Bus station addresses:
Nước Ngầm Bus Station
Km số 8 – Đường Giải Phóng, quận Hoàng Mai, Hà Nội
Naluang Minibus Station
13, Luang Prabang, Laos
We weren’t in the best mood when we arrived in Hanoi, where our 23 hour journey to Luang Prabang would begin. After a whistle-stop tour of southern Vietnam, we’d flown from Danang to Hanoi (I hate flying, but it was the same price as the train and only took one hour, rather than fifteen), with the plan being we’d have a few hours to spare in Hanoi to grab some food and find the bus station.
And it’s a good job we had a few hours to spare as we spent an hour in Hanoi airport arguing with Jetstar staff about the fact that my girlfriend’s guitar had left Danang in one piece but arrived in Hanoi in eleven pieces. Eventually, getting nowhere, and with a bus to get, we took our bags (plus the rattling guitar) and set off to find the Nuoc Ngam bus station.
With little time and no idea where we were going, we decided to get a taxi from the airport. It was a ridiculously long taxi ride through Hanoi, costing almost as much as one ticket to Laos, but the lovely Vietnamese taxi driver could see we were having a bad day so rounded the price down for us.
After a quick dinner of rice, unidentifiable (but delicious) meat chunks, and more rice at the bus station, we bought bottles of water and snacks for the journey, had a safety wee and went to find the bus.
And I’m glad we went for the safety wee, because the comfortable, modern sleeper bus with onboard toilet we’d booked onto, turned out to be a bog-standard sleeper bus with no toilet. Well, there may have been a toilet onboard obscured by the boxes and boxes of biscuits and Snickers that occupied the back third of the bus, but I guess we’ll never know. To be fair, we’d been spoilt on Cambodian and other Vietnamese buses, which were fairly spacious with free wifi, so maybe our expectations were too high. We’d heard that the modern sleeper bus ran on Tuesdays and Thursdays but I really don’t think there’s any schedule or rationale so I probably wouldn’t alter your plans to get the ‘modern’ bus.
No one actually checked our tickets (this only occurred to me many hours later, when I realised that for all we knew we could be headed to Cambodia), but we boarded to find out that anyone at the back of the bus had to clamber over everyone else’s luggage (which was piled in front of the biscuits and Snickers) to get to their seats. I’m not sure what was being carried underneath the bus but it definitely wasn’t our luggage. If the guitar hadn’t been smashed to pieces already, it probably would have been at some point on this bus journey.
We set off at 6.30pm, on time, but it wasn’t long before we stopped for about 30 minutes to load more mystery items on to the bus. We set off again, travelled for maybe 45 minutes and then stopped again for dinner. One guy, who didn’t drive but just seemed to be in charge of shouting at all the passengers and loading things onto the bus, insisted that everyone get off, whether we wanted dinner or not. We all obeyed, sat watching the drivers eat for half an hour, and then got back on the bus.
Although I’d desperately wanted one last Vietnamese coffee, I’d restrained myself, trying to avoid being awake and anxious all the way to Laos. And I’m glad I did, because I slept, on and off, until about 6am when I awoke to find that one of the drivers had lain down next to me in the aisle for a snooze.
In fact, he’d gotten so comfy, that he’d taken the nearest backpack and started spooning it.
Anyway, the border didn’t open until 7am but we got off the bus in search of food and toilets. And the view was stunning. Early morning mist still clung to the peaks that rose above us, streams of sunlight bursting through from time to time. There were a few dilapidated shacks at the base of one of the peaks, where lorry drivers were getting their breakfast, and then nestled in the valley before us were the border security and immigration buildings. Just before 7am the border guards came marching down the road and then a few minutes later someone signalled for us to go in.
The process was simple and I never felt like I was about to get ripped off. We handed our passports in, en masse. Fifteen minutes later a guard stood at the back of the room calling out names and returning our passports to us, which had been stamped with a Vietnamese exit stamp. We took the corridor to our right and walked through to collect an arrival card. For those of us who hadn’t already got our Laos visas, we then went upstairs to fill out a visa form and the arrival form. Once completed, we handed in both forms, our passports and one passport-sized photo each. We waited for maybe ten minutes then, once the visa had been printed and stuck into our passports, we paid (they accepted both Vietnamese Dong and US dollars). The price depends on your nationality but it was around $35-$40.
After that, we headed back downstairs to hand in our arrival card and passport. After assuring them we wouldn’t stay longer than our 30 day visa, they stamped our passports and returned them to us along with a departure card (to be kept and handed in when you exit Laos).
Once everyone had been successfully stamped into Laos, we got back on the bus and the rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. We stopped for an early lunch (at about 11.30am) at a rest stop with friendly staff, delicious food and huge portions, which I was thankful for later as the bus didn’t stop again (except to unload some of the mysterious cargo from underneath the bus, and once by the side of the road so that everyone, ladies included, could have a nature wee). The roads are windy but the views are stunning, and no one seemed to mind that we got into Luang Prabang a few hours later than expected.
Although at the start of the trip I wished we’d booked a flight, in the end I was really glad we braved the bus. With some preparation (mental and physical!) the journey was an enjoyable experience and a great introduction to Laos.