I had mentally prepared myself for crossing the border from Laos to Vietnam after reading up on other’s horrendous experiences of traveling between the two countries online. Tales of cramped seats, windy roads, and vomit bags filled the travel forums and blogs.
Keeping all of this in mind, I was prepared for the worst. Which was likely a very good thing, as in the end, I didn’t find the bus ride all that bad. Although if I hadn’t had any idea of what to expect, I might have seen things a bit differently.
Here’s a summary of how I got to Hanoi starting from Muang Ngoy, Laos.
Boat Ride from Muang Ngoy to Nong Khiaw
The boat ride from Muang Ngoy to Nong Khiaw was possibly the most cramped ride I have ever been on. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to fit onto the boat, as there were no more seats, but that didn’t seem to pose any problem for the boat driver. He plopped my backpack in front of an elderly couple’s feet, and then directed me to sit on my backpack. This seemed to be a routine occurrence, as the elderly couple didn’t seem at all put off. It wasn’t so bad, as the ride only took a little over an hour.
Arriving at the small port in Nong Khiaw, I immediately jumped into a tuk tuk to the local bus station. There I was told that there would be a bus leaving to Sam Neua (a town about 4 hours away from the Vietnamese border) in just over an hour.
- Travel time: ~ 1 hour
- Cost: 25,000 kip ($4 CAD)
- Highlight of the trip: Watching the local village kids doing flips off of trees and jumping into the river! They looked so completely in their element, like little fish :).
Bus ride from Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua, Laos
I was happy to find that I’d be traveling with two other French girls on the bus ride to Sam Neua. Other than that, the bus was mostly locals. The seats were relatively cramped, but lucky for me, I’m pretty small. Even still, my knees touched the seat in front of me! It must feel a lot worse for someone taller. I was also lucky enough to get a bigger seat, although those who got on the bus later were forced to take the ‘middle seats’, which are mini versions of the seats that are pulled out into the aisle, and don’t even allow you to rest your head. Not exactly the most comfortable for an 11 hour journey! The initial part of the bus ride wasn’t so bad, but the further along we traveled, the windier the roads got. Soon, there were plastic bags being passed around, as some of the passengers inevitably started to get sick. Although the bus stopped relatively frequently, every 2-3 hours or so, it was often just on the side of the road. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer were my essential companions throughout the journey!
I had heard horror stories from other travelers traveling south from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, who got stuck between two landslides on the road who had to hitchhike to reach their final destination! Luckily, we only had to stop for less than 15 minutes as we waited for mini landslide to be cleared, but other than that we had no major hold ups.
We arrived in Sam Neua at around 1o pm at night and I was able to find a place to stay with the French girls for only 80,000 kip. It worked out to about $4 CAD per person, not a bad deal for a room with AC, hot water, and a TV! While the girls had decided to stay another day in Sam Neua, I was more anxious to continue on with my journey.
- Travel time: ~ 11-12 hours, but could take much longer depending on the road conditions!
- Cost: 150,000 kip ($24 CAD)
- Highlight of the trip: Stopping for a lunch break in the middle of nowhere, only to find stewed frog, and other questionable meat items (were those mice feet?) in a buffet style restaurant. When one of the French girls asked “Do you have fried rice?”, she was answered by several Vietnamese looking at her with wide eyes and then bursting into laughter.
Sam Neua, Laos to Than Hoa, Vietnam by Bus
I woke up quite early in Sam Neua and walked over to the bus station (it was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel). The bus left at 7 am, so I bought some snacks nearby (lam yai and donuts – part of a nutritious breakfast!) and waited.
This bus ride was more of a cultural shock than the previous one. Maybe this was because I was now the sole foreigner traveling on a bus filled to the brim with Vietnamese people. I was also unhappy to learn that many Vietnamese people smoke and don’t find it to be a problem to smoke on a crowded bus.
As we drove through the town of Sam Neua, the bus driver made frequent stops, and what was initially a relatively empty bus was soon packed full with rice, speaker systems, and people. I was seated next to a few friendly Vietnamese who thought it was the funniest joke ever to say “Hi How Are You” and then burst out laughing. I didn’t quite get the joke, and took it as a sign to start a conversation with them, before realizing that they didn’t speak a word of English other than those four simple words. Our conversation ended pretty abruptly after that. Soon, we reached the Vietnamese border crossing, which was fairly straight forward and uneventful.
The Vietnamese side of the border was a whole world of difference! All of sudden the roads were nicely paved, and there were even guard rails along steeper sides of the road. Potholes appeared much less frequently than they had in Laos. The further away we drove from the border, the less windy the roads became. We arrived in Than Hoa sooner than I had expected, much to my relief!
- Travel time: 10-11 hours (could be much longer, depending on road conditions)
- Cost: 180,000 kip ($29 CAD)
- Highlight of the trip: Successfully asking where the bathroom was in Vietnamese (thanks to my trusty phrasebook) and being directed to a concrete wall with only a floor to pee on. Hmm … hopefully not all the bathrooms in Vietnam are this bad!
Than Hoa to Hanoi, Vietnam
As soon as I had jumped off the bus in Than Hoa, I was approached by a moto-taxi offering to take me wherever I needed to go. I tried to explain that I wanted to get to the train station, but he ended up taking me to the bus station instead. Luckily, this worked out to be in my favor as the bus ended up being much cheaper than the train would have been, and also had free wifi, free water bottle, AC and a blanket! It felt like a dream come true after my previous journey.
Before I knew it, we were in Hanoi, and they motioned for me to get off the bus in the middle of a busy highway onto a small curb. This was the bus station? My backpack was thrown to the curb and the bus drove on, while I was left to decide what to do next. Two moto-taxis approached me almost as soon as I had put on my backpack, offering to give me a lift. I told them that I’d take a cab instead, not wanting to risk ending up in the hospital just moments after arriving in Hanoi, and they very nicely flagged one down for me before continuing on their way.
- Travel time: ~3.5 hours
- Cost: 100,000 dong (~$6 CAD)
- Highlight of the trip: The moment they put the neon lights on and started blasting the electronic music when I was the only passenger!
Cab Ride from the Hanoi “Bus Station” to my Hostel in Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam
I strangely fell in love with the city of Hanoi as my cab driver expertly maneuvered his way through the traffic late at night. There was no music in the car, only silence interrupted by the sound of his horn every 15 seconds to warn others of his approach. I didn’t try to make conversation, as I sometimes do with taxi drivers, as I didn’t want to throw off his concentration on the road. I have never seen anything like the traffic in Hanoi. It was organized chaos. So many people, so many scooters, everyone’s reflexes on high alert, ready to stop or speed ahead at the last second.
- Travel time: ~20-30 minutes
- Cost: 130,000 dong ($7.50 CAD)
- Highlight of the trip: Watching the scooters weave their way through the traffic and congratulating myself on my decision to take a cab instead of a moto-taxi to my hostel, even though it was more expensive.
With all of this travel time, it should come as no surprise that I at least managed to get some knitting done …
The windy roads didn’t make for the most pleasant knitting environment, but I did manage to finish my white cabled toque. One of my lesser qualities as a knitter is often my impatience, which definitely manifested itself in this toque. I was so anxious to finish it that I didn’t chart out the decrease as I should have, and instead just decreased where I saw fit. The end result isn’t quite what I was hoping for, but that’s okay. I also didn’t take any notes while knitting. And because there are so many cables, the gauge is much tighter as a result, and the toque does not fit me at all! So I will have to gift this to someone with a much smaller head.
All in All
The trip took about 27 hours of travel time, although it was cut in two with my stop over in Sam Neua for a night. Although it was long, I passed through some gorgeous scenery through Laos and Vietnam, and also got to experience the local’s way of traveling!
It also cost me about $71 CAD in total from start to finish, which is a lot cheaper than taking a flight (flights in Laos are known to be quite a bit more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia).
If you’re not afraid of windy roads, less than hygienic bathrooms, meeting locals, practicing the local language, and want to save some cash, this adventure is definitely for you.
What’s your craziest travel experience?