I had heard a lot of horror stories about the journey from Sapa in northern Vietnam to Luang Prabang in Laos. The more conventional way for overland travel to Laos is to take a bus from Hanoi, arriving in the capital Vientiane a fair few hours later. If you find yourself in Sapa it seems silly taking the 6 hour bus back to Hanoi, to then stay a night and leave the following day, not only is this a waste of time, but also a waste of money.
The bus from Sapa cost 870000 Dong (£30) but we definitely overpaid. We normally shop around and get the best price but as we caught a cab from our homestay, 8km from Sapa and were dropped off at a hostel with a booking office, we were lazy and took their price. However apparently it can be as cheap as 600000 Dong (£22) but it’s up to you what you do. There are 2 buses that leave daily, one at 7am and one at 7pm. We took the 7pm bus and I’ll break the trip down into 4 steps to hopefully make it easier to understand.
The first part of the trip was fairly pleasant. We jumped on the sleeper bus at 7pm, played a couple of games of backgammon on Holly’s phone then fell asleep until our first toilet stop at 21:30. Everyone then jumps back on the bus and you arrive in Dien Bien Phu, a town close to the border at 04:00am. The sleeper bus has 2 beds next to each other on 1 side, then a row of single beds on the other. This was different to the other sleeper buses I had been on in Vietnam but is okay if you have one of the two beds next to someone you know. At 04:00am, when we got off the bus we were told to wait in the bus station until 07:00am until the next part of our trip began. However at 04:35 a man turned up asking if we were going to Luang Prabang and if so to follow him. There were 9 of us all together, safety in numbers right, so we followed him out the bus station to a bus parked outside. The bus was more of a minivan and he let us get on to sleep where we waited until 06:30am. At 06:30 the bus pulled into the bus station and they started to fill it with all kinds of crazy stuff. At one point they tried to take our bags from the boot and tie them on the roof, to which we all said no.
At 07:30am we left Dien Bien Phu bus station and headed through the town on the way to the border, picking up more people and more crazy stuff along the way. At one point they did take our bags out of the boot and tie them on the roof, to make it easier for the locals to put their stuff on the bus. (I couldn’t be bothered to get out and say no again, just make sure the waterproof jacket is over your bag.) About 15 minutes from the border, on a crazy mountain road engulfed in cloud, there was a big bang and the bus ground to a stop. This wasn’t looking good. The driver and guide were both on their backs under the bus with hammers and spanners, and succeeded in pulling off a massive chunk of the underside, throwing it on the bus and then carrying on. I found out later it was some kind of stabaliser which would explain why I kept getting thrown off my seat. We pulled up at the Vietnamese border, Tay Trang, at 09:15, everyone got off the bus and queued up to get their passport stamped and we were back on the bus at 9:40. To my surprise we didn’t have to pay a stamp out fee. We then drove for another 10 minutes to the Laos border section, Pang Hok, to try to get into Laos. You can change up any Dong you have left to Kip with the guy on the bus, he doesn’t give you to bad a rate.
The Pang Hok border was interesting. You first have to go to a window with your passport and collect two forms that you need to fill out. You then head back to the same window and for some reason pay them 10000 Kip (£1). At the time of writing £1 = 9967 Kip. You then move along to the second window and there you pay for your visa in US Dollars. For England it’s $35, for some countries its $30 and for others its $40. I have no idea why there is a price difference. You then head to the third window and pay them 16000 Kip (£1.60) and then to the fourth window to pay them 20000 Kip (£2). In total I think the visa cost about £35 but I don’t know why you don’t just pay it all in one go. You need to also have one passport photo and your USD can have no rips or tears, no matter how small.
After everyone has their visas you jump back on the same bus and continue on your way. We left the border at 10:30 and stopped for a 45 minute break at 12:15. At 15:00 the bus stops in Oudomaxy Bus Station where you can get off to head further north in Laos. It then carries on driving through the sweeping valleys and rolling hill before eventually arriving in Luang Prabang Bus Station at 19:35, 25 hours later. There is nothing particularly bad about the journey, juts the length of time it takes. Most of the views are amazing and you stop plenty of times for food and toilet breaks. I bought lots of snacks before hand for my diabetes as I didn’t know what to expect. There also wasn’t a single issue with carrying my injections through. All the bags stay on the bus, probably on the roof and nothing seems to get searched. I’d recommend this trip if you don’t need to head back to Hanoi and want to get to Laos from Sapa. There is also the option of staying a night in Dien Bien Phu, which played a big part in the Vietnam War, and by doing this you would break up the two bus trips. If not just be prepared for the long trip, it is nothing to fear.