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Overland from Vietnam to Laos

If you’re looking to save money, you can travel over land from the Vietnamese capital to Laos. The journey isn’t short, but it’s a good way to experience more of the country!
Rather than taking the bus directly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang (which takes about 24 hours), you can break up the journey into several smaller trips. Here’s how:


Get your Laos visa in Hanoi
Certain Lao border crossings officially offer Laos visas on arrival, but immigration authorities have been known to deny this fact. Avoid such a situation by getting your visa in advance.

The Lao embassy is located in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung district, a short walk from the Old Quarter, home to the main backpacker strip. Make sure your passport has at least two blank visa pages and six months remaining validity. If you don’t have any on hand, get a passport picture taken at any of the studios in the Old Quarter and purchase two copies to take with you.

Laos visa fees vary depending on your nationality, your desired length of stay and the number of entries the visa allows. Regardless of how much you end up owing, you must pay the visa fee in US dollars, so exchange some dong in advance.

When you arrive at the Lao embassy — make sure to do this on a weekday before noon if you want processing to begin on the same day — the attendant will look over your materials to make sure everything is in order, then present you with an application to fill out. Once you’ve submitted everything, the process can officially take up to five business days, but usually takes less.

Train or Bus to Sapa
Take an overnight train from the capital to the town of Lao Cai, then take a minibus the 40 kilometers between Lao Cai and Sapa. Several companies also offer buses, but the train is far more comfortable. Trains depart around 9 PM and take about nine hours to reach Lao Cai. From there, the bus to Sapa takes about an hour. You can stay in Sapa for a few days or head straight to Laos.


Bus to Điện Biên Phủ
The next step is to take a bus to the Vietnamese city of Điện Biên Phủ, the site of a famous battle in the first Indochina War and the closest Vietnamese city to the Lao frontier. There is no proper bus stand in Sapa, so ask locals where you can catch the “bus,” which is actually a minivan of sorts.

Although the journey looks short on the map — and indeed, distance-wise, it’s just over 100 kilometers — getting from Sapa to Điện Biên Phủ will take you until at least sunset. Thankfully, the breathtaking mountain scenery you encounter is more than worth the discomfort.

There are several cheap and good hotels near the station where the minibus drops you off. Buses to Laos leave in the early morning, so you’ll need to stay overnight.


Bus to the Lao Frontier and Muang Khua, Laos
Buses to Muang Khua, the Lao town closest to the border, officially leave at 5:30, but seats are limited, so it’s a good idea to show up well in advance of this time if you don’t want to get stuck in Điện Biên Phủ. T

Having some dong or U.S. dollars on hand for when you arrive at the border, even if you got your visa in advance: Lao authorities collect a processing fee totalling 4,000 kip (about 10,000 dong or under $1) for every traveler who passes.

In order to reach the center of Muang Khua, be prepared to take a terrifying (or exhilarating) longboat trip across the angry river that runs between the bus drop-off point and the main population area.


Bus to Luang Prabang
After spending a day or two in Muang Khua, take a tuk-tuk to the town’s new bus station and purchase a ticket on any of the many daily minibuses to the Lao city of Oudomxay. If you catch an early enough one, you can catch the last daily departure (which leaves at 6:30 p.m.) to Luang Prabang, placing you there around midnight.

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