Let me start my blog by saying this: I LOVE Laos! I seriously do. This country is such a beautiful and peaceful haven for anyone who dreams of an escape from the bustling Hanoi. The laid-back lifestyle here has earned Laos its nickname “Lao PDR = Lao Please Don’t Rush”. Everything is sooooo slow here. No, I am not complaining. That’s just a fact and the more I discover the country the more I fall in love with it..
Last year, after coming back from Saigon, I actually even planned to move to Laos, I tried to send my CV around but unfortunately my attempts didn’t work out. It was also a shame to admit that I had lived next to Laos for almost 30 years but never been there once, until 2 weeks ago..
Transportation from Vietnam to Laos:
There are only 2 ways to go to Laos from Vietnam: either ridiculously expensive by flights (Vietnam Airlines or Lao Airlines) at the price of roughly US$350 return trips for a total of 1 or 2 hour direct flights or crazily tiring 24-27 hour bus rides from Hanoi to Vientiane/Luang Prabang at about US$50-60 return trips.
Cheaper airlines only go from Thailand and Malaysia (AirAsia or NokAir).
For me, I didn’t even think twice to pick the bus option. I thought: “Meh, I did the 24 hour train from Delhi to Mumbai before, I can totally handle this”. And yeah I survived. Safe and sound. Can’t say those were pleasant rides though: 24 hours from Hanoi to Vientiane and 27 hours from Luang Prabang to Hanoi.
Advice to Westerners: only do this bus thing when you really can’t afford flying, because it can be your worst nightmare ever. Why? Because:
- Food stops: once or twice during the whole time;
- Toilet stops: same, and you can dream about a proper toilet;
- Space: no space. Did they say “sleeper”? Dont bother trusting it. Two of you will be squeezed under the “beds” if you buy tickets late, and the “under-bed” dimension is 1m x 1.7m. And obviously you can’t fit, thus, you’ll spend 24-27 hours sitting on the floor;
- Bus drivers don’t speak English and won’t care sh*t about you.
Vietnamese and Laotians are much better at this bus ride simply because we are smaller and easy to fit in minimal spaces and we seem to be better at suffering from hunger, thirst and being squeezed. Personally, I ate and drank very little during the bus hours to reduce toilet “demand”. Anyway, I think I’ll skip these bus rides next time visiting..
So, after you have been informed about all of this and still want to do the bus (either for new experience or to save money) then here is ticket info:
Buying bus tickets in Hanoi:
- I bought ticket at 3A Nguyen Gia Thieu, Hai Ba Trung District. Tel: +84 (0) 4 3942 0554. They are quite reliable and offer cheapest price. Buy early to ensure you have a real bed, not having to sleep on the floor, so that you can see the beautiful scenery along the way. Advice is 3-4 weeks in advance.
- Ask them the name of the bus station (normally it is Nuoc Ngam Bus station – Bến Xe Nước Ngầm), and ask them to put the number of your seat on the receipt.
- You can buy tickets from the Nuoc Ngam Bus Station as well, it’s about 14km away from the city center.
- Don’t buy return tickets, because normally people travelling to Laos go back from Luang Prabang, not Vientiane.
A few notes for travelers going to Laos from Vietnam:
- Change money from Lao-Viet Bank in Vietnam. The exchange rate for Vietnam Dong in exchange booths in Laos is very bad. Or bring USD or EUR with you.
- Remember Laos is not THAT cheap. Mostly because Lao currency is quite strong. Then lots of their food and goods are imported from Vietnam, Thailand or China, thus, the price is high. Transportation cost within cities is expensive as well. I spent roughly US$350 for this 8-day trip (in which 3 days I was in buses). Speaking from a Vietnamese backpacker’s perspective that is a lot of money for one single trip.
- Don’t be surprise that there are a few impolite and unfriendly Laotians from time to time (Stereotype is that Laotians are super sweet and nice). However, still they are much much nicer than Vietnamese people overall. Sad for Vietnam(!)
- Remember to book hotels in advance in high season, especially in Luang Prabang. All guest houses / hotels / hostels in Luang Prabang were packed when I arrived there at 4.30 in the morning(!). Imagine how miserable it was to be wandering from one guest house to another from 4.30 to 8 to finally find a available room. By the way, here are a few suggestions for hotels in Laos:
+ Vientiane: I stayed at Lovan Guesthouse. Good price, central location, quiet and quite clean.
+ Vang Vieng: I stayed at Inthira Hotel. Nice one, just too expensive for backpackers.
+ Luang Prabang: I stayed at Silichith Guesthouse on Ban Xiengmuoane – this was discovered by accident. Big room, good price, central location. Contact number: +856 71 212 758
- Best souvenir is Beerlao! There are 2 types: Lao dark and Lao lager. Basically one of the best beer in South East Asia! There are some places in Hanoi that you can find Beerlao too, but of course you can buy in Lao at half of the price.
Once you’re in Laos, just take it easy, take it slow, and enjoy!
Vientiane, the capital, is not very remarkable if compared with Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang. But it’s a truly peaceful and refreshing place to relax, to have some Beerlao and watch life going by. Here is a photo taken in the tourists’ area for you to compare with the chaotic Pham Ngu Lao in HCMC or the Old Quarters in Hanoi:
Vang Vieng, the backpackers’ hub, has a lot more activities to offer, such as tubing or kayaking along the pretty Nam Song river, late night parties, exploring caves and lagoons, etc. I rented a motorbike and rode to the Blue Lagoon about 7km from the town. The road was very bad (if that can be called a “road”). The lagoon premise also consists of a large cave. And the fun thing about that cave is that it’s totally dark and tourists need to rent flash lights to go inside. Very much like an adventure!
This is a very small beautiful town. Of course the mountains, caves and lagoons there can’t beat those in Northern Vietnam, but still, totally worth visiting and exploring.
Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, is the prettiest of all. You can’t miss this spot in a Laos trip! The city is located right at the confluence of Mekong River and Nam Khan River, with beautiful old-style houses, delicate pagodas, clean and fresh air. Can’t describe how much I love this place!
I missed the Kuang Si Waterfalls and Pak Ou Caves, however, that was not much of a pity. I prefer sitting in a cafe next to the Mekong, feeling the fresh afternoon breezes and adoring the tranquil surroundings.
Riding a bicycle around is also a pleasant and relaxing way to explore the town. Then in the evening, there is a big night market selling handicraft goods that you can see in most Asian countries. And at the end of the market, there is a food alley that offer very tasty local food.
There is only one thing I feel regret about. I always took night buses to and from Luang Prabang so there was no chance to see the scene on they way which was claimed to be “spectacular”. Thus, after this trip, I have one more thing to put in my bucket list: Take a motorbike road trip from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang in the next visit.
So.. goodbye Laos, till I see you again!