Dien Bien Phu to Phongsaly/Oudomxay
Embark on an overland expedition to remote Phongsaly, Laos’ northern-most and least explored frontiers, from Dien Bien Phu, site of the first battle for Indochina’s Independence War.
A small bus departs from Dien Bien Phu in the early morning (05:30-07:00), to Muang Khan in Phongsaly, once the vehicle is full. Though the trip (approx. VND125,000) is 108 km, the winding mountain roads with a stop at the Pang Hok-Tay Trang border checkpoint, where the road improves, can take the non-air-con bus 6 hours to reach Muang Khan. This is a hot new destination on the Nam Ou River with cruises to Luang Prabang.
If Oudomxay (Muang Xay Town) is your target, catch the daily 25-seat, non-air-con minibus straight through. The bus departs at 08:30, stops at Muang Khua and Pak Nam Noy, where it heads south to Muang Xay.
Adventurous backpackers can reach the Lao side of the border from Dien Bien Phu by local transport for about VND50,000, but catching a sawng taew from Tay Trong to Muang Khua may take patience or assistance from Lao immigration officials, and the price will be quite high for a single passenger for the 70-km trip on a newly paved road.
Editor’s suggestion: A new circuit taking in Phongsaly, Luang Prabang and Oudomxay is popping up on the radar screens of intrepid travellers. If that sounds like you, take the Muang Khua bus, and explore untouched Phongsaly before moving on. Or, head straight to Oudomxay and regroup before heading to your next destination.
Hanoi/Thanh Hoa to Xam Neua, Houaphanh
Journey from the Vietnamese Capital to the home of the Lao Revolution at Vieng Xay’s Cave City in Houaphanh.
The key to the overland trip is Thanh Hoa and its West Bus Station, some 150 km south of Hanoi. Thanh Hoa has little to offer tourists except accommodation, a beach located 15 km away, and one daily bus to Sam Neua, the door to Viengxay Cave City. The small 25-seat bus with no air-con departs the station at 08:00 for the rugged 245-km, 12-hour scenic mountain drive. A seat costs under $15, and the bus waits at the Nam Soi-Na Meo border checkpoints until all passenger, mostly Lao or Vietnamese, have cleared immigration.
A 12-hour daily bus service from the Thanh Hoa Bus Terminal to Xam Neua leaves at 08:00 on Tuesday to Saturday, but operation is often suspended. You can also hire a car in Hanoi for the journey, but expect to pay upwards of $240. However most travellers heading from Hanoi to Xam Neua travel via Thanh Hoa, as it’s a reliable bus crossroads and getting there is cheap and easy.
Train & Bus
Three Reunification Express Trains depart the Hanoi Railway Station for Thanh Hoa at 06:00, 09:00, and 19:30 for the 3.5-hour ride. A comfortable air-con berth “soft seat” costs $18. Busses to Thanh Hoa depart Hanoi’s Giap Bat Bus Station every hour between 07:00 and 18:30 for the 4-hr, 175-km ride for $14, and make one bathroom stop. You can also find a car service for around $120 that can gets you to Thanh Hoa in less than 3 hours, which is a good share option for groups wanting an early departure from Hanoi to catch the 08:00 bus.
Backpackers working their way on the back roads from Hanoi to the Nam Soi-Na Meo border checkpoint will find sawng taews waiting from 10:00–11:30 for the 80-km, LAK25,000 drive to Xam Neua. Outside those hours, immigration officials can arrange a sawng taew to Xam Neua for about LAK400,000, regardless of the number of passengers, or take a thrilling ride on the back of a motorcycle for about LAK100,000.
Editor’s suggestion: Take the 09:00 train from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa, check in to a hotel, purchase your bus ticket for the next day’s 08:00 bus, and then relax before the exciting mountain ride to Laos.
Hanoi, Hue & Vinh – Phonsavanh, Xieng Khouang
Be among the few who have travelled through the lush mountains on the long journey from Vietnam to the Plain of Jars.
All busses to Phonsavanh from Vietnam pass through Vinh, whether you’re coming from Hanoi or Hue. One bus departs every day except Saturday from the Vinh Bus Terminal at 06:30 for the 12-hour, 400-km drive through pristine nature to Phonsavanh. A ticket costs about $20 and crosses the border at the Nam Khan-Nam Can checkpoint.
Spacious VIP coaches that depart for Luang Prabang from Hanoi (876 km) and Hue (1,100 km) stop at Vinh and Phonsavanh. They mostly cater to Lao and Vietnamese travellers, and schedules show daily evening departures from Hanoi at 18:00 and Hue busses leaving at 17:30 for the 2-day jaunt. Seats cost $40-60. Schedules aren’t fixed for Vinh stops on these routes, so check first at the Vinh Bus Terminal for departure times and ticket prices, which should be about $30-35.
Editor’s suggestion: Though the scenery is spectacular, the drive from Hanoi and Hue is more than 24 hours. Consider other entry routes to Lao, which offer plenty to see and do on the way to the Plain of Jars and beyond.
Vinh to Lak Xao and Khammouane’s Loop
Add a twist to your journey on “The Loop” in Khammouane by starting at Lak Xao after entering the province from Vietnam.
Vinh is key to the overland journey, but the business centre, not known for tourism, sits 300 km south of Hanoi and 366 km north of Hue. To reach Lak Xao, start from the Vinh Market Bus Station near the Song Cau Lo River in the city’s south. Grab a bus to the Cao Treo – Nam Phao border, which leave regularly throughout the day starting at 06:00, and often stops at Tay Song (Trung Tam) to change busses. The trip to the border is some 100 km and can take 5 hours. However, the situation for border and Lak Xao transport often changes, and quoted ticket prices vary.
When at the Vinh Bus Terminal, you may find a bus that goes straight through to Lak Xao, and even one to Vientiane, with a change of busses at Tay Song. If you get a late start from Vinh, catch the Tay Song bus and spend the night. Then, get up early for the 30-km mountain ride to the border by motorcycle or 4-wheel “taxi” to the border for around $10. The checkpoint opens at 07:00,. You can walk about 100 metres to the Lao immigration checkpoint, where plenty of sawng taews will take you on the 45-minute ride to Lak Xao for about LAK20,000. You’ll see plenty of coaches at the crossing, but most are charters catering to Lao and Vietnamese.
The Vinh Bus Station offers a daily international bus service directly to Thakaek at 07:00. The 12-hour journey costs about $12. A night bus occasionally operates the route. Vinh also has a direct Thakaek coach service departing the Vinh Bus Station at 7:00 for a similar price for the 270-km journey. As always, check with the bus station or a travel agent for up-to-date schedules and prices.
Editor’s suggestion: Catch an early morning bus from the Vinh Market Bus Station to the border, pass through immigration, hop on a Lak Xao-bound sawng taew, get a room, and go see the local sites, before moving heading out on The Loop the next morning.
Dong Ha, Quang Tri to Savannakhet
Cross the legendary DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that divided North and South Vietnam during the country’s Civil War, and follow the Savannakhet Historic Trail from Dong Ha in Quang Tri Province to The Mekong.
You can purchase a seat on an air-con bus for about $20 at Tam's DMZ Tours in Dong Ha for the 220-km, 7-hour mountainous trip to Savannakhet Town. The bus usually departs at 09:30, but the schedule can vary. The ticket includes a pickup at your hotel or guesthouse, cross-border transfer, and seat on the Lao bus. An international bus originating in Hue, stops at the Dong Ha Bus Terminal between 07:30 and 09:00 to pick up Savannakhet-bound passengers. The schedule varies from daily to 3 days a week.
History hounds can take their time, with busses stopping at top tourism sites. From the Dong Ha Bus Station, you can take the Lao Bao border bus and get off at Khe Sanh. A seat on the bus to the old Indochina War military-base runs about VND50,000 for the 2-hour drive. Then you can hop the Lao Bao bus for the remaining 20 km to the border. Those heading straight to the border from Dong Ha can catch the Lao Bao bus for around VND 70,000. After the 85-km, 2.5-hour drive and passing through Vietnam’s immigration checkpoint, vehicles are available to transfer you to the Lao border crossing at Dansavanh for around VND15,000.
Once in Laos you can wait for a bus going directly to Savannakhet Town, some 320 km away, that leaves every 2-3 hours from 07:00 until around noon. The ride takes 4-5 hours, and a seat on the bus costs less than LAK50,000. If you’re in a hurry, bargain with a sawng taew driver, who can speed you down the curvy, paved mountain road to town. You can also grab a sawng taew that departs frequently throughout the day to Sepon Town (negotiate the price), which is about a 45-km, 1-hour drive away. From here, you can catch a bus to Savannakhet Town, or stay in Sepon and start your expedition west and explore the Savannakhet Historic Trail.
Editor’s suggestion: Take your time and travel to Sepon and an adventure on the Savannakhet Historic Trail. But if you’re in a hurry, take the daily 7-hour international bus from Dong Ha.
Kontum to Attapeu/Pakse
Explorers out to discover Vietnam’s South-Central Highlands in Kontum can now make the remote mountain journey to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Attapeu.
A reliable daily bus for about $12 departs Kontum at around 08:15 for the 200-km, 6-7-hour mountain ride to Attapeu Town, and continues to Pakse. A ticket for those continuing to Pakse is around $20, and the drive takes close to 12 hours. An earlier bus to Attapeu at a similar price departs Kontum at 07:00, but this service is sometimes suspended, so check with the bus station or local travel agent/bus service to be sure it is operating. The busses wait at the Bo Y - Phou Keua border checkpoints for passengers, mostly Vietnamese, to go through immigration.
Adventurous backpackers can grab a local bus (VND30,000) from Kontum for the 72-km, 2-hour drive to Ngoc Hoi, where minibuses and motorbikes can take you the 20 km to the border for less than VND 20,000. After checking out of Vietnam, you’ll have to walk through No Man’s Land to Lao immigration. Then it’s time to get resourceful and be patient, as there is no scheduled transportation to Attapeu. A popular option is hitchhiking or paying a driver for the ride to town.
Editor’s suggestion: Unless you’re on a super tight budget, catch the scheduled bus from Kontum to Attapeu-Pakse.
Note: Prices and schedules are subject to change.