Getting to Laos – An epic journey from Hanoi to Vientiane

We had our hotel book a bus ticket for us in Hanoi.  Depending on who you asked or what you read, the journey to Vientiane, Laos would be somewhere between 24 and 31 hours.

“Is this a sleeper bus?”

“Yes, yes, sleep!”

At 5pm, a man on a motorbike showed up at our hotel and beckoned us to follow him.  “Laos?  You come.”  We picked up our bags and followed this man through the streets of Hanoi, where he was literally corralling a group of backpackers on the side of the road.  He pointed at us, pointed at the group, then took off to go wrangle up some more.

Once all of the passengers had been collected, we boarded a small van.  Naturally, there were more people than there were seats on this van, so some of the passengers had to stand/hunch as the van departed.  At this point, we all started joking that this would be the bus to Vientiane.

Luckily for us, and especially for the people standing, the van dropped us at the bus station after a short drive out of the city where we were herded to the desk to collect our tickets.

Our bus was meant to depart at 7pm but it was more like 7:30 or 8.  Once we located the sleeper bus, we found that the storage areas under the bus (where they normally put your bags) was full of goods being sent to Laos.  It is not uncommon for transportation buses to be transporting more than just people, but we had never seen it as packed as this.  In fact, it seemed like transporting people was far from a main priority for the people running this bus.

They started barking at the tourists in Vietnamese and eventually started shouting and pointing, “Bag! Bag!”  We fell in line and handed them our bags and watched them stack our bags up in the aisles of the bus.  Once all of our packs were on board, the bus driver snapped at us again and motioned for us to get out of the way, as they let all of the locals board the bus first.

Once the locals were comfortably seated (all in the front of the bus, by the way) we were nastily ordered to the back of the bus, where we had to climb over and on top of each other’s bags to get to our seats.  At first we were anxious to find that we had been stuck in the very back of the bus, where the seats are all smashed up against each other with about 2 feet of space between the bottom and top rows.  It was very similar to sharing a twin bed with 2 other people,  uncomfortably intimate and squished.  The silver lining was that the seats in the very back of the bus recline all the way so that you can actually lay flat, which ended up making up for the lack of space.

We actually ended up sleeping better on this bus than any of the previous sleeper buses we had taken.  At around 5 or 6am we arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border where we had to wait for the office to open at 7am.

We exited the bus and lined up at the window to get stamped out of Vietnam before we could get our Laotian visas.  After paying a “stamping fee” of $1, we then had to walk 2km to the Laotian side to get our visas processed.  After filling out our applications and waiting around for several hours, we finally got our visas and officially begun our journey through Laos!

We hopped back on the bus once everyone had gotten through the border crossing and made our way to the capital city of Vientiane.  We were thrilled when we arrived by 3pm–a much shorter journey than expected!  When we got off the bus, instead of the usual cluster of people offering taxis and hotels, we were approached by just one man offering all of us a tuk tuk ride (an auto rickshaw used like taxis, instead of cars) into town for 20,000 kip each.  We had done our research before arriving in Laos and had read that the ride should really only be 10-15k each, so we and an Israeli couple we had met decided to pass and try to find something else.  20 meters away from the bus stop, another tuk tuk driver offered us a ride for 15k each so we decided to take that instead.

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We walked around the center city area looking for a cheap room and found one near the river for about $9/night.  It was literally a box with a really crappy bed in it and communal bathrooms down the hall, but it was the cheapest we could find, so we went for it.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering around Vientiane, checking out the modest night market and walking along the river.  Despite being the largest city in the country, it didn’t take long to realize that Laos was going to be much different than Vietnam.  The streets were really open and quiet despite being a Friday night, and our favorite part was that no one was hustling us to buy anything on the street.

We decided to call it a night pretty early since we had been traveling so long, and we were excited to get an early start to our exploration of Vientiane!