Crossing borders and entering a new country can be a daunting prospect at the best of times, but with this one there was a lot to take into consideration. Firstly the Vietnam visa is the most costly visa in South East Asia, and you know us, we’re allergic to costly.
Secondly, at first glance it was looking like it was going to be super expensive to get to directly. Luckily the Hogan wan was on hand to figure out the cheapest way to get us there. What would we do without her?
The very first thing you will need is your entry visa. You CANNOT get a visa on arrival for Vietnam, so unfortunately this step will involve you parting with both time and money… the only two commodities we possess as travelers.
You can obtain your visa from your nearest Vietnamese embassy. For us that embassy was in Luang Prabang. There’s a whole lot of confusing info in the ether about the visas so let’s keep this as simple as possible:
30 day single entry visa –
•same day processing $80
•24hr processing $65
•48hrs processing $55
30 day multiple or 90 day single entry –
•same day processing $85
•24hr processing $80
•48hrs processing $75
90 day multiple entry visa –
•same day processing $100
•24hr processing $95
•48hrs processing $90
Note: These are the prices for overland border crossing only. If you enter the country via air you will still need to organise your visa ahead of time through one of the many online services available. The first time we went for example we used govietnamvisa and found them very good (but admittedly a little more expensive than we’d be able for now!)
From Luang Prabang to Udomxay:
There are two northern bus terminals in Luang Prabang, one near the airport and another around 6km further north. Unfortunately the only way to reach the terminal is by tuk tuk. Start walking up the main street in Luang Prabang (where the night market is held) and haggle with tuk tuk drivers. Some will quote you as much as 80,000 – 100,000 LAK (€8-10) but you can get one for as little as 30,000 – 40,000 LAK (€3-4) for two people if they try to charge more stand your ground or walk away. The tuk tuk will more than likely drop you at the closer terminal, don’t panic it’s supposed to look like a dodgy petrol station.
From here buses leave for Udomxay (Muang Xai) three times a day at 9.00am, 12.00pm and 4pm and cost 60,000 LAK (€6). We suggest you arrive at least an hour prior to departure as buses fill quickly, and you will need to take the free tuk tuk service onwards to the main north terminal to catch your bus. It’s about 10 minutes away. Listen out for the call and triple check with the driver before you board.
We recommend aiming for the 9am bus, so arriving no later than 8am. The journey takes hours with one stop in between, arriving to Udomxay’s southern bus terminal which is 5km from the center. Tuk Tuk drivers will try to charge 20,000 LAK (€2) per person, but honestly, we started walking and hitchhiked. We were picked up within 15 minutes.
From Udomxay to Dien Bien Phu:
Now you have three options,
You could stay the night and catch the direct bus to Dien Bien Phu that leaves the following morning (and every morning) at 8.30am for 95,000 LAK (€9.50). Travel time is minimum 7 hours with at least three stops.
The bus is small and there is no toilet on board. Should you go with this option, the Phouxai Guesthouse directly across from the northern bus station charges 50,000 LAK (€5) for a double room with shared bathroom. It has hot showers, Wi-Fi and a restaurant attached. The two other guesthouses on the terminal grounds are cheap but looked a little rough, even for us.
Second option is best if you would rather skip staying a night here (and we recommend you do) you can either, jump the bus onto Muang Khua for 40,000 LAK (€4). Travel time is 2-3 hours and buses run frequently throughout the day. This option may work out a little more expensive and you will have to stay the night in Khua as there is only one bus per day to Dien Bien Phu. However the village is more beautiful than Udomxay so if you are in no rush, it would be a better experience staying in Khua.
Note: Muang Khua bus station is 2km from town. Tuk tuks can take you from the station to the village for 10,000-20,000 LAK (€1 -€2). Vietnam bus leaves once a day at 11am from the main junction and takes 5 hours. They cost about 60,000 LAK (€6). We’d say you best off to ask your guesthouse or locals for concrete times and info.
The third option is to head straight to the northern terminal when you arrive in Udomxay and ask around or keep an eye out for buses to Dien Bien Phu. We noticed there were smaller local buses with Dien Bien Phu displayed on the side stopping in and outside the bus terminal but failed to find out the timetable or price due to our lack of Lao language skills.
One bus in particular was travelling from Luang Prabang. We are not 100% how much these smaller buses cost but noticed one pull up at 12.30pm and another around 2.30/3pm. We assume no more than 95,000 LAK (€9.50), but would expect them to be cheaper.
The actual border crossing itself is a super simple affair. The bus stops at immigration in Phongsaly where everyone gets off to stamp out and the bus waits for you outside. Once you’re stamped and everyone is back on the bus it’s onward we go.
About 10 minutes after re-boarding the bus you will arrive at Vietnam immigration for your inbound stamp. Queue up, get stamped and grab your gear from the bus. You and your bags will come off the bus this time for a quick search and x-ray before being re-loaded and onward to Dien Bien Phu.
The whole process took us no longer than 20 minutes. Piece of cake.
Note: If you are departing Laos on a weekend or any day after 4pm there is a 10,000 LAK (€1) departure fee you will need to pay at immigration.
From Dien Bien Phu (there’s not really a whole lot to do here) we had decided we would head for Sapa so we caught a sleeper bus to Lo Cai (and told the driver to let us off in Sapa). The bus left at 6.30pm getting us in to Sapa at 4.30am and cost 250,000 VND (€9.40).
Quick sidebar here, the taxi drivers and scammers will swarm the bus as soon as it pulls in. Ignore them ALL and only take advice or give money to people behind the counter. You’re in bandit country now and they’re notorious for a scam. To read about the most common scams perpetrated on tourists in Vietnam read here.
Note: if you couldn’t be arsed doing all the chopping and changing you could take a direct bus from Luang Prabang to Vietnam. They run once a day, leaving between 5.30/6pm. The journey can take over 24 hours (we’ve heard horror stories of it taking up to 36!). Buses range in price from 250,000 LAK (€25) to Vinh, 350,000 LAK (€35) to Hanoi and 420,000 LAK (€42) to Hue. Pop into any tour agency or book directly through your guesthouse, but where’s the fun in that?
So there you have it ungraceful wanderers, forward planners and lunchtime dreamers. We hope this blog was somewhat informative. As always feel free to comment, question or criticise, but do get in touch!
Happy Travels TUG x