When we were in Sapa, with an almost expired visa, we had to go into Laos so we wouldn’t overstay our visa. We hesitated a lot what the best option could be, but knowing that we’re on a budget, we opted to take the bus journey to Muang Khua in Laos. There are a lot of horror stories about the bus ride on the internet that scared us. But it seems that a lot of them are outdated. Here you’ll find our thoughts and up-to-date facts about this 24-hour journey.
* UPDATED OCTOBER 2017
For a lot of backpackers, the last stop of their Vietnam trip is Sapa and many of them want to go to Laos afterward. There are multiple ways of getting into Laos from Northern Vietnam. Options range from low-budget (by bus) to expensive (by plane). Making the journey by air will be the easiest and most comfortable way to travel from Vietnam to Laos. Unless when you’re in Sapa and need to take the night train back to Hanoi. By doing this, it gets quickly very expensive.
SLEEPER BUS OR DAY BUS?
Luckily, there is also a budget-friendly option! You can take a bus from Sapa towards Laos, a journey of more than 400km. There are two options to choose from. There’s a sleeper bus that leaves from Sapa town at 7 pm. This bus will arrive at the bus station of Dien Bien Phu early in the morning at 5 am. Just in time to be transferred to a minibus that connects Vietnam and Laos. Or you can take a daytime bus that leaves from the center of Sapa at 7.30 am. This bus will arrive in Dien Bien Phu in the afternoon. The bus towards Laos leaves the next day in the morning, so you’ll need to stay a night in a guesthouse close to the bus station.
Both options have their pros and cons. The journey offers some of the most magnificent views of North Vietnam, with high mountains and green rice terraces in the valleys. You won’t see anything of this when you’ll be taking the sleeper bus. This option will be -most likely- booked as a package, including your transfer in Dien Bien Phu, which will be more expensive when taking the regular day bus and booking your transfer individually. We heard that it’s almost impossible to get some sleep on the sleeper bus because of the ongoing turns and hairpin bends along the mountain roads. Plus, there are more people than seats, so some people have to sleep in the bus aisle. The daytime bus will get you a good night rest in Dien Bien Phu and excellent views, but there is the chance that it will be more cramped and uncomfortable.
Prices for both buses will vary a lot. Ask around in Sapa town at the tour operators and your place of stay. Prices for the sleeper bus and transfer will be $22 – $26, and daytime buses will be $13 – $20.
SAPA – DIEN BIEN PHU
It was a tough decision, but eventually, we chose to take the daytime bus. Our hotel, Heart Of Sapa (which we recommend to everyone), fixed our bus for $14/person with pick-up at the hotel. Unfortunately, the ‘normal’ minibus was already fully booked. This minibus is more focused on tourists apparently and is the most comfortable one. However, there was one other minibus that was leaving at 8 am. But they warned us that it’d be full of locals, chickens, and pigs. We had the lowest expectation we could have to make the best out of it. Because of this, we wanted to do it even more, to experience how the locals do it.
The minibus picked us up at the hotel at 8 am and brought us in less than 2 hours to Lai Chau, where we transferred to the local bus. The hotel made sure that we both had seats on the bus for the whole journey. The bus, with its 21 seats, filled up quickly after stopping a couple of times until the bus was packed with 29 people. Women sitting together in the front, men in the aisle on big rice bags. And, the hotel was right, there were four chickens and a pig in the back. Let’s say it was an interesting journey. But, it was way better than expected! We had just enough space for our legs, and the bus stopped multiple times so we could stretch them regularly and eat some lunch.
Travel Tip: Don’t drink or eat too much, especially if you’re a girl. Take a plastic bag because these endless bending roads can make you sick.
We arrived in Điện Biên Phủ at 4 pm. We immediately went to the ticket booth to buy our tickets to Muang Khua (Laos). Tickets are sold at the bus station for 115.000 Dong, which is much cheaper than in the package of the sleeper bus. It’s also possible to book tickets directly to Luang Prabang or Oudomxay. This bus leaves the next day at 5.30 am. We went left out of the bus station and found a cheap and clean guesthouse right around the corner for $10/night (book here).
Travel Tip: Make sure to book the bus to Laos the day before!
DIEN BIEN PHU – MUANG KHUA
After a good night sleep, we went to the bus station at 5 am. The bus was already there, and the backseats were already full of big rice bags and other boxes. The bus wasn’t full at all, and we left the bus station on time half-filled. The journey towards the border was pleasant, with a few stops in between to pick up some more people and bags until we arrived at the border at 7.30 am. The Vietnam border is the best place to exchange your Dong into Kip, with a decent exchange rate at the time of writing. The exit procedure went smoothly, and after a short drive, we were already at the border of Laos.
The border procedure here is really straightforward. Window 1 is to get your visa application forms, once they are filled in, give the papers back and pay for your visa (between $30-$42, depending on your nationality, usually $35) and 10.000 Kip as processing fee. At window 2, you have to pay $2 or 16.000 Kip for tourist fee. At window 3, you get an extra stamp, and you need to pay an extra 20.000 Kip (don’t ask us why). Finally, at window 4, you get a health check at the ‘low price’ of 5.000 Kip.
Update October 2017:
There have been some reports that Vietnamese e-visas are not getting accepted at this border checkpoint. If you are in the possession of this e-visa, do not take this border crossing as you will get send away and need to find another way back to Điện Biên Phủ. Get the list of checkpoints where e-visas are accepted here.
Travel Tip: Don’t forget a passport photo. If you do, it’s possible to take pictures at a fee of $5 at the border.
After the border, the travelers that go to Luang Prabang or Oudomxay need to go on another bus. From the border, it’s another 2-3 hours until Muang Khua.
The bus journey from Sapa to Laos is not for everyone, but if you’re in for some kind of adventure and don’t mind to sit between the locals in a small minivan, it isn’t as bad as you think. We had a good time, and the journey was way better than expected. Take the day bus from Sapa, and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the mountains and valleys.