From Hanoi to Luang Prabang: A 26 Hour Plus Journey

How should I get to Luang Prabang? I wrestled with this question from the moment I decided that it would be my first stop in Laos.

On the one hand, I could fly from Hanoi and on the other hand I could take the bus. The pros and cons for each were pretty simple.

Flying would only take one hour but would cost $160-$200.

Taking the bus would take 24-32 hours on notoriously bad mountain roads through a sketchy international border but would cost less than $50.

Of course I opted to take the bus for ~$43. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.

Below is a running diary from the journey. While the trip is chock full of gorgeous scenery of green Laotian countryside and mountains (we traveled through Vietnam during the night so i cant speak to the scenery during that part of the journey), it is a very, very long trip.

Running commentary from the trip

5:15 pm (Day 1) – I head to the office of the travel agent where I booked my ticket. I quickly brush my teeth and check email for the last time before my trip.

5:30 pm (Day 1) – a motorbike comes to pick me up. I hop on the backseat with my things as it pours outside. It is a quick trip to another travel agent’s office to wait for a minibus to the bus station.

5:35 pm (Day 1) – I board the minibus to the bus station. Thankfully it is filled with other westerners, including more Americans than I have seen my entire trip.

6:08 pm (Day 1) – the minibus stops inside of what appears to be a bomb shelter. At least we’re safe from the typhoon-like conditions outside.

6:30 pm (Day 1) – after collecting our tickets at the bus station, we board the bus. It is a sleeper bus with two rows of side by side beds (meaning you sleep right next to another passenger). I end up next to a Japanese hippie reading Catcher in the Rye.

6:38 pm (Day 1) – the bus departs.

7:30 pm (Day 1) – I fall asleep after taking a sleeping pill.

8:10 pm (Day 1) – we make a bathroom stop amidst howling winds outside. There are no lights in the bathroom. I lend my headlamp to some girls on the bus so they don’t trip over themselves on the toilet.

8:25 pm (Day 1) – back to sleep.

6:30 am (Day 2) – wake up.

7:00 am (Day 2) – we get off the bus at the border. I discover that in the middle of the night, our bags had been moved from underneath the bus onto the bus. As a result, my shoes have been buried amidst all the luggage. I search for ten minutes before finally finding my shoes as one the bus employees shouts at me in indecipherable Vietnamese.

8:00 am (Day 2) – I finally get my exit stamp on the Vietnamese side of the border. I walk about 300 meters to the Laos side of the border.

8:58 am (Day 2) – I get my Laos visa for $35 plus a $1 “working hours” service fee

9:17 am (Day 2) – bus leaves the border.

12:40 pm (Day 2) – we stop in Phonsavan. I head to an ATM to pick up some Kip.

1:22 pm (Day 2) – bus leaves Phonsavan. Suddenly the speakers start loudly playing Southeast Asian love ballads and pop songs.

2:16 pm (Day 2) – bus comes to a sudden stop to avoid hitting a cluster of cows in the middle of the road.

4:25 pm (Day 2) – we stop at the side of the road for a bathroom break. Full disclosure: by this point my stomach is hurting pretty badly and I’m desperate to go to the bathroom. I can’t wait any longer, even if the side of the road is less than ideal. So I grab the toilet paper from my bag (which I carry for emergencies like this one) and head outside, looking for some secluded space. Unfortunately, most of the area is restricted by barbed wire. As I become even more desperate, I spot a small trail 100 meters from the bus, which I take into a semi-shielded area of brush. I quickly do my business, finishing up right as the bus gets set to leave. I feel much better even if I’m somewhat ashamed at what I have just done. This is what I would consider a pretty bad scenario on a long bus ride.

4:38 pm (Day 2) – sight of a double rainbow over the mountains sets the bus a twitter. I’m just glad my stomach doesn’t hurt anymore.

7:55 pm (Day 2) – bus arrives in Luang Prabang, 25.5 hours after leaving Hanoi and 26.5 hours after I was picked up.

All in all, the trip could have been worse. But man it was long. I will not be doing that again for quite some time. But at least I will always have this blog post.

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12 Responses to From Hanoi to Luang Prabang: A 26 Hour Plus Journey

  1. josh says:

    Wow… you’re a brave man! That will certainly be a memorable experience. Stay safe Bro.

  2. Best parts of the post: I end up next to a Japanese hippie reading Cather in the Rye. $1 “working hours” service fee and bus comes to a sudden stop to avoid hitting a cluster of cows in the middle of the road. Priceless.

    I still don’t know how you’re figuring out where to go or what to do…is it all word of mouth and referrals? wikitravel? I’m curious about that part when you have the entire country and unlimited time…I love my LP and Rick Steve’s, but what are you doing?

    • msus1 says:

      Thanks Stu. Combination of online guides, LP and largely word of mouth. I’m just piecing it all together step by step. I wish I was more organized.

  3. 4feet2mouths says:

    Thanks for the info! We are about to do this trip tomorrow…

  4. GC says:

    Great info, thanks! Will be taking this bus next week, doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and avoid your bush though…

  5. Casper says:

    Hi there, finally I found a brief of this route.

    I’m planning heading to lua prabang fom Hanoi. Agent in Hanoi give me different and different answer. Perhaps you could advise

    1- which agent you engage in, which bus company
    2- sleeping bus does have toilet
    3- does the bus provide any power socket to charge lectonic device

    Looking your reply soon. I have less than 5 day to find. I’m currently in Hanoi. Thanks much

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  7. Gemma Ridley says:

    Wondering which bus company you used or where you booked the bus?

    It seems a lot less worse than others I’ve heard of

    • msus1 says:

      I really can’t remember. I bought it from a travel company in Hanoi that gave me the lowest price after asking around.

      However, I do remember that we did leave from a bus station somewhere in the city where you could buy tickets that were cheaper than what I paid. I don’t know the station but if you ask around you can go there yourself to get the cheapest ticket as I imagine only one bus company actually plies this route.

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