A long way to Vietnam: from Laos to Vinh

One of the most popular ways to get from Laos to Vietnam is taking a bus from Phonsavan to Vinh. It’s a long journey that can easily can get delayed by a few hours but there are few better alternatives and Vinh is well connected both with the north (Ninh Binh/Hanoi) and the centre (Hue, Hoi An, Da Nang) of Vietnam.

Why Vinh?

Our Laotian visas were about to expire and we had to get to Vietnam soon. As Nam Xoi- the nearest border crossing to Vieng Xai – was closed, we had to go back to Phonsavan and cross the border in Nam Can/Nong Haet. We had an option of extending the visa for a few days at the immigration office in Sam Neua but we had a limited time for re-visiting Vietnam and every day was precious.

Tourists boats on the river flowing through karst landscape near Ninh Binh in Vietnam.

Moving backwards was very inconvenient. We would lose one day just to get to Ninh Binh in Vietnam (where we were going to spend only 2 weeks). We also would have to go through the same long arduous journey we took just a few days before (hence paying for it twice).

Vieng Xai- Sam Neua

The journey from Vieng Xai to Sam Neua seemed a matter of luck. We heard a songthaew stops on the main road around 12-1 pm. At 11.30 am we sat down near the petrol station on the main road, waiting.

Soon we caught an empty tuk-tuk for just 30 000 kip. Apart from us, the driver picked up two girls from their house suggesting it must have been pre-arranged. We were lucky as the tuk- tuk took us straight to the guesthouse rather than dropping us at the Nathong bus station 4 km outside the town.

Phonsavan – Sam Neua

We had to stay in Sam Neua for a night in order to take the next morning minivan to Phonsavan. To our surprise, it was a half empty 20-seater. Just as we hoped the journey was smooth: most of the mud on the roads had already dried up, making the ride much quicker than the last time.

A mountain landscape in Laos, on the road from Sam Neua to Phonsavan

Taking the same route in reverse allowed us to enjoy the incredible views we couldn’t see when travelling after dusk. Having been to Phonsavan already, we didn’t lose time on finding the place to eat and sleep.

We called the Phonsavan bus station to confirm the bus would leave at 6am next day. The hotel manager warned us it could leave earlier if full. We couldn’t afford to take a risk: we booked a tuk-tuk at 4.45 am.

Phonsavan – Vinh (Vietnam)

The deserted Phonsavan station

We woke up at 4 am, too early for the market to start so we just had some bread and banana we bought the night before. There was no tuk -tuk at the arranged time but luckily the receptionist called the driver.

As soon as we arrived, we knew something was wrong. The ticket office was closed, the bus was nowhere to be seen and there were just three locals hanging out at the cold and dark station. We asked them if they were going to Vietnam- they weren’t. We got scared that there would be no bus at all.

At 6 am, the ticket office finally opened. We asked the English-speaking seller what about the bus to Vietnam. He was surprised it didn’t arrive and made a quick phone call.

Freezing and bursting

The bus turned up promptly, already half-filled. We wondered when and how did those people board. It was a large sleeper bus with AC cranked up so high that even with two blankets, fleece and socks I was still a bit chilly. I didn’t see much through the windows but judging from the pace and the amount of shaking, the road to the border was in a really bad shape.

Sayak illuminated with the blue light inside a Vietnamese sleeper bus , covered with a blanket

I needed to pee desperately and was glad to see that the bus stopped, clearly for a toilet break. I followed some men and one woman to a random shack in the village. Behind the workshop there was open space overlooking buildings and the rest of the village. The guys did their business quickly and the woman followed as soon as they were gone. Despite my condition, I could not bring myself to pee in the middle of the village. I was in agony for another 3 hours until eventually, we arrived at the border crossing.

Crossing the border -simple but lenghty

Both leaving Laos and entering Vietnam was straightforward and free of charge (in my case as a UK citizen). In Vietnam, I got a stamp in my passport with the information I could stay in the country for 15 days visa-free.

A stamp in a passport with the information a 15 days stay in Vietnam is permitted (visa free)

We were asked to scan our hand luggage and went through to Vietnamese side where we waited together with other passengers for the bus to pick us up. It was a very long wait. After some time the driver called us and told us to take our luggage through the scanner. The process of crossing the borders took us altogether 1.5 hours.

Entering Vietnam

As soon as we crossed the border, the condition of the road improved dramatically. The road was wide, had clearly marked lanes and barriers. No sign of landslides anywhere. Crossing the mountains suddenly became very easy.

I was getting seriously hungry when we finally stopped for a tasty buffet lunch with a few vegan options. We were very glad to be back in Vietnam.

The police check-up

Everything was going smoothly until we were stopped by the police, probably searching for the opium. The bus parked in front of the police station and everybody was ordered to get off. We waited around half an hour while the policemen were checking the bus thoroughly, climbing on the table to see inside the engine and even prying some bus parts open. Finally, we were free to go.

Dropped off on the highway

It was already dark when the bus stopped on the crossroads with a north-south highway, 18 km before Vinh. We were told to leave. If it was just two of us, we’d think it was a scam but a large group of Vietnamese got off as well.

The bus driver flagged down a small suburbian bus and told us to get on. When we pointed out that we paid for the bus all the way to Vinh, he was honest enough to pay the fare for all of us.

Half an hour later, we got off at the place which seemed closest to the hotel we booked on Agoda. We were surrounded by taxi and xe om drivers but after hours on the bus, chose to walk instead. At 8 pm, after 16 hours on the road, we finally reached the hotel (which although pricey, had a very high standard).

At a com binh dan (buffet eatery) round the corner we got an enormous bowl of rice, pickles, a huge plate of fried tofu, greens and two kinds of meat for Sayak. Even though we were ravenous, we couldn’t finish it all. The meal cost us peanuts. Welcome back to Vietnam!

A plate of boiled greens, a bowl of pickles and a large tray of tofu in a sauce - vegan options in Vietnam

PRACTICALITIES

How to get from Phonsavan to Vinh?
The bus from Phonsovan bus station to Vinh operates just a few days a week. Best check with your guesthouse or directly with the bus station as there is no agreement on the departure time (5-6 am roughly). If the bus doesn’t turn up- don’t panic, talk to the station ticket seller who’s going to assist you.
The journey to Vinh would take at least 12 hours.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of September 2018]
150 000 sleeper AC bus Phonsovan – Vinh
60 000 double en-suite room in Sam Neua
60 000 double en-suite room in Phonsavan
30 000 songthaew Vieng Xai to Sam Neua
30 000 private tuk-tuk from Phonsavan market to the bus station

Prices [in Vietnamese dong as of September 2018]
200 000 high standard AC en-suite room in a hotel in Vinh
50 000 buffet meal on the way from Phonsavan to Vinh
30 000 all-you-can-eat buffet meal at com binh dan in Vinh

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