Journey into Vietnam – Land border crossing from Laos to Sa Pa

Land travel
Land border crossing gives one a true picture of local life from the closest proximity. While it’s the most economical way to travel, it’s also a true experience of the rugged road travel. It will break all the travel fancy of having the wind in your hair, the feel of the terrain or being fascinated (as a kid) by how the poles and the milestones travel in the opposite direction! Well, land travel in a public transportation is more than just that. Here is a detailed account of my road travel from Laos (Luang Prabang) into Vietnam (Sa Pa).

My long narrative (for important information please scroll down)

We left the hostel at Luang Prabang (Laos) at 5:40 am. The bus station was less than 10 minutes away. There was a 22 seat mini bus parked, we kept our bags in the very limited space at the back of the bus. And I wondered how 22 bags would be accommodated in that little space. Only to see later, bags were placed all around and under seats with no space left empty.


Land travel bus to DBP

Inside view of the mini-bus

We carried (Baguette sandwich) breakfast from a vendor outside the station, picked up courage and sat down in the space meant for the next 12 hours. The bus left Luang Prabang as per schedule at 7 am. And it wasn’t air-conditioned unlike other mini buses. The leg space was so little that there was no point having reclining seats. And I thought ‘only someone who is heartless could recline their seats back’. Well, we cared only about the 2 local girls seated ahead of us.


After our request (read begging) they did un-reclined their seats. But that lasted only until the treacherous journey made them heartless again! After a couple of hours, back came the seats, into our knees. But we had to adjust too, because they did not have leg space at all owing to their own big bags kept under their feet.


The 12 hour journey in spite of 2 to 3 stops felt like the longest journey ever. Instead of getting used to the lack of space, I felt as though the space got smaller and it got more difficult with each passing hour. The roads got worse and more and more locals were taken in with big irregular sacks and boxes stuffed all around us. And to accommodate more people, out came the collapsible middle seats and people sat cramped in the center walkway! Everyone was so close that I developed claustrophobia! And now I realize why this land journey is called a hells journey.

We reached Odumxay at 11:30 am, and the driver and his helper said something, not sure if it was in Lao or Vietnamese. The bus stopped for an hour here and we realized that this was supposed to be the lunch stop only after leaving. Well, thanks to our understanding of the language!

We reached Muang Khua around 3 pm and Lao exit point at 5 pm. We had to pay overtime of
10000 kip. I had read in other blogs that this was a bribe. So I questioned them if this was an
official amount. And the officer was polite enough to show a notice sealed and signed by immigration which said 10000 kip overtime for after-hours and weekend work. So please note that it’s an official amount and not bribe.

Vietnam entry gate is quite a distance from the Lao exit (unlike the Thai Lao border which we crossed earlier this week). Reached Vietnam entry gate at 5:15 pm and they stamped without any overtime fee. The work here was quick, there was no arrival card concept. They just gave an entry stamp on the passport. We did not have to change buses anywhere. The mini bus would drop us and then pick us up ahead after the checkpoints.

Dien Bien Phu (DBP) is around 31 km from the checkpoint. But due to the bad roads we reached post sunset, around 7 pm. We were dropped off at the opposite side, a little away from the DBP bus station. We walked back to the bus stop to buy tickets to Sa Pa for the next day morning. We bought the ticket using USD as there weren’t any money exchange or ATM around.

Post that we made an effort to ask for the hotel directions to figure if we could walk down. It took us a really long time to conclude that we were bad with sign language. I wished that I had learnt some basic phrases before entering Vietnam. It was very tough to make them understand our queries alone, forget figuring out what the response was. And we could not figure if they were scolding us or trying to help.

Finally, one local man asked us to go with him to his house so that his son could help us. Sensing our obvious discomfort with that offer, he had his son come over to the bus stop. Later the boy told us that his dad wanted him to talk to tourists to practice his English. He said ‘I will help you and in return you teach English’. Only to realize that we were leaving in a day, when we handed him the booking sheet for the address. He fought with his dad in Vietnamese and there were many other onlookers who joined into their conversation. We assumed he was upset with his father to not have checked all details before offering to help us. 

Everyone appeared friendly but it felt like a fish market because we did not understand what they spoke. They all had a loud tone and I could not figure if they were fighting or just conversing! So we told them ‘we take the taxi OK?!’ The boy was relieved and said OK and called a taxi for us. Solved our problem too. The school boy said that he would come over to the hotel later after dinner time to learn some English. We were glad to be of some help since it was weeks since we did any purposeful work. The boy did not show up later though, he must have changed his mind.

We asked the taxi guy to take us to a money changer first and then to our hotel. The hotel room was clean and had comfortable beds and was a welcome change from the hostel dorms. We ordered dinner at the hotel itself, requesting them to make vegetarian food. I downloaded a learn Vietnamese app on the phone and then played the app directly to the staff to explain vegetarian food. We played an Chai (Vegetarian), Rau (Vegetables), No Thit (No Meat). But guess what? Even though the app may have had translations for ‘I am a Vegetarian’ and ‘Do you have Vegetarian dishes’, this was a revelation for them.

It took us 2 phone calls to the English-speaking owner to explain what we wanted to the hotel staff. We had successfully ordered vegetable fried rice and Steamed rice with Veggies.
After a short wait, we got pork fried rice with vegetables and beef curry with steamed rice.

After another attempt at explaining that we wanted only vegetables, they gave plain colored rice for fried rice and removed beef from the curry and served it back. Taste wise it wasn’t edible food but we had no option. So we ate what we got, paying a one lakh dongs for the so-called vegetarian food. Oh boy, was I already missing Thai and Lao street food!


Day 2 of the Land journey

We checked out next morning and paid lakhs of dongs for the room and food. We had to calm our minds and explain that this was not really lakhs for us, it’s just the dongs! Calculating the returned change, in every new country was an extra effort for the first few times. But here it was clearly a bigger task for the hotel staff than for us. We had to spend a good 5 minutes explaining why we should be returned more change. Finally we took the calculator and showed them the numbers on it. Showing numbers on a calculator is something that worked well all through Vietnam. We took a taxi to the bus station. There were was no pick up unlike other places, as it was not a private bus (so I assume). It was a mini bus again but much more spacious and it was only 8 to 9 hours of journey time.

At the bus station we saw our co-travelers from the previous day, a European couple. And like us, they were as lost and dedicated to getting over with this two-day split travel. We conversed only in smiles and few short sentences. Talk about how arduous times can create unfriendly people! I coincidentally met them after a few weeks in Cambodia and spoke for hours as if we were long-lost friends. So our connection here (during the 2 days grueling journey) did not really need a conversation. One observation though is that people find you more approachable when you are alone. In groups, you do not make many friends. 


Land travel

View from the Bus from DBP to Sa Pa

Today the roads were much better and the terrain views were gratifying. At our first stop en-route Sa Pa, I tasted Vietnamese coffee and totally fell in love with it. It smelled like vanilla flavored coffee and the taste of condensed milk mixed with it made it very sweet. Sweetness from the condensed milk and the strong flavor of the coffee was a new rare combination for my taste buds.




Land travel Vietnamese Food

Vietnamese food

Next stop was for lunch at a small local restaurant, attached to a house. We again used the app to show that we needed vegetarian food. Unlike our Dien Bien Phu experience, the local Vietnamese food here had more vegetarian stuff. There were a lot of sides, mostly greens and steamed rice. And the meat was anyway served separately. I enjoyed my first Vietnamese meal (not counting the disastrous Dien Bien Phu meal), with chopsticks again ! 🙂
I stuffed myself with so much food that I saw the beautiful terrain along our route, in my dreams! Simply put, I dozed off. We reached Sa Pa at 3 pm including the stops for lunch and loo breaks.


Important Points

1. Don't go zero on the Lao currency, you will need this for Lao overtime fee at the exit gate 
if you reach after 5 pm or if it's a weekend. Carry 10000 Kips for the overtime fee and some 
amount for food and restroom breaks (they are mostly paid toilets). 
2. Carry some VND as there are no money exchanges close to the Dien Bien Phu (DBP) 
bus stop. 
3. There are lots of small hotels right outside the bus stand. If you are just breaking your 
journey and plan to stay in DBP only for one night then don't bother to pre-book, just walk in to 
any of the hotels. 
4. Learn a few common Vietnamese phrases as the % of English speakers here drops to lesser 
than that of Thailand or Laos. 
5. Few hotels accept USD payment, check with them before hand if you have booked in advance. 
6. Tickets to Sapa cost 185000 VND or 10 USD if you pay in dollars.  
While they do accept USD at the ticket counter, you will be at profit if you pay in dongs rather 
than USD.
7. Cost of my Land travel was 30 USD. This includes the stay at DBP, land travel cost from Luang 
Prabang to DBP and then to Sapa, all meals for 2 days.

Gyan Gain

1. People behave their worst selves in treacherous times or even in the smallest of the 
discomforts. And after a similar experience, its easier to discount their behavior. However 
after a repeated experience, it should get normal and the best selves should be at play (ideally)!
2. When pain and discomfort is part of a journey, the most delightful moment is not when you
see the destination but the moment when the journey is over and you realize that the 
pain ceases to exist. 

Itinerary: 2 days travel with overnight stay at Dien Bien Phu
Stayed at: Hong Ky Boutique Hotel
Brief review: The place is economical and clean. Food can be avoided at the in-house restaurant. 
Stay here only if you are planning to sight see in DBP. If you are just there to break your journey
then there are many cheaper options near the Bus stop. 

Loop: Laos -> Land travel -> Sa Pa -> Ha Noi -> Ha Long Bay -> Phong Nha-Ke Bang -> 
Hoi An -> Ho Chi Minh
Duration : 15 days. Refer to Review of Vietnam to create your itinerary.

Country Loop: North Thailand -> Laos -> Vietnam -> Cambodia -> Myanmar -> Malaysia 
-> Philippines -> South Thailand


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