It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a traveller undertaking a tortuously long bus journey must be in want of a few marbles and in possession of a good deal of patience and humour.
As promised, we are picked up at 5pm at our guesthouse. Although picked up is perhaps not the right phrase as we’re led away on foot along with a troop of Korean tourists like a brood of chicks through the narrow lanes of Hanoi and deposited on the side of a street.
Half an hour of bewilderment passes by before a minibus finally arrives to collect us. The minibus then proceeds to meander for an hour through sludge-like Hanoi traffic before depositing the lot of us near something resembling a bus station.
And then the script gets a bit strange. The folks heading to Luang Prabang are led away and those heading to Ventiane are told to get back on the same minibus they had just stepped off. But rather than taking us to the bus, we are driven to some sort of residential area with high-rise apartments and a few lonely cafes and once again asked to wait by the side of the road. It’s now 7:00 pm. Two hours in and we’re still in Hanoi.
Ok I say to myself. Patience. Humour.
Our tourist hearder now tells us that the bus will be here at 7:30 pm. We drop our bags on the pavement and wait. And wait. And wait.
Every few minutes or so he makes a phone call, presumably to check on the status of the bus. He bats away questions about the bus with vague assurances that avoid any pronouncements of timing. “Yes. Yes. Bus coming.”
I assure myself, “This is just how it goes here. You’re now a world traveller. Just roll with it.”
This is until 7:45 pm rolls along and after another phone call he gets on his motorbike and rides away. “Wait here. I come back.”
What? Seriously? Now I’m convinced we just paid US$35 each to be dumped at the side of some random road. Out goes patience, all I have left to cling to is humour. “This will be funny in hindsight right? Right?”
Pete looks up from his ever engrossing iPhone when I tell him we’ve been ditched and very helpfully remarks, “well at least he didn’t leave us at the Laos border.” Silver linings.
As no one from the group seems to be moving from our spot on the pavement, we decide to wait and see if indeed he comes back. We’re not sure how long to wait but then we really don’t have anywhere else to go so we try to roll with it.
8:00 pm and miracle of miracles, our tourist hearder rounds the bend on his motorcycle shouting triumphantly “Bus! Here bus!”
A gleaming beautiful sight of an orange sleeper bus follows behind him and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Of course, as Pete helpfully reminded me, there is still the Laos border…
We board the bus and settle in for a long night. Vietnamese sleeper buses should really be called sleep seeking buses because while everyone on board attempts to sleep, it is seldomly achieved. The potent mixture of jostling, honking, pumping dance music, and not quite 180 degree narrow berths conspires to keep good old sandman at bay.
After a mercifully uneventful overnight bus journey we arrive at the Laos border around 5 am and the bus parks for two hours of jostle and noise free sleep as we wait for the border to open.
At 7 am we are waken to the driver’s shouts: “Border! Border!”
We drag ourselves out of our berths and descend into a mountainous landscape shrouded in mist. It looks like a scene straight out of a spy movie. This is how James Bond would sneak across borders; silently concealed to avoid sniper fire from watch towers.
Thankfully, despite my more colourful musings, our crossing is drama free. After 1.5 hrs of stamps, fees and forms, we’re officially in Laos.
Back on the bus we descend from the lush green mountains through narrow winding roads. We’re soon reminded of the potential dangers as we carefully squeeze pass an overturned truck; it’s cargo spilled down the slope.
As we reach lower ground the temperature rises and we’re greeted with scenes of Laotian country life. The sight of homes borne high on stilts, farmers slowly tilling rice fields, and cows grazing on grass and brush reminds me of my beloved Cambodia. These are the rewards of overland travel.
The hours roll by with no food stop in sight so we make do on our supply of vegetable crackers which don’t quite satisfy but keep our hunger in check. It’s 2:30 pm, the scene outside becomes more urban and we pull into a bus station. To our surprise, the bus driver shouts “Vientiane. Vientiane.” We’ve arrived 4 hours ahead of schedule!
We eagerly pick up our tired and hungry bodies and leave our purgatory on wheels behind, emerging into the sunshine ready for our next adventure.
How to travel overland from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos
The bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane has been dubbed the “Bus from Hell” by travellers before us. However, as you can see from our experience above, road conditions and travel times have improved considerably. While the ride is not ‘comfortable’ by any means, it’s not any worse than any other long overnight bus journey. If you’re a traveller short of funds or looking for a more authentic overland experience than flying, take the bus. It’s really not that bad.
Every travel agent and guesthouse in Hanoi will book a ticket on the bus for you. We paid US$35 each and this seems to be the standard rate reported online by others. The great folks at seat 61 have reliable information regarding the bus going either way. Although, as you can see from our experience, the bit about being taken to the bus station to board the bus is not the route we were taken.
The bus will drop you off at the southern bus station in Vientiane. From there you can take your own tuk tuk or a shared tuk tuk into town, the rate is 10,000 Kip to 15,000 Kip per person and they will drop you off at the day market, from where it is a reasonable walk to anything in the city centre.