Sure, there is a flight that only takes an hour and a half from Hanoi to Vientiane. Yes, it is a much faster and comfortable option. Did we take it? No, no we did not. The main reason boils down to price. The flight is between $150-$200 per person and the bus is more like $40. We are usually up for an adventure, anyway. An adventure, we did find.
As we waited at the tour office in Hanoi for our transportation to take us to our bus, we quickly downed our last Vietnamese meal from Blue Butterfly. One of the meals spilled completely into the takeaway bag, but we ate it anyway. Our immune systems have been strengthening the longer we are in Asia and that food was far too good to waste. Our pickup service arrived – a single man with a single motorbike. We automatically thought he would shuttle us one by one to the bus because that often happened; however, he took off on the motorbike and we were instructed to follow him. We started racing through the streets, trying to keep an eye on him. What’s up with Vietnamese guides quickly escaping the view of their customers? We were lead to another tour office where we exchanged some money to get US dollars for the Laos border and then told to continue following the motorbike man. We followed him as we stopped at a new hostel every few minutes to “pick-up” a new backpacker. We ended up being about eight backpackers walking through the streets, trying to keep pace with the man on a motorbike. I don’t think I stopped laughing the entire time because I knew we all must look ridiculous rushing along on foot with backpacks, trying to keep up with a man driving a vehicle.
Finally, we were brought to a random street corner where we waited for 10-15 minutes for our bus. The bus that picked us up was a regular, old, non-sleeper bus driven by the most bad-ass looking Vietnamese guy we ever saw. His head was shaved, he was jacked, and he wore gold jewelry. Enough said. John was convinced this would be our bus to Laos and I started to mentally prepare myself in case that was true. About 45 minutes went by and we were still on this small bus with no signs of getting off. We stopped on the side of the road a few minutes later and I was trying to decide if we had broken down or if we were part of a scam. Neither ended up being true. Instead, the motorbike man we had been chasing in Hanoi popped out of nowhere and we were told to again follow him to our bus. It was funny when we were following him in the small streets of Hanoi, but now it was downright scary. We had to cross two four lane highways in the middle of heavy Vietnamese traffic. We did our best to stay alive in this human version of Frogger and ended up safely on the other side. We hoped we would find a sleeper bus waiting for us, but we actually found a semi-deserted parking lot with lots of mud, puddles, and mosquitos. We all stood around in the mud, wondering why we were in the middle of nowhere and if a bus was actually coming. As darkness fell, we all took turns using the bathroom (a.k.a. mud puddles) in the surrounding area. We were extremely relieved when we saw headlights approaching and our sleeper bus pulled in to pick us up. John and I have developed a sleeper bus routine where one of us puts the backpacks under the bus and the other gets on the bus to grab decent seats. We did this, but were immediately shuffled to the very back of the bus where the foreigners had to go. It seemed as though all the locals from Vietnam and Laos were picked up at the bus station in Hanoi to get decent seats and all the foreigners were sent further out of the city so that they would be forced to squeeze together in the back for the journey. The bus had five connected seats in the very back and we ended up grabbing a window seat and the seat that allowed our feet to stretch out into the aisle. It wasn’t too bad, much better than the other three people next to us that couldn’t get out without climbing over one of us. The bus driver was also extremely OCD about cleanliness and even stopped the bus a few minutes after the foreigners got on to clean the aisles.
We spent the evening on the bus trying to drown out the incredibly loud Laos music videos on the communal TV by watching movies on our laptop. The road was windy and mountainous, so it was nearly impossible to avoid steam rolling the people next to us as we tried to sleep. We still slept OK until 6am when we arrived at the Laos border. The border didn’t actually open until 7am, so we milled around looking at the jungly Laos mountains in front of us. It was a bit misty outside, so it added to a sort of cool, eerie feeling. Once we got stamped out of Vietnam, we had to walk about a kilometer to the Laos visa office. I have no idea who owns that land in between the two borders, but at least the early morning hike provided some good views. We spent the walk talking to a really friendly Laos guy who was super excited to practice his English. It was our first taste of the friendly country we were about to enter!
The visa office was uneventful, but pleasant. The lady who helped us was incredibly nice and smiled the entire time. We returned to our bus, visas in hand, ready to explore a very new country!
We had been told the bus trip would be 15-16 hours, so we were expecting to arrive in Vientiane at around 11am. By the time we all finished at the border, it was already 9am. To our surprise, we learned that we would actually be arriving between 4 and 5pm. Ahh a nice 15 hour trip turned into a 22 hour journey! We were able to get some sleep during the day, but our bodies were so ready to be out of the sleeper seats by the time we finally arrived in Vientiane. Although it was a really long trip, it was much less miserable than we anticipated.
As we were getting ready to leave the Vientiane bus station in a shared tuk-tuk, the Chinese couple who were laying next to us on the bus came up and asked us if we had seen a blue bag. We looked around and replied that we hadn’t and they informed us that one of their bags was missing. When we boarded the bus in Hanoi, John and I were able to take our luggage with us because we were the first two to board. The rest of the foreigners had to put their bags on the top of the bus, uncovered. The bus did have a place to put bags underneath, but apparently the busses stop to pick up items to take across the border, so they save the covered space for those types of items. Anyway, their bag must have fallen off during one of the bumps in the middle of the night because we ran into that couple a few days later in Luang Prabang and they never found it. Several other people also had wet bags from a pop up rainstorm we experienced. Phew, we lucked out with that one.
Our first impression of Vientiane was that it was very quiet. After two and a half weeks in Vietnam hearing constant honking when we were walking around, having a meal, or even sleeping, the quiet streets of Laos were very welcoming. There were far fewer motorbikes and more cars, but the air quality seemed much worse. We covered our faces while we rode to the center of town in our tuk-tuk. We perused the area for a guesthouse and ended up finding a spot at the Fat Monkey Hostel. The prices for guesthouses in Vientiane seemed much higher than Vietnam and the quality was much less. We spent the evening wandering around the riverfront market, eating some dinner, and playing poker with some other backpackers at the hostel. We even tried some snake and scorpion whiskey! I’ll tell you one thing, it definitely has a strange aftertaste. It was nearly 1AM by the time we both lost at poker and we returned to our room to catch up on some much needed sleep.
We explored Vientiane for a few hours by bike the following morning. The city itself has little to offer in our opinion, but it was a nice stopover to get some rest after a long bus trip. Since we felt one night was enough, we took the afternoon bus three hours to Vang Vieng.