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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sapa to Luang Prabang over land

The journey from the mountains of Sapa in Northwest Vietnam to the Buddhist and French mix of Luang Prabang in North Laos is a very scenic and interesting journey if covered over land. A lot of people think that the border crossing through the mountains is very difficult, but I wish to let you all know that it is one of the easiest and most scenic border crossings in South East Asia. I just completed this 4 day journey today, but it was very easily spaced and I had enough time to enjoy the villages and small towns in the middle.

Below is an account of how I traveled, the approximate cost of travel, the duration and current conditions. Some blogs and sites provide the details, but they are either provide half the information or the information is outdated.

Travel Day 1: Sapa, Vietnam to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
One can either take a mini-bus that travels during the day or take a night sleeper bus that leaves at 9 PM. Both take approximately 10-11 hours. Personally, I took the mini-bus that leaves every day at 7:30 AM from Sapa. This mini-bus takes you to Lao Cai from where you are put onto another bus that takes you to Dien Bien Phu. The second bus will wait till the entire bus is full of people and people will be sitting everywhere. The sitting is a tight snug fit, but the views are fantastic. The journey is not difficult, but can get a little difficult sometimes due to the roads being constructed in some stretches and hence the entire area turning into a dustbowl. The mini-van stops for lunch enroute and it reaches Dien Bien by sunset.

Journey time: 10.5 hours
Cost of Travel: 240,000 VND or ~11.5 USD (ticket bought at Little Lotus Hotel, Sapa)
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. If you have motion sickness, take the pills. Pray that your bladder is large enough as they stop only a couple of times during the entire journey. Carry a handkerchief or nose cover to protect you from the dust. And ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack.
Mode of Transport: Bus
Difficulty of Journey: Medium (due to long duration and the dustbowl)

Day 1 Stay: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
Dien Bien Phu is a small town and most of its guest houses and hotels are located close to the bus station. Most of the hotels are in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 VND. I stayed in a double room and bargained hard to 80,000 VND or ~4 USD. You can change your Vietnamese currency to Laos Kip at any of the jewelry stores on the opposite side of the bridge (a 5 minute walk from the bus station) for a good exchange rate. The hotels, the next day’s bus and the Vietnam and Laos border will give you a lower exchange rate. There is a supermarket, many small shops and restaurants to stock up on your food supply and to enjoy dinner. If you wish, you can explore the history of Dien Bien Phu by staying an extra day, but most people give it a miss and head straight into Laos.

Cost of Night Stay: 80,000 VND or ~4 USD

Travel Day 2: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam to Muang Khua, Laos
This is a very easy journey and border crossing and also very scenic. The Dien Bien Tourism bus leaves the Dien Bien Phu bus station every morning at 5:30 AM. Tickets can be purchased the previous day at the bus station for 115,000 VND. Seat numbers are mentioned on the ticket, but that is just for name sakes. Most of the bus is tourists who are entering Laos. There are 2 stops for breakfast and very early lunch. These breaks also double up as rest stops and pee breaks. After breakfast, the bus conductor will ask you if you want to exchange your VND for Lao Kip. He will give you 10,000 kip for 30,000 Vietnam dong. You can get a better rate if you can bargain. After this, comes the Vietnam border where you need to get your Vietnam exit stamp. Things are a breeze here and the bus leaves in 30 minutes after everyone has gone through the formality. While you wait for the others, you can rest, soak in the beauty or do whatever you please. In another 15 minutes comes the Laos border where you will get your temperature checked, your visa done and stamped. Everyone needs to fill out a form and visa is provided on arrival. There is an additional cost of 10,000 kip for providing you the visa. Again, your visa is stamped quickly after you pay the swine flu test fee and visa stamping fee of 8,000 kip or ~1 USD. The entire process might take a while as a lot of tourists apply for visa on arrival. I got my visa done at Hanoi and hence my stamping was done in a matter of minutes. I was reading a book in the cool green surroundings while I was waiting for the others. The border crossing here is very unlike an international border crossing and feels very much like a walk in a hill station. Once the bus crosses the Laos checkpoint, you will immediately notice the good roads of Laos, the distinctively cleaner air and the much greener surroundings of Laos. As you keep soaking in the views, it is a matter of time before you land at Muang Khua, a small hillside town in North East Laos.

Journey time: 6 hours
Cost of Travel: 115,000 VND or ~5.5 USD
Border Crossing Cost: Visa cost (depending on country), Visa processing charge of 10,000 kip, Swine Flu test of 3,000 kip and visa stamping charge of 5,000 kip.
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. If you have motion sickness, take the pills. Ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack. Carry Laos Kip. Carry 2 photographs for your visa.
Mode of Transport: Bus
Difficulty of Journey: Easy

Day 2 Stay: Muang Khua, Laos
There are a lot of guest houses to stay in this small town. Some guest houses even have a great river view. Most of the places charge 50,000 kip for a room. There are 2 working ATMs in this town and the banks owning these ATMS also provide foreign exchange services. The food in this town is fairly cheap. Internet cannot be found in this town’s guest houses and may be in a remote internet parlor. One can explore the village, the river side and the Wat that has murals that depict the Hindu epic Ramayana.

For those who do not want to stay here, there are buses from here to Udomaxay. Those buses take 5 hours for the journey. I didn’t want to do the bus journey and also wanted to refrain from doing too much of travel in one day. Plus, Muang Khua is a good time to relax and soak in the Laos atmosphere.

Cost of Night Stay: 25,000 kip or ~3 USD

Travel Day 3: Muang Khua, Laos to Nong Khiaw Laos
One doesn’t need to get up early on this day as the boats leave for Nong Khiaw at 9:30 AM and it is good enough to reach the boat pier by 9 AM to get the tickets. Tickets cost 120,000 kip per head. The boat is fairly comfortable, but the journey is very beautiful with the scenic nature keeping you company all throughout. It is a very interesting experience to be sitting in a motorboat while you cross Level 1 rapids on the Nam Ou river. This journey is definitely a highlight of this entire trip. One can pay 100,000 kip and get down at Muang Ngoi, a small river side village with basic facilities and lots of relaxation.

Journey time: 5.5 hours
Cost of Travel: 120,000 Kip or ~15.5 USD
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. Ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack. Carry your jacket with you as it will be nippy in the first half of the journey and your sun screen as it will be sunny in the second half of your journey.
Mode of Transport: Boat
Difficulty of Journey: Easy

Day 3 Stay: Nong Khiaw, Laos
You can see the river side guest houses from the river before you set foot on Nong Khiaw’s land and the best part is that you will fall in love with it. The place is relaxed, has great natural beauty, has lovely food and cheap stay. I so wanted to stay here for a longer duration, but had to continue further south to Luang Prabang as I had to meet someone. I will definitely return to this destination soon. One can do swimming, kayaking, trekking, relaxing, eat good Laos food, drink good Laos coffee and simply soak in the sun here.

Cost of Night Stay: 20,000 kip or ~2.5 USD

Travel Day 4: Nong Khiaw, Laos to Luang Prabang, Laos
There are 2 buses that leave Nong Khiaw every morning at 9 AM and 11 AM for Luang Prabang. Apart from these two public buses, there are about 4 to 5 mini buses that ply this route depending on how full they get. I took the public bus. In the morning, it is a 15 minute walk from the other side of the bridge (where all the guest houses are) to the bus station where you pay for your ticket at the counter. Seats are tight and may get cramped if you are tall like me, but there is enough space for you to wiggle your legs. The journey is fast and through winding roads. You will reach Luang Prabang as it gets warm in the day. A final shared tuk tuk will take you to your hotel in old Luang Prabang.

Journey time: 3.5 hours
Cost of Travel: 40,000 kip or USD 5.5 (for the public bus. 10,000 kip more for the mini bus) and 10,000 kip for the shared tuk tuk from the bus station to the old Luang Prabang area near the Mekong river.
Planning to do: Stock some food and water with you. Ensure you put a rain cover for your backpack. If you have motion sickness, take the mini bus.
Mode of Transport: Songathew or Mini Bus and Tuk Tuk
Difficulty of Journey: Easy

Summary of Travel from Sapa, Vietnam to Luang Prabang, Laos
Duration of Travel (by doing it the east way): 3 and a half days
Total cost of travel: 38 USD
Total cost of border crossing: 1 USD (visa charges extra; varies with country)
Total cost of stay: 9.5 USD (3 nights)
Oomph quotient: Very high (due to scenic natural beauty)
Difficulty Level: Easy (very less stress on the body due to many breaks and shorter journeys)
Highlights: Mountain views from Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua and the boat cruise on the rapids from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw



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