After my day of trekking through the rice terraces in Sapa, and being bled dry of all my money, I decided it was time for me to leave Vietnam. I almost considered staying for one more night/day but bit the bullet, bought my ticket and hoped on an overnight bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu. I knew the next few days would not be particularly easy ones, but I was more than ready to get out of ‘Nam’ and into Laos. Looking at a map my journey looked like it should be easy; thankfully I did a little research and few a few blogs (here and here) that told me it would be otherwise.
Unlike the second blogger there was no dissuasion from my hostel owners or other travelers for the overnight bus, in fact they didn’t even offer me an alternative option. I was picked up from Sapa promptly at 6:30pm and immediately knew it was going to be an interesting journey. The bus wasn’t quite like the FUTA bus lines, there were no assigned seats (beds), I was the only foreigner in sight and everyone else seemed to be thoroughly amused by this fact. We began our journey through the winding mountain roads and before long a symphony of ‘vomit noises’ were filling the bus, thank god I outgrew my motion sickness. This was, of course, joined with obnoxiously loud Vietnamese pop music and the occasional screaming child.
I had a middle seat with the one beside me empty for my backpack, but soon realize this luxury was not going to last. Along the way we stopped multiple times, seemingly in the middle of no where, to pick up more passengers. Before long our bus was not only full but overflowing with people. There was a family of four in one seat, while other passengers were sprawled out on the aisle floors. Around 9pm we made a dinner and bathroom break and after that it was time for sleep, or at least a failed attempt.
I tossed and turned, in and out of sleep for pretty much the entire night, but was officially awake around 2:30am when the baby next to me decided screaming was the appropriate thing to do, with no end in sight. After nearly an hour of that noise we made a stop and the family of three got off, I’m really not sure if this was by choice or force, but either way I wasn’t too sad to see them go.
Eventually we pulled into the Dien Bien bus terminal around 5am and as soon as I exited the bus was escorted to another one bound for Laos. I was told the bus wouldn't be leaving until 6:30, but was guided on board and allowed to sleep. Of course this didn’t actually happen, so instead I laid there contemplating how the next 24 hours of my journey would go. The bus slowly began to fill, but when it was time to go there appeared to be some bus problems. The driver actually asked me to help read the control panel directions seeing as they were in English and Korean, no Vietnamese or Lao in sight. I translated what he wanted but it proved to be useless, we weren’t going anywhere. I watched as a crew of men tried to get the bus to start, lights to turn on or pretty much anything to happen. Entertaining yes, amusing no.
Eventually they determined that the battery was dead so with the help of another enormous bus we got a jump and were soon on our way. It was now nearly 8:30 which means I had been hanging out at the Dien Bien bus terminal for over 3 hours, not exactly my idea of a good morning, but after a few months in Asia wasn't phased. Although we were moving it didn’t last for long, we drove roughly 3 blocks to an auto shop, sat for 30 minutes and then around the corner for gas. Finally somewhere around 9am we were on our way!
Sleeping at this point would have been ideal but the twisting and turning of the mountain roads made that nearly impossible. Instead I spent some time talking to Si who was seated in front of me and clearly was about to become my new best friend. Although he spoke little English he was eager to talk, become Facebook friends, swap numbers and take (my) picture, even when I was sleeping. I guess that could sound a little creepy but the fact that he was a 19 year old high school kid made it more endearing, actually reminded me a little of my students.
Despite the winding roads, lack of sleep and many inquisitive looks my way, the ride wasn’t terrible, and the scenery was beautiful. After a few hours we made our stop at the Vietnam border and like the other blogs mentioned, this step was a breeze. I got stamped out of the country, exchanged my dong for kip and was back on the bus. A bit more driving, apparently in ‘no man’s land’ between countries before we reached the Laos border where I paid my $35 Visa fee plus an additional 40,000kip for stamping and overtime bullshit, pretty sure I got ripped of here. (FYI 10,000 kip extra on Saturday and Sunday).
The rest of the journey was probably the easiest part of it all, I actually fell asleep for a few hours and in no time was being woken by our bus driver, “Friend, Munag Kuah! You go”. Going from a half comatose nap to being ushered off a bus, in the rain, is not the ideal way to enter a new country, but somehow I made it work.
I hope this can prove as entertainment to some and a bit of information to others. Yes, the border crossing between Sapa and Laos (Muang Kuah in my case) is a bit of a hassle, takes some time, and might give you motion sickness, but I’d say it’s worth it. Visa costs aside this journey only cost me roughly $20 USD whereas a flight into Laos is $150+. The scenery is beautiful so if you don’t mind losing a few hours of sleep, or your breakfast (if you get motion sick) I’d highly recommend it.
A few things to note:
Often overlooked on the backpacker trail, this is a destination to not be missed. Without the influence of 7/11, Mc Donalds or Starbucks this is a country that offers a raw, rich experience.