The ironic thing about being a long-term traveler is that the “travel” part of the process is soon the thing you come to like least about this lifestyle. Wax philosophical all you like about how it’s all about the journey rather than the destination, but I’m betting that 9 out of 10 travelers would vote that the easier it is to get from point A to point B, the better. Sure the horrific travel days where you catch 14 different types of transport, possibly get scammed and get horribly lost make for epic and often amusing stories in retrospect, but in the moment, they suck.
I’ve loosened up a lot on this journey and can now roll up to a city without lodging pre-booked (in fact, I tend to prefer it!) and we rarely bother with in-depth itineraries and schedules any more, preferring to fly by the seat of our pants and see where the spirit moves us. But when we have a big day of travel ahead of us, particularly when it involves crossing a land border into a new country—a notorious breeding ground for scams and stress—I like to be prepared and am fastidious about my research.
Unfortunately, even in our internet age, sometimes getting information about transportation can be a little thin or a lot outdated and you find yourself having to go in blind. Such was the case when we decided we would travel from Hue, Vietnam to Savannakhet, Laos. Although our research told us that this is apparently one of the most straightforward and commonly traveled border crossings between the two countries, actually finding current detailed instructions about how to do the route was pretty much impossible. We wound up resigned to the fact that we would have to show up in Hue and hope that getting information about the journey once we were actually on the ground would be a little easier.
We spent a lot of time in Hue riding our motorcycle around from different travel agencies and bus stations to get as much information as we could. To help out any future travelers planning to take this route, we’ve compiled our findings so that you can better spend your time exploring and sightseeing around the city (which you really should do because Hue is awesome).
As of March 2014, there are three* major options for reaching Savannakhet, Laos from Hue, Vietnam by bus.
The Cheapest Option: The Northern Bus Station
If you are one of those people who is only content to do everything the cheapest way possible, plan to leave Hue from the NORTHERN bus station (Ben Xe Phia Bac). From here you can catch a local bus to the Vietnamese border town of Lao Bao. Tickets are 80,000VND-90,000VND (~$4USD-$4.5USD) depending on what time you leave (earlier tickets are cheaper) and the first bus leaves at 6:00 am, and then leave every 30 minutes until early evening. The journey to Lao Bao should take about 3 hours.
Note that this will only get you to Lao Bao, not necessarily the border, so you may need to get a xe om or taxi to the actual border depending on where the bus station is. And of course, once you get across to the Laos side, you’ll need to figure out how to get to your next destination. We did not choose this option and so we weren’t looking for onward transport at the border, but that said, we didn’t see too many options. I’m sure they exist, but I can’t say where you’d need to go to catch them nor how much they would necessarily cost. Given how nebulous this portion of the journey would be, we decided not to go this route.
The Easiest Option (aka The Sucker’s Route): Hotel/Travel Agency
If you are someone for whom convenience is king and the less finagling you have to do, the better, then you should probably just go ahead and book your ticket through a travel agency or your hotel. When we mentioned that we were going to Savannakhet, Laos, our hotel said they could get us tickets on the VIP direct bus for 400,000VND (~$20USD) per person. I had read a few things about tourists being shuffled about from one bus to the next on this journey, but they were adamant that we would only take one bus straight through the entire journey. We would be picked up from our hotel at 6:30 – 7am on the day of travel.
Note: We talked to another travel agency while we were in town, and they also quoted us 400,000VND for this journey. We rented our motorcycle through them and they offered very fair/competitive prices on that, so this leads me to believe that 400,000VND is the right price for agencies in town to charge. We talked to one random guy while out at dinner who quoted us $25USD (500,000VND) per person for the journey, but we figured he was a shyster. We were right.
I am not 100% certain about this next thing because there were a few communication issues, but I got the sense that our hotel was suggesting that this Hue – Savannakhet bus may not run every day. It’s possible that it might, but on certain days it is a day bus, and on intervening days it is a night bus. I had read online that the bus only departs on odd numbered days from Hue, but I didn’t get explicit confirmation of this (and we were leaving on an odd-numbered day, anyhow). Regardless, we would have been put on a day bus if we had booked through them. They said that the journey would take no more than 10 hours.
The Smartest Option: The Southern Bus Station
I admit it, we almost wussed out and went through our hotel. But, we stopped in at The Mandarin Café where they have a reputable travel desk and talked to the owner—he told us that for this route, we would be better off simply buying our tickets directly from the SOUTHERN bus station (Ben Xe Phia Nam). He said there would be plenty of buses and these would be what our hotel and any agency around town would be putting us on anyway, but at a marked up rate.
So, we wound up buying our ticket direct to Savannakhet at the Southern Bus Station. We needed our passports to purchase the tickets (though I’m not entirely sure why as none of this information was on the tickets themselves and I’m not sure it was recorded, but perhaps this is meant to prevent scalpers?) and they cost 300,000VND (~$15USD) each. This price was already stamped on the tickets and Tony saw a sign on our bus with this price listed as well, so I do think this is the real price and there wasn’t any trickery taking place. We purchased our tickets 2 days before our journey, but you could probably just show up early on the day of and get tickets if you like to live on the edge. The bus was scheduled to depart at 8 am and we were told it would take about 11 hours to reach Savannakhet.
To reach the bus station from the backpacker’s/tourist area of Hue, have your hotel call you a taxi (specify Mai Linh, they use the meter without question). The taxi ride should cost about 50,000VND (~$2.50US).
We arrived at Ben Xe Phia Nam around 7:15 am and found ourselves faced with a bus that was surely once nice but had clearly seen better days. Moreover, it was being loaded with sacks of rice and bags of carrots. Although our tickets had numbers on them, we sat wherever we wanted and that seemed to be fine—our strategy was to simply find seats that weren’t already laden with cargo and whose floor space hadn’t been similarly occupied (I still wound up using a bag of carrots as a foot rest). Our bags were stored underneath the bus alongside crates of tomatoes—I would highly recommend placing your bags in large plastic bags beforehand if you can as the baggage hold was a little moist.
True to Mandarin Café’s word, about 20 minutes before the bus left, a minibus with a bunch of foreigners pulled up and they boarded. In all likelihood, these are the folks who had purchased tickets through their hotels or at travel agencies around Hue. We saw some crappier buses headed to Lao Bao at the station, and a handful of nicer buses going to various destinations in southern Vietnam, but no other buses heading to Savannakhet, Laos.
Despite the somewhat bedraggled appearance of our bus, it was pretty comfortable all things considered. It left on time and although I had read of some potential tomfoolery involving tickets being taken early on in the journey and travelers being forced to repurchase the Laos portion of the journey, we were always in possession of stubs that proved we had purchased tickets to Savannakhet and it did not seem as though any attempts were made to make people pay more than they should.
We made a few pit stops along the way, so it took us about 4 hours to reach the border. Although there will be stops where you can purchase food and snacks (and there is one official lunch break), it’s probably smarter to simply have all your snacks purchased and packed before you leave—most of what we saw on offer was pretty suspicious and unappetizing.
Just before the border some ladies came aboard the bus and were selling local currency, but their rates were terrible (7,000LAK to $1US, whereas the normal exchange rate should be 8,000LAK:$1US) and you should plan to pay for your visa in US dollars anyhow. We did not have exact change, but had no problem getting the correct cash back. As we discovered, there are several ATMS in Savannakhet so getting local currency once you arrive at your final destination should not be a problem.
At this point, we took our hand luggage to Vietnamese immigration and were stamped out. We then had to walk across a stretch to Lao immigration where we paid for visas on arrival ($40US for U.S. citizens, $42US for Canadians); we also had to include a passport photo along with our visa application, so have some handy.
Although we did not experience any scams as such at the border, there are two things you should be on watch for:
1) We talked to one traveler who said that when his passport was returned to him with his visa, the change was placed inside it. Apparently our bus driver took the passport and passed it over to the immigration window. Unsurprisingly, the traveler’s $18US change disappeared and he never got it back. The bus driver claimed he didn’t take it, and obviously, you don’t want to argue with immigration officials. It goes without saying that you should not let other people handle your passport unless they are authorized to do so and that you should make sure you take out your change immediately from your passport upon receiving your visa before passing it on to the next window.
2) We managed to be the last travelers to get through Laos immigration, and while we were waiting to be stamped through and receive our passports, our bus left us (with our big luggage still aboard). As we didn’t have our passports, there wasn’t anything that we could do but watch it drive away. Thankfully, when I went to investigate, some young guys hanging around implied the bus had gone to get lunch and they would drive us there on motorcycle for $1 each. I told them no and that we would just walk, taking the gamble that the bus was not too far away (I vaguely remembered reading something in an old forum where someone mentioned the bus leaving for lunch and having to walk about 1km to meet it again.). It was a very hot and dusty walk, but we only had to go about 800 meters before we spotted the bus. Travelers we chatted with reported that they had told the bus driver that he was leaving 2 people behind, but he apparently did not care. Customer service was surly at best on this bus, so I’d suggest doing your best to get through immigration as fast as you can. But if you get left behind, don’t panic, just be ready to walk a little bit. I’m not sure this was a scam worked out so that the guys with motorcycles make a little money off of tourists or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
Other than these two things, there were no other issues at the border and we had no problems with bribes.
From the Laos Border, it was another 5.5 hours or so to Savannakhet. We arrived around 6:30 pm at the bus station, which is about 2 km north of town. We decided to just walk as we had no lodging booked and figured this would let us scope some places out, but there were plenty of tuk tuk drivers around (though I don’t think anyone took them up on what I’m sure were unreasonable prices).
So, there you have a recent account of traveling from Vietnam to Laos by bus. It’s a long day, but not all that difficult or unpleasant. Given that plane tickets to Vientiane cost about $175 per person from Vietnam, we don’t have any regrets with our choice as the journey only cost us about $35US total.
*Footnote 1: Although we break this journey down into three alternatives, there are really only two: take the local bus to Lao Bao, or take a direct bus to Savannakhet. You can buy your ticket for the latter through a hotel or travel agency or directly at the bus station, but despite different prices, the bus you’ll be getting on is the same.