Cramped sleeper bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang
Laos,  Travel,  Vietnam

26 Hours from Hanoi to Luang Prabang by Land

After a marathon 26-hour journey by land, I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. This wasn’t originally on the itinerary for my South East Asia trip – I didn’t even know you could get to Luang Prabang overland from Hanoi! But a few fellow travellers sparked my curiosity, and looking at the map, the distance seemed doable.

Vietnam visa running out, Laos beckoning!

Over breakfast at the hostel, with my 45-day limit looming, I casually mentioned a trip to Laos to the owner. Her eyes lit up! In a burst of enthusiasm, she offered to arrange everything for me (the travel fares and my Laos visa) for an early departure the very next day! Despite the seemingly chaotic charm of Vietnam, there’s a hidden efficiency here. The Vietnamese know how to get things done.

A typical intersection in Hanoi… who even has right-of-way anyway?

I was picked up the following morning by a guy on a motorbike – he had no helmets, drove most of the time with a cigarette either in his mouth or between his fingers and didn’t seem to obey any road rules (going some 2 km up the wrong side of the highway while dodging on-coming traffic), a sobering experience to say the least! After waiting an hour or so at the travel company’s office, a guy eventually walks over to me and says “passport?!”. I started rummaging through my bag trying to find it – I have a particular pocket that I store it in and when I couldn’t find it, alarm bells went off and my blood pressure spiked. After a long pause, the man suddenly presents me with a stack of passports, handing me the one on top, like a magician would when performing a card trick and saying something like “is this your card?” but in this case… “here’s your passport”. I let out a sigh of relief and the man seems rather confused as to what just happened (I had forgotten that I gave my passport to the Hostel owner the day before and hadn’t thought about it since). I smile and say “Cam on”, “thanks” in Vietnamese. 

My first encounter with a “sleeper bus”

I board what I have now come to know as a “sleeper bus” (a form of transport I would get used to over the coming weeks). The driver presents a flatbed about the width of a two-man tent and a generous length for a person no taller than 5 foot. I ask how long the trip would be and the driver replies something back in Vietnamese. Another traveller tells me 14 or so hours, I wonder how they got hold of this information. I start the ride with the top bunk to myself, but after a few stops and more persons coming on board, the driver comes over to me and gestures that the German girl on the opposite top bunk is to share my bed with me. The German girl objects, the driver laughs, says something assertive in Vietnamese and then goes back to the front of the bus (he has clearly seen many westerners object to this). Two more travellers head up the aisle and take the newly vacant bunk.

In the tuk-tuk on the way to the train station in Huang Xi.

12 hours spooning with a stranger

After 12 hours of playing big-spoon-little-spoon with my new travel companion on windy roads, with pot-holes the size of moon craters, we arrive at the bus company’s hub in Huang Xi. I find out that we have to get a tuk-tuk to the train station and then take a high-speed train to Luang Prabang. From what I had seen so far coming into Laos, I was in disbelief that there was actually going to be a high-speed train. Sure enough, we arrive at a fancy, newly built railway station that has tighter security than most airports. My train ticket allocates me a specific seat on a carriage and I am checked upon several times by conductors to make sure I am sitting in the right place. The train has the welcoming comforts of air-conditioning, a modern interior and best of all.. is able to reach speeds of 160km/h. This miraculously completes the almost 200km trip in about 1.5 hours.

26 hours after I left my accommodation in Hanoi, I arrived at my accommodation in Luang Prabang.  When I arrive at my accommodation (that I booked on the bus using, I have a cold shower (no hot water) and catch up on some much-needed sleep. I recall Google Maps suggesting a 19.5-hour trip… I guess they didn’t take into consideration the magnitude of pot-holes that suddenly appeared after crossing the Vietnamese border into Laos.

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