We decided to skip the capital of Laos, Vientiane, as we had not heard great things about it. The plan was to go straight from Veng Vieng to Hanoi, Vietnam. Now, upon researching how to get there, we came across numerous blogs and articles online that have dubbed this trip as "the journey from hell" for various reasons that included machete attacks, dodgy cargo and unsafe driving. This didn't deter us as it was the cheapest way to get there by far and we thought we could have some stories to tell by the end of it.
So here we were thinking that we were skipping Vientiane. The journey began by being shuttled on a mini van through the winding village roads of stilt houses made of woven bamboo from Vang Vieng to none other than Vientiane. It was a nice scenic way to see the village life of Laos. The mini van dropped us off at the bus station in the capital where we awaited about an hour for the bus to Hanoi. There were numerous busses parked in the station and we were trying to guess which one we would go on...low and behold, when the bus arrived, it wasn't even a bus, but a tuk tuk which all the backpackers were piled into. We had no idea what was going on but we followed the herd. The tuk tuk was rammed and Perry and I were last to get on, with no room left for us to sit, we stood on the external back step directly above the rear bumper of the tuk tuk and hung on for dear life as the driver sped through Vientiane to get us to where we had no clue.
Driving through Vientiane, trying not to fall off the tuk tuk, we were so glad we were not actually staying here. It was filthy with dirt flying everywhere and just really polluted. There didn't seem to be anything worth visiting. We must have been driving for at least half an hour (which felt like an eternity hanging off the back of the tuk tuk) when we arrived at another massive bus station and were directed to a bus. We tried to get on so we could get good seats before the rest of the backpackers got there (we were first off the tuk tuk so first to reach the bus) but there seemed to be some chaos ensuing what with chickens in cages in the luggage compartments and nobody speaking English. They wouldn't let us on for some reason and once everybody arrived there, they made us exchange our tickets for little pieces of scrap paper. They finally began letting us on but gave us no choice as to where we could sit. They shuffled all of the backpackers to the back of the bus near the toilets and pointed to the seat they wanted us to sit in.
I need to mention that this was a sleeper bus, the first of its kind that we had encountered. The seats are almost completely reclined and the rows have 1 to 3 beds neighboring each other (some attached). There are two levels: top and bottom. The top is a bit more spacious and the bottom a bit more claustrophobic: both equally narrow with a little cubby hole that you place your fit in and no space to put backpacks or hand luggage.
So we were all pushed to the back and made to sit in seats they allocated. Luckily, Perry and I both scored top bunks. Unluckily for others, they had no choice but to squeeze into the bottom, even though there were plenty of empty spaces in the front section, which were reserved for the locals and which allowed them to spread out and relax. A couple of the backpackers confronted the staff member that was directing us to the back and demanded a top seat as there were plenty near the front to which the bus staff replied with a very childish and comical "NO"! I wish I got it on video. All that was missing was a stamping of his feet on the floor! It was very entertaining to watch as one of the backpackers called him an asshole to which the staff member had no clue what he was saying. We were all quite shocked though as to how they had treated all the foreigners and shoved us to the back.
We tried to settle into our "beds". As the bus took off for what was scheduled to be a very long journey, the TV screens turned on and the speakers started blaring some loud dance music. And when I say loud, I mean like nightclub loud. We were all just looking at each other and laughing at first but after a while we were just annoyed and confused as to why it was so necessary to have the music so loud. We figured it was either to annoy us backpackers or to keep the driver awake. Instead of showing a TV show or movie, the screens were showing something called "Beauty Leg" which was just a bunch of lingerie models strutting the catwalk. We thought maybe this was also to keep the driver awake. Eventually the music on the loudspeakers and the "Beauty Leg" turned off and the music videos went on: Gangnam Style and other K-pop favorites. It did have us giggling and I did find some songs to add to my iPod. I forgot to mention that the bus had some crazy neon/disco lights as well which added to the bizarreness of the whole experience.
At 2am, after sleeping on an off on the swaying bus, we arrived at the Laos/Vietnam border (one of them anyway)…we arrived at 2am, and it didn’t open til 6am. We had prepared ourselves for this as we knew this would happen from the research we had done. Many complained why wouldn’t we just depart 4 hours later rather than stay put for 4 hours. We figured it was a chance for the driver to sleep…and also for us to sleep because it is not easy to sleep on a moving sleeper bus with the swaying and often fast speeds that make you feel like you will fall off the top bed. We tried to get some sleep but with the bus parked and engine off, this meant no air conditioning so it was just too stuffy to sleep comfortably (in an already uncomfortable environment). The border was due to open at 6am. We stood waiting and around 7am, the border opened. Our group from our bus were the first in line but that didn’t seem to matter as hoards of bus “leaders” would come up and shove a stack of 20-30 passports through the border official’s little window. This got me furious and after a couple of “leaders” doing this and the official not seem to care that we were stood directly in front of him, I blocked others from cutting in and if they did stick their stack of passports through the window, I would reach in, grab them and give them back to them and, with bulging eyes, say “NO, WAIT YOUR TURN”. Yeah that’s right! Don’t mess with me! I should have really been a bit more careful seeing as I don’t know these people and what they are capable of doing and seeing as I was at a border, but the whole process was just ridiculous.
After what seemed like forever, we got our passports back and exited Laos. Now all we had to do was cross into Vietnam! We had to go by foot as the buses had to be searched and so on. So when we exited Laos, we walked…and walked…and walked…and walked and finally after about 20 minutes (with heavy backpacks and walking uphill, this seemed much longer), we reached the Vietnam border. Now we just had to hand over our passports and enter…but of course, those damn bus “leaders” were back with their stacks of passports and this time, bills stuck inside each one to bribe the border officer with. Not again! I did get furious at one point but luckily the officer already had our passports so there was nothing much we could do. Just wait and wait and wait. We finally all got our passports back and then we had to wait for the bus to return. This seemed to take ages as well! Eventually it arrived and eventually we were able to board and continue on to Hanoi. The entire border crossing process took 3 hours! It was quite ridiculous but it was nice to get some “fresh” air.
We still had many hours to go until we reached Hanoi. It was about 10am once the border crossing process was complete. Perry and I had no Vietnamese currency so we couldn’t buy food. We had packed a bunch of snacks that we bought in Laos but really wanted something more substantial. We had to just try and sleep to keep our minds off the hunger. At around 7pm we reached Hanoi - about 30 hours after starting the journey in Veng Vieng. Not going to lie, we did want to scream by the end of it, but it was time to explore Vietnam and most importantly: EAT!
I don’t know if I would recommend this journey to others. Yes it is a big money saver but also a time waster and maybe more hassle than it is worth. If you book a flight in advance, you can get a really good deal but if you would rather go the bus route, at least you will have some stories to tell by the end of it!