Sapa to Luang Pragbang – the rocky road

Posted from Namon, Oudomxay, Laos.

Sapa to Dien Bien Phu

The bus from Sapa to Dien Bein Phu is 250,000 VND. It’s a mini-van. The journey is a little over 300km and can take anywhere from eight to 12 hours. Luckily my trip only took about eight hours (I’m still getting the racecar-driver-wannabes.) We had to take an unexpected stop while we waited for earthmovers to clear a landslide off the road, but we must have gotten there long after it happened as they were almost done clearing it.

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This is a glimpse of the road we were on - at least the unpaved part.

This is a glimpse of the road we were on – at least the unpaved part.

The road is treacherous and downright dangerous. But the scenery is out of this world. While our bus driver wound his way through the numerous switchbacks and navigated the van through sections of unpaved and otherwise rougher than rough road, I couldn’t help but adore the lifestyle in the mountains. It was simple, but still connected to the outside world. Farmers had cell phones and the clothing was a mix between traditional tribal colours and Western T-shirts. Children played near the road and sometimes we had to slow down so a dog could amble across. Dogs are everywhere in SE Asia. The females tits are often saggy and swollen – a sure sign of overuse.

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In a few villages all the ladies wore their hair in huge buns on the top of their heads. It looked glamorous and I figured they had no clue. It must have been more of a practicality to keep it off their face in the heat.

I couldn’t stop looking out the windows, though. Massive young mountains, many inaccessible, covered in jungle and yet somehow they were terraced. Not all of them sported rice paddies, so I imagined the terracing was to ward off land slides in the steep terrain during the rainy season. I couldn’t imagine travelling this road in the rainy season.

Dien Bien Phu is one of the last towns before the border to Laos. Guest houses are about $7/night and are generally rundown joints – which is okay, because the bus to Muang Khua, Laos leaves at 5:30 a.m. Don’t expect hot water, AC or soft beds. You won’t be staying long.

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But Dien Bien Phu was one of my most positive Vietnam experiences. I shared a room with a Chinese girl so we could cut down on costs. It ended up being 75,000 VND ($3.50) each. I went into town and found the market. Here I had a bowl of Pho – a recurring meal for me in Vietnam – for a jaw dropping $1 and listened to an old man play the flute. The lady who served me my meal kept talking to me in Vietnamese, and while I couldn’t understand a word I could tell she was friendly and enjoyed life. Actually, this is what I found of most people in the town. A stroll through the market affirmed this as nary a soul shouted at me to buy something. No “hey lady” or “you buy from me.” Aahhhh. There’s not much to see in the town besides some war museums and sites of the Indo-China war and Vietnam/American war, so after a brief Internet catch-up I went to bed by 8 p.m. and fell soundly asleep.

Dien Bien Phu to Muang Khua

In the morning I walked across the street to the bus station and got on another minibus filled with many of the same people from the day before  – and about 40 bags of rice flour  – which lined the floor, taking up much of our leg room. We piled our bags on the far back seats as the roof of the bus was already filled with whatever couldn’t fit on the floor. I had bought the ticket the day before for 100,000 VND.

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We were told it was six hours to Muang Khua. It ended up being about seven, but it was no big deal. The road was much better, meaning it was fully paved. It took an hour to get to the border, and that included stopping to load more things onto the roof of the minibus – motorbike parts, tires and more bags of rice flour.

Checking out of Vietnam was easy. They tried to tell us that we had to exchange our money there because we would get a bad rate at the Laos border and they would not accept American money. I, however, will never trust Vietnamese officials, so I declined. I had Baht and as far as I knew that was accepted (it’s not.) This whole process took our bus of 14 people about an hour. The border was not busy by any means. Not a single other bus pulled up while we were there, only a few motorbikes.

Entering Laos at the border.

Entering Laos at the border.

Then we were off to the Laos border about 5km away. This process took a little less than an hour. I paid my $42 USD (the most expensive visa is for Canadians) and then another $5 fee for health check, working on a Sunday, as it was Sunday, and some kind of other processing fee – all cash grabs I’m getting used to at these poorly scrutinized government-run establishments.

After that it was smooth, albeit dangerous and treacherous travel onward to the village. Such is the dilema of navigating mountains. I remarked that the air already smelled sweeter in Laos. The roads were virtually empty and I could tell why. Well it was paved in its entirety, there were many points where if you weren’t paying attention to driving you would most certainly plunge down into a chasm where no one would ever find your mangled body. I entertained a few morbid death scenarios along the road. It was a long ride. But I trusted the driver and figured if this would be my end, it would be quite an end.

A mountain village.

A mountain village.

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The villages we passed were close to the roadside and the houses were often made with thatched roofs and woven bamboo walls. Occasionally there’d be some brick houses and you could begin to see the division between rich and poor.

I didn’t know that the government had made it illegal to accept currency in anything but Kip, so I hadn’t any real money apart from some American money and Baht that Stephanie made me get in Bangkok. Thank you Stephanie! The worst part was the only ATM in Muang Khua wouldn’t work for me. I was having the same issue I was having in Vietnam with my bank card. Fuck.

Luckily they took US money at the bus station so I could catch the next bus out of town at 3 p.m. to take me to Oudomxay. Apparently it’s not a steadfast rule. An Austrian couple were beginning to wear me thin, though. While I continued to find out for myself where the bus station was (as we got dropped off in town, not at the station) and when the next bus was, this lady just sat back and waited until everyone else found out information and then she would ply us for it. Okay. Maybe I’m being a dick. But when I finally figured out how to get to the bus station, she went and had a beer while I, by complete chance, when asking a random stranger if I was in the right place to get the bus, found someone who spoke English. He was from Luang Prabang, his name was Sun, and he told me where to go when I got there the next day to find a nice guesthouse. He was very kind and enjoyed practicing his English. But back to the Austrian couple. The wife finally finished her beer and came over asking in a very harsh tone where to buy the ticket, how much was it, how long was the bus ride, when do we get in, when is the next bus to Luang Prabang. I had it. I told her she was not a very responsible traveler and she’s really lucky that I’m around. Annoyed by my comment she went over to the billboard, which was in Laotian, and jotted some things down in her notebook. What a faker.

Muang Khua to Oudomxay

So on the bus ride to Oudomxay our minibus’ fuel line broke. Sun smelt it and told the bus driver to stop. We all got out and the driver fixed it within 10 minutes. I forgot to take a photo. The ride took just over four hours and when we rolled into town after dark our driver came to an abrupt stop in which everyone ran for the door in a mass panic to get off the bus. There was smoke. The brakes were possibly on fire. People were whimpering and rushing the door.  The Austrian lady fell out of the bus whilst trying to save her enormous suitcase from the possible fire. The driver wasn’t really phased. He climbed to the roof and started handing down the luggage. (This bus wasn’t packed with rice.) But again I forgot to take a photo. Dammit.

 

A village woman prepares brush to make brooms to sell.

A village woman prepares brush to make brooms to sell.

So over 12 hours travelling and I was exhausted. Surprising though, my usual worries with travel sickness haven’t been acting up. Me and two Israeli girls walked to a guest house listed in their Lonely Planet book and got rooms for about $9. The lady at the desk exchanged some Baht for me so I at least had some Kip to get the bus to Luang Prabang in the morning. The ATMs weren’t working here for me either. The room at Litthavixay Guesthouse had hot water and a kingsize bed. It was clean and comforting. After a quick dinner we all retired to our rooms and I fell asleep by 10 p.m.

Garbage burns along the roadside. A common site.

Garbage burns along the roadside. A common site.

Oudomxay to Luang Prabang

In the morning our guesthouse gave us a ride to the bus station. It would’ve taken us five minutes to walk it. Doh. Then the driver had the gall to ask us each for 10,000 Kip. I was appalled, but paid it anyway. My ticket was 55,000 Kip or about $7. The bus left in a little over an hour at 9 a.m. so I climbed in and secured myself a window seat. The aisle was packed with boxes and I could only imagine what was on the roof. I kept my backpack with me so I could make a quick exit when we got into Luang Prabang. This was a real-sized bus packed with locals and tourists. But what stuck me as really odd was they handed out bags to everyone before we even left the station. Then I realized that these were barf bags. What the hell were we in for?

One of the bus attendants passes out barf bags while walking on the boxes in the aisle - which also double as seats.

One of the bus attendants passes out barf bags while walking on the boxes in the aisle – which also double as seats.

A Hungarian dude sat next to me on the trip and complained mildly about everything. I gave him my travel pillow so he could sleep and it shut him up nicely. Though I have no idea how he could sleep on this road.

It was much the same as before. Switchbacks and hills. Steep cliffs and no roadside barriers. Stopping to pick up more locals or their parcels – I really don’t know why anyone goes to the bus station when you can just catch the bus on its way out of town. The road was sporadically paved. The rainy season takes its toll on the roads, so I supposed they are never repaired. It sure felt like it. We would be on paved road for about 1km and then pot-holed dirt road with what I can only assume were bomb craters for about 2km. This went on until the last 100km of the trip. It was meant to be only a five-hour journey. It took six. I’m not sure if anyone threw up. I kept my iPod on and tuned the world out. And I gave in and took a Gravol the moment I started to burp a little.

 

One view of the amazing scenery throughout northern Laos.

One view of the amazing scenery throughout northern Laos.

I really don’t know why I was in such a rush to get to Luang Prabang, but I think it’s because I was told it was the most amazing city in SE Asia, and I was definitely in need of some amazing. Plus, it has to do with my desire to get to southern Thailand and just chill out for a month.

When we pulled into the bus station I was disappointed. Was this really it? It looked like Any Old Town, SE Asia. I exited the station, ignoring the tuktuk drivers and got to the street where I got another tuktuk driver and talked him down to 10,000 Kip to take me to the Mekong area, the place Sun recommended. It was along the journey there that I understood why Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And I knew I was gonna end up hanging around for at least a few days.

All in all my journey from Sapa to Luang Prabang took 2.5 days and required sleeping over in two places. It costed about $25 in transportation and another $11 for accommodation. Plus another $2.50 in tuktuk rides. If you have the time and sense of adventure the overland journey is a beautiful way to see northern Vietnam and Laos. If you don’t I suggest taking the train back to Hanoi and flying out of there.

 

3 Responses to Sapa to Luang Pragbang – the rocky road

  1. Hi there!

    Thanks for your blog post, very cool 🙂
    I’m planning to do this trip in mid February (Sapa to Laos). I’m just wondering was it easy to find the bus services in Sapa to book your trip? How far in advance did you have to book?

    Thanks!

    Sarah December 3, 2016 at 4:29 am Reply
  2. There are places all over Sapa to find buses. You shouldn’t have an issue finding something. I booked the night before. It’s usually on a per demand service. And it wasn’t exactly a bus. It was a van. When we got to Dien Bien Phu we had to book another van that was chock full of rice bags. This was a few years ago, so things could’ve changed. When you get into Laos, it’s still vans for a bit. But you’ll find buses very easy. These are not big cities.

    Sheri December 3, 2016 at 4:35 am Reply
  3. Was it easy to get a laos visa from sapa to laos

    Sunshine August 31, 2018 at 8:36 am Reply

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