There are 7 border crossings between Laos and Vietnam; we had decided to use the crossing at Nameo as this is the most direct route that we can take from Hanoi into northern Laos. Lonely Planet describes this crossing as being difficult due to its location in a remote, mountainous region, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Indeed, part of the purpose of this blog post is to provide practical information for anyone else wishing to go this way in the future.
Our first day out of Hanoi was pretty straightforward, once we had navigated our way out of Hanoi onto Highway 6 (not too challenging). The terrain was flat and not that exciting but it was a bit of a buzz cycling among the busy traffic, most of which was on 2 wheels. We stopped for lunch at a noodle shack in a small town around 40km from Hanoi, and were a bit surprised when another westerner walked in. He looked a bit surprised to see us too – it turned out he was from Germany and was teaching English at a nearby university. We were able to chat to his colleagues about the upcoming road and the location of guesthouses etc, which was useful. Once we had got past Hoa Binh the hills started to appear but they weren’t too bad. We passed through Ca Phuong, a small town that has several guesthouses, and carried onto Muongkhen, another small town set in a stunning landscape of huge limestone karsts rising out of rice paddies. There were a couple of accommodation options; we plumped for the rather odd and themepark like An Lac hotel. It was only after we checked in that the music started – it turned out there was a dance music festival happening in the park opposite! The cost of entry was 100,000 VND each (3 pounds) and we seriously thought about it – after all, how often do you get to go to a Vietnamese dance music festival – but we were pretty knackered and were aiming for an early night as we had a long day the next day. Besides, we could hear all that we wanted to from our hotel room! Definitely a night for ear plugs…
We actually managed to sleep ok and the next morning headed off in the direction of Mai Chau, a village frequented by tourists because it, and the surrounding villages, are inhabited by ethnic minority White Thais. We had a big, hot climb over a pass to get to Mai Chau (which is on Highway 15, about 5km from the turnoff from Highway 6), which we reached by 11am or so. On the descent from the pass some roadworks were being carried out and just shortly before we arrived it appeared a lorry had come round the corner before the roadworks a little too fast, and slammed straight into a couple of diggers and another truck. Nobody appeared to be hurt but everybody looked pretty annoyed – it is questionable whether things such as insurance are mandatory here, and no doubt it was an expensive accident for all involved. At Mai Chau we had an early lunch of noodle soup and fried rice, before continuing on. At this stage the map of Northern Vietnam that we had ended, so we were reliant on the edge of our Laos map, which shows this border area, albeit with limited detail. The next sizable habitation, called Quan Hoa on our map but Hoi Xuan on the roadsigns (it turns out that Quan Hoa is the name of the region but not the town), was 50km or so away along Highway 15, a narrow, twisty and in places unsealed road that follows a large river. The ride was very interesting, passing through lots of small pretty villages full of timber-framed stilt houses, but quite hard work due to the heat and lots of small but steep climbs. There was virtually nothing in the way of refreshment for the last 25km or so as the villages in this section were too small to have shops. We reached a bridge which marks the start of what looked like a short-cut to Nameo (as opposed to sticking to the main road via Bathuoc), and stopped for a second lunch and to get advice on that route, such as whether there were guest houses along the way etc. Unfortunately we were unable to get clear advice, and unwilling to set off along a road that may have no habitation along it for some way, we decided to stick to the main road, and so continued another 2km to the town of Quan Hoa/Hoi Xuan. It was still early, but there were a number of guesthouses in town, and we were feeling tired, so we decided to call it a day. We were hoping to find an internet cafe so we could check out the route ahead, but after an hour or so walking around without being able to get a clear answer out of anyone as to whether there was an internet cafe in town or not, we were giving up hope. Then we passed the local school and had the bright idea of seeing if we could find the English teacher (we have found this to be a good trick generally in remote places if we are having communication problems). We found him easily enough, and he was able to tell us that there was no internet cafe, but he gave us some useful information on the road ahead, so we were satisfied with that. It turned out that despite living only 200km or so from Hanoi, which is teeming with foreigners, we were the first native english speakers he had ever met! We tried to take a photo of the big group of kids who had excitedly gathered round us, but the minute the camera appeared they scattered – it turns out they are very shy and nervous of having their picture taken in this area. Quite a contrast from Central Asia where the kids would harass us to take their photo!
We had dinner in a local basic cafe that was busy with groups of men on a Friday night jaunt. The group next to us offered us some lao-lao (rice wine, a bit like vodka) to go with our fried rice, thankfully they did not insist on us having more than one shot though! Then back to our room for hot chocolate and a film before another early night – rock and roll! The next day we got an early start as we weren’t sure how far it was to the border town of Nameo, and we wanted to ensure we got there so we could cross the border first thing the next morning. It was 16km to the crossroads town of Bathuoc (no guesthouses that we could see), from where the kilometre markers said it was 88km to the border. We were a little disappointed with this, as on our Laos map this section looked no further than 60km. Still, we had plenty of time so off we went. The road was again pleasant, mostly following a river through pretty little villages. As on most of our riding since Hanoi, our progress was followed by a volley of ‘hello!’s, ‘good-bye’s, and ‘what is your name?’s – the people here are really not used to seeing foreigners and are curious but very friendly as well which is great. We also had a surreal moment when, while passing through a village, we heard the X-factor theme tune blasting out from a stilt hut – presumably an advert for Vietnam Idol that was on later that night!
After 40km or so we reached the town of Quan Son which was reasonably big and had several guesthouses. We continued onto Nameo, with the road becoming increasingly hillier and hard work, so much so that it was 5pm and almost dark by the time we reached it. We were a little nervous about finding accommodation as we thought it would be a pretty small place, but in fact there are 2 sizable guesthouses/hotels. The restaurant we chose for dinner insisted we pay 50,000 VND each for fried rice for dinner – an absolute joke as we knew full well that 15,000-20,000 VND was a more reasonable price. We were so irritated by their attitude that we walked out – only to spend 20 mins walking around the town concluding there were no other restaurants, whoops! Thinking we would have to swallow our pride (and delve deep into our wallet) for dinner, we were grumpily headed back towards the restaurant when we spotted another restaurant that had only just opened for the evening. There we enjoyed a very tasty egg fried rice for just 25,000 VND each – still expensive but much more reasonable.
Although we knew we would be sorry to leave Vietnam, as it is a wonderful, fascinating, fun country to visit, one thing we wouldn’t miss is the endemic overcharging of tourists. We know and expect it, and even don’t mind paying a bit more than the locals as at the end of the day they are much poorer than us, but we are frequently asked for outrageous prices, even in non-touristy places. This means that we have to negotiate for everything, from hotel rooms to food, shopping, cups of coffee etc. It gets very tiring! Despite everything we said about China in previous blogs, one great thing about that country compared to Vietnam is that almost without exception, and without having to bargain, we felt confident we were paying the same as everyone else. Indeed although Vietnam is in theory a cheaper country to visit than China, overall we felt we got much better value for money in China.
That evening in our hotel Christine was idly flicking through our Lonely Planet when she suddenly came across something that gave us a real fright. We had read elsewhere in the guidebook – and had heard from other people – that you can get a ‘visa on arrival’ at all of Laos’ borders, so we hadn’t bothered to get a visa in Hanoi (where we could have got one easily, in just a day). However there was a small comment in our guidebook that said that visas were not available on arrival at certain remote borders, including Nameo! This would be a disaster as we would either have to make a return trip to Hanoi (which would take at least a day on a bus in each direction), or would have to cycle 150km back to Highway 6 and a further 350km to the border at Dien Bien Phu, where we knew we could definitely get a visa on arrival. Niether appealing options as we are now on a tight schedule and such a diversion would not only be a huge pain but would put us back several days. We felt like right idiots for not checking before getting to this point, but it just hadn’t occurred to us that the situation would vary at different borders. Needless to say we had a bit of a sleepless night wondering what was going to happen the next day!
The next morning we were at the border post for when it opened at 7.30am. Of course we wanted to ensure we understood whether we could get into Laos or not before being stamped out of Vietnam (as we didn’t have a visa to come back in, so would be stuck in no-man’s land). Thankfully the Vietnamese border guards spoke good english and seemed confident that we could definitely get a visa on arrival for Laos – phew! Much relieved, we let ourselves be stamped out of Vietnam and headed up the hill to the Laos border post. You can probably guess what is coming here…just kidding, it was indeed no problem at all to get a visa here. The whole process took 10 minutes and cost $36 ($35 for the visa and $1 for an ‘administration fee’; quite possibly this goes straight into the pockets of the border guards but we certainly weren’t about to question it!). By 8.30am we were pedalling off in the direction of the first decent sized habitation in Laos, Vieng Xay, which is around 55km from the border.
We hadn’t been able to change our Vietnamese dong at the border – there are no formal exchange facilities and although the border guards offered to change it for us (they checked the rate for us on the internet in front of us so we are confident they weren’t trying to cheat us) they didn’t have enough kip for our dong, so we figured we would change it in Vieng Xay. When Christine came to Laos 8 years ago the kip was really only used for small purchases such as drinks or local bus fares; for everything else USD or Thai baht were preferred. Our (oh-so-reliable and up-to-date…not) Lonely Planet said this was still largely the case, although the government was trying to encourage the use of the kip. Clearly this has worked as in the villages we passed through en-route to Vieng Xay, no-one would take our USD (or dong), or would change it for us. Due to the worries we had had about getting into Vietnam, we hadn’t really thought too much about stocking up on snacks on the Vietnamese side before crossing, besides, as explained above, we assumed we could use USD for most things. This was a mistake, as not only did we not have the right money to spend, but the villages were small and had at best tiny shops with very little in them. We were famished, but we had no choice but to continue as far as Vieng Xay before we could change some money and get some sustenance. This wasn’t easy as it got quite hilly quite quickly, including one pass that required some 800m of ascent up roads that were so steep we could barely walk, let alone cycle, up them. It wasn’t just us – even passing mopeds struggled up that bit! It took us until 1pm to get to Vieng Xay where we ate in a cafe off the main market square. The food was absolutely delicious so we had lots of it, along with some strong Lao coffee to get us going. Vieng Xay is known for having some caves worth visiting, but we were keen to cover the remaining 28km to Sam Neua, where we planned to spend the night, so after lunch we headed off through the lovely countryside. The hills came thick and fast and it was almost 5pm by the time we reached Sam Neua, a small but pleasant town with a good choice of good-quality accommodation and, get this, an Indian restaurant! Very exciting (actually, it turns out that Laos appears to have some strong links with India and Malaysia as these restaurants are quite common, but at the time it was the first time we had curry for at least 3 months). We settled in happily and spent a nice evening eating excellent curry at the Deen Indian restaurant (definitely recommended) and talking to the few other tourists in town.
In terms of practicalities, we think it is worth mentioning here that the Nameo border crossing appears to be far more accessible than the LP guidebook implies. As discussed above, you can get a visa on arrival for Laos at Nameo (but not for Vietnam). In Sam Neua we saw adverts for a daily long-distance bus that runs between Sam Neua and Thanh Hoa (leaving each place at 8am every day). 3 times a week this bus continues on to Hanoi too. We also saw buses on the road that said they ran between Sam Neua and Son La, but we don’t know how frequently they go. There was also a good amount of local transport to the borders – we saw at least one sangthaew per hour running between Vieng Xay (or maybe Sam Neua) and Nameo, and on the other side there were frequent buses running to Thanh Hoa or to Son La. The road is in good shape pretty much all the way, and is very scenic, however in places it is narrow, bendy and hilly, so no doubt bus transport is slow. Overall we would recommend this route both to cyclists and those relying on public transport – it seems very do-able, and offers good rewards in terms of scenery and a real feeling of getting off the beaten track. Plus it offers the most direct route between the tourist hot-spots of Hanoi in Vietnam and Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang in Laos.