Vietnam to Laos:Sometimes the worst bus rides are the best

My trip to Laos started with an 11 hour sleeper bus from Sapa to Diem Bien Phu near the Laos border. This worked well because it allowed us to sleep overnight, arrive early in the morning and jump on a bus to Luang Prabang soon after arriving. From the outside it looked like a normal bus but the inside had a line of bunk bed like seats/beds along the left side window, an aisle and 2 more columns on the right. The seats/beds were actually narrow recliner like seats in the reclined position stuffed tightly together and not adjustable. The problem was in Vietnam/Laos, I am on the taller side and these seats were not sized for us tall people. I was able to scrunch in but it made for a sleepless night. And that…was the good part of the trip.

With crinkled body joints we arrived on time early in the morning and quickly found our next bus that was to take us across the border and on to Luang Prabang. Although technically still in Vietnam, this is where I started to learn about Lao time. While the bus slowly filled with locals, there were 8 westerners already seated who were all expecting the bus to leave any minute (because of the schedule and what the bus driver kept implying). 2 hours later we finally left the bus terminal. We made it about 2 blocks before the driver pulled over and spent the next hour loading cargo on top of, and in the bus (clothes hidden in the back, rice and garlic under the seats and in the aisles). Once that was complete we drove another 2 blocks and did the same thing again, before finally beginning the drive to the boarder. We completed the 18 mile journey to the border 5 hours after our supposed departure time.

Once we got to the border we quickly cleared the Vietnamese side and moved to the Laos checkpoint. This was where I found out borders between countries can actually close for lunch. Because of our bus drivers impeccable timing, we arrived at Laos customs right after the visa person began his lunch break. After 45 minutes or so he opened his window, provided us our visas and passed our documentation on to the passport department. Unfortunately, the passport department takes their lunch break 1 hour after the visa department so we had to then wait another hour for them to open their window and provide us entry. Wouldn’t you know it, this day they took a long lunch. Luckily there was a cafe that the passengers and crew could hang out at while we waited.

Finally with passports in hand, and 8 hours into a scheduled 12 hour second bus ride, we were ready and excited to get beyond the 18 miles and put some distance between us and the border. We all dutifully piled back onto the bus and made it a good 3 or 4 miles before the driver announced and pulled over for a 1 hour lunch break.

Once that was finished we again began our quest to Luang Prabang. We also began picking up Lao people on the side of the road. As the terrain was jungly and mountainous, the roads were narrow, winding and undulating. Being from the country you would expect the locals would be accustomed to them. Nope. My guess is that these Lao do not travel in buses much because for the next 10 hours there were 8 westerners surrounded by a bus full of Asians heaving their guts out into plastic bags. This of course led to some of the westerners also heaving their guts out into plastic bags.

We continued on this way until around 9pm when our bus driver pulled into a small town and announced a 1 hour dinner break, dropped everyone off at a restaurant and proceeded to leave with the bus. 1 1/2 hours later he returned but then announced it was time for him and his crew’s dinner break. At this point there were a few westerners that were beyond irate but to me it was comical and I knew it would be a great memory once it was over.

With the driver and crew now fed, passengers calmed and eager to finish the trip, we all climbed back onto the bus for our last leg of the journey. We finally pulled into Luang Prabang at 3:30am about 23 hours after stepping onto this second bus and 11 hours after the expected arrival. Luckily a tuk tuk appeared out of nowhere as we started the walk into town and was able to deliver all 8 of us to the hostel we agreed upon during the trip. And with that, my greatest 34 hour bus journey came to an end.