When Travel Broke Me: Nightmare Bus Ride From Hanoi To Laos

Vietnam was a mixed bag of good and bad experiences for me. On the plus side, there was the magic of Hoi An’s lanterns at night, the newfound local friend who helped me get the right window seat to catch the most beautiful views in the train ride from Da Nang to Hue, the best halo-halo (locally known as che thap cam) I have ever tasted in my life in Hue, two delicious dinners – one home-cooked – courtesy of friends in Hanoi, and fun with my boatmates and our very friendly guide in Halong.

The unpleasant experiences, unfortunately, are just as unforgettable. There was the lady in Hoi An who shouted at me and told me to get out of her shop when I pleasantly explained to her that I was looking around at the stores first before buying (she wanted me to buy right that moment, even after I have barely looked at the items for sale), and the rickshaw driver in Hue who asked for double the amount we agreed on. And then there was the bus conductor from Hue to Hanoi who kept touching and poking us passengers unnecessarily, which I noticed he did more with us female passengers. As we arrived in rainy Hanoi and got off the bus, we found out that he had unceremoniously thrown our backpacks out into the flooded pavement, effectively soaking the clothes at the bottom of my backpack.

Hanoi was the worst. It was fascinating at first to watch motorcycles rule the roads and their drivers skillfully weave in and out of traffic, since there are no particular lanes for each motorbike.  Unfortunately, drivers can be bullies. Many sped past me as I crossed the road even when the pedestrian traffic light was on. I also found out that riding a bike in Hanoi is almost equivalent to a death wish (in fact, the number of road accidents in Vietnam are alarming). Even as I biked on the side of the road, motorbike drivers rode dangerously close to me. I swerved and fell quite a few times to avoid hitting or getting hit by motorbikes. Once, I even fell on a driver.

hanoi, vietnam, motorcycle traffic, motorbike traffic

A typical late morning in Hanoi. During rush hour, the number of motorbikes on the road double or triple.

Between the road hazards, the more aggressive vendors (one even tried to scam me by insisting that the price for sewing up my sandals for less than five minutes is 450,000 dong, which is roughly a little over $20) who are aggressive even to locals (staff of different restaurants along one road literally stopped and grabbed the handlebars of my friend’s motorbike to force us to eat at their place) and the smelly sheets and blankets at the Trip Advisor-awarded and blogger-recommended hostel where I checked in (I asked the staff to change them twice because the first time, they only changed the sheets, not the blankets and pillow cases. No apologies from the staff or manager), I was more than ready to leave Hanoi – and Vietnam – on my last day.

I had booked my bus ticket to Luang Prabang, Laos, through my hostel before I checked in. It was $5 higher than the rate I have researched, but then the hostel claims that it only works with trusted tour companies, which I read in the lobby – it was in a signage or a brochure, I think. The person who booked the ticket for me (I think he was the manager), with an oily and practiced salesman smile, assured me that I would get a good bus that is more comfortable than the usual, and also the seat I wanted. I had asked for a seat closer to the door for this bus ride because I noticed that on the bus ride from Hue to Hanoi, all the foreigners were asked to sit at the back.

From the very start, though, the experience did not look promising. I was told a taxi would pick me up – instead, I and other passengers were asked to walk with our backpacks 500 meters or more to the main road, even though taxis plied the road outside the hostel. Then, the person who picked me up at the hostel pushed me into the taxi just as I was putting my backpack inside (Did he think I was not getting in?). And, the taxi did not drop us off at the actual bus station. We had to walk 500 meters or so to get to it.

When we got to the bus station, another person assisted us and asked our destinations. I clearly said “Luang Prabang” and he bought all our tickets for us before taking us to our bus. I noticed the bus did not have a signage save for a tiny “Lao” sign, but I trusted I was headed to the right place anyway.

nightmare bus hanoi to vientiane, (vietnam to laos) lao sign only, no destination signage

Our bus for Laos. See the “Lao” sign?

The promised seat for me close to the door was just that – a promise. Like in the bus to Hanoi from Hue, all foreigners were required to sit at the back. At least I was able to get a single reclining seat for myself by the window, with no stranger to sleep beside me.

I had read about other bloggers’ experiences in bus rides from Hanoi to Luang Prabang – no decent food stops from night till noon the next day, and very limited toilet stops, with the ground as your toilet. The ride can last for 30 hours or longer. So I came prepared with food and water good until the next day and an umbrella to cover me should there be no bushes when I go about my business. I had also booked and paid online for a hostel in Luang Prabang so I need not look for a hostel when the bus arrives by 1 am or 2 am.

I left the hostel at 5 pm, arrived at the bus station past 6 pm (yes, the bus station was quite far), and the bus left around 7 pm. At 9 pm we stopped for dinner. So far, so good.

bus hanoi to vientiane, vietnam to laos, nightmare bus ride, reclining seat

Where I stayed for most of the next 24 hours

Our next stop was around 6 am at the border. It was a chilly morning, with mountains shrouded in fog. I met a fellow Filipino from my bus, whose company warmed me a bit as we ate breakfast in the food shop.

Busloads of passengers spilled into the immigration office come 7 am. The machine for scanning the passports was not working so we had to wait for around two hours. Here I talked with passengers from my bus and other buses, including a Vietnamese woman traveling with a Cambodian friend to Laos. She was drawing the map of our bus route and showing it to other passengers. I was puzzled when she drew a line from Hanoi to Vientiane, which is towards the northwest of Laos, instead of northeast, where Luang Prabang is. Weren’t we headed to Luang Prabang?

“Are we making a stop to Vientiane first before going to Luang Prabang?” I asked.

She gave me a strange look. “No, the buses here are headed for Vientiane.”

Later I confirmed that we had crossed a different border and I had no choice but to go straight to Vientiane before taking another bus to Luang Prabang. From Vientiane to Luang Prabang would be another 12 hours. Would there even be a bus bound for Luang Prabang by the time we arrived in Vientiane? And how do I communicate this predicament to the bus staff who could not speak English beyond the usual “toilet” and other basics? Even with a Lao sim card, I could not access the Internet at the border for a quick Google translate.

I thought of my paid-for hostel in Luang Prabang, the next 12 hours of another butt-numbing bus ride (plus an extra 12), and all the time I would waste. At that moment, all the unpleasant encounters I had in Vietnam flashed in my mind and I broke down.

I started bawling. Like a baby. Outside the immigration office.

I realized then that while I had some great experiences, Vietnam  had mostly felt like a desert of land mines I had to navigate without a map. And so mines blew off occasionally on my face. The kindness of some locals felt like mere oases in the otherwise vast desert.

This was the biggest land mine of all. I felt blown apart, spent.

immigration office, border, vietnam and laos, bus hanoi to vientiane

Where I reached my breaking point

Thankfully, the Vietnamese woman I met talked to the bus staff for me and explained my situation. She told me he would ensure that I take the right tuktuk to the bus station for Luang Prabang-bound buses. He made a call and gave me 100,000 kip for the bus and the tuktuk, which he said was enough for both the bus and the tuktuk. Unfortunately, I found out later the amount was not even enough for bus fare.

“I know the last bus leaves 830 pm,” the Vietnamese woman assured me. “We will arrive in Vientiane around 7 pm. So you still have enough time.” Her expression turned earnest. “If only we were in the same bus, I could make sure you ride the right tuktuk.”

I was assured somewhat but that comfort did not last long. I still had to make sure that I get to the right bus station on time when I arrive. Will the bus staff indeed help me when I get to Vientiane?

muddy roads crossing the border vietnam to laos, hanoi to vientiane bus

Crossing on foot from Vietnam to Laos. We walked for around a kilometer before arriving in Laos.

After crossing the border, we made a lunch stop around 1 pm, and a toilet break in the fields around 5 pm. We arrived in Vientiane around 7:10 pm. The tuktuk driver was charging me 50,000 kip to get to the bus station for Luang Prabang buses, though he would still be taking other passengers to the city first, which was far from the station. The bus staff tried to talk to him but he would not budge. The staff told me he would be back in five minutes.

Ten minutes later and he was still not back. I asked his friend to help me find a motorbike driver instead so that it would be faster, as the ride takes around 30 minutes, but the driver was asking for 100,000 kip, and I realized I had not exchanged enough kip at the border.

I tried to exchange my dollars to kip with some shopkeepers at the bus station, but they refused. The motorbike drivers would not take dollars.  It was 7:20 pm. The tuktuk driver I talked to earlier had left.

Another ten minutes and the bus staff was still not back. I asked – no, begged – his friend to help me. All the motorbike drivers we talked to refused to take me to the bus station. It was 7:30 pm.

Finally, at 7:40 pm, we found a motorbike driver who agreed to take me – and, he could speak English! I was able to breathe out a sigh of relief after 30 long minutes of what felt like holding my breath. I hopped on and asked him to take me to the bus station as fast as he could.

Along the way, we passed by dusty, dark roads with no street lights. There were no establishments and just open field on either side. This was the exact moment the motorbike driver chose to ask me if I had a boyfriend. For a split second I was terrified – what if he pulled over and tried something? We were in the middle of nowhere. He could just leave me on the field for dead. But then he kept going.

We arrived at the bus station at 8:15 pm, just enough time for me to catch the last bus – if the last bus was indeed at 8:30 pm. We found out that the last bus had left at 8 pm.

On our way to Vientiane city proper, the motorbike’s engine died. We had run out of gas.

I was in Laos, but why did I feel like I was still navigating Vietnam? Or maybe, this bus ride was Vietnam’s send-off for me, so that I do not forget her. I certainly wouldn’t.

This is my entry to the Pinoy Travel Bloggers Blog Carnival for the month of October, with the theme “Worst Travel Moments,”  hosted by Jona Branzuela Bering of Backpacking with a Book.

35 thoughts on “When Travel Broke Me: Nightmare Bus Ride From Hanoi To Laos

  1. That was a very scary journey. Im glad you still made it back to tell us your horrible story. I will never ever travel to Vietnam. Thank you for sharing your horrors.

    • Thanks, Edith! I would not advise against traveling Vietnam, though – it is beautiful! (blog posts coming up!) – but just be careful, particularly in Hanoi. And, like I said in the blog post, I still had some great experiences. 🙂 I am also open to the idea that there may be more areas in Vietnam where I can have nicer experiences – after all, I have only been to six cities/towns. But yes, I have had difficulties in my experience of Vietnam so far in general.

  2. hi claire, sad that you had to go through all that. but glad that you were able to keep your wits about you during that long, arduous journey and that you are still positive about traveling. *slow clap*

    • Thanks, Jun! I did lose my wits for some time but I got them back.

      And yes, I haven’t given up on travel. Not by a long shot. But there was a moment there when I really, really wanted to go home (that’s for another blog entry hehe). 🙂

  3. Hi Claire, I’m so sorry to hear about what happened to you. You just basically summarized why I’m so scared of doing solo traveling (for one, masyado akong malapit sa mga nagtatanong kung may boypren nako. wow. And, I always get scared haha). But, that lady you met on the bus – she’s proof that there’s goodness in people. 🙂 Thanks for sharing! Really looking forward to traveling with you one of these days. 🙂

    • Thanks! 🙂 I would still urge you to do solo travel, though – it’s a different and enriching experience. 🙂 Just start with places you feel safe and go on from there.

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  5. Hanoi is a pretty place to visit, but there are a lot of not-so-nice people there. I guess I was just fortunate enough to have met more helpful Vietnamese than mean ones during my solo trip.

  6. Hi Claire, this post gave me chills. I thought of braving this route too (Hanoi – Luang Prabang) but now I am having second thoughts.

    • Hi, Kate! Some travelers have better experiences than I did. It just so happened that the hostel’s tour operator put me on the wrong bus, despite me showing my ticket. And the language barrier made the problem worse. So just make sure you get on the right bus. But yes, Hanoi to Vientiane or Luang Prabang IS a long ride. If you want to save money and are prepared to endure some discomfort, take the bus. If you want comfort and convenience (and more safety, arguably), take the plane.

      • I’ll take the bus and I don’t seem to have an option. I don’t have the budget to take the plane. I’ll let you know what happened when all is done. Thank you for sharing.

      • I’ll be taking ~the bus~ in less than 24 hours! I made sure to read your blog again so I’d be reminded of the things I should be cautious about. Thank you 🙂

  7. Hi Claire! I just read this blog of yours and I can only say this.. ” You are so brave” 🙂
    I just don’t know what to do if that happen to me. God is good all the time!
    Those are bumps and test of Faith for you.
    Keep travelling and keep us posted! 😉

    My name is Menchie and I love to travel too! hope to travel with you someday.

  8. Hello, Claire! God has been good to you! Thank you for sharing this. This is very helpful to me. I am a solo traveller also and I rely only only the kindness of strangers (and ideas from bloggers like you). You had a scary yet great experience! Good thing in this life is that our experience teaches us the most. Looking forward to reading more of your travel stories. Hope to bump on you on one of my future travels! Keep safe always!

  9. OMG! Thanks ate Claire! I booked my ticket na to Hanoi. I will go to Sapa and Halong Bay then go to Laos. Same route with what you’ll take. I’m preparing myself mentally for what will happen to me. Thanks for sharing your story. Correct me if I’m wrong, the bus you got in was wrong po dba? So there is actually a bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang? It’s a bad experience that I’d like to try.. I’m sure I’ll regret what I’ve said once I try it haha!

    • Yes, there really is a bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and that’s where they were supposed to put me. The bus experience is manageable. What only made mine stressful was the wrong bus, the language barrier, and the unhelpful people. Even if a tour operator guides you to your bus (like I was), triple check if they put you on the right one. The one I rode didn’t have signage.

      • I have a lot of questions to ask Ate Claire since I’m going on a month long trip from Feb to March and it’s my first time to travel abroad. I’m really nervous.

        Feb 27 to 29 – KLO to KL
        March 1 to 7 – Hanoi
        March 8 to 14 – Laos
        March 15 to 20 – Bangkok
        March 20 to 24 – Cambodia
        March 25 – Go back to PH

        Can I contact you via facebook or email po? 🙂 It would be a great help! ^o^

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  13. You are so brave girl 😀👏 It was indeed a horrible experience but those experiences added color and thrill to your journey, right? 😊 Also you could not have written this nice blog if it wasnt for this experience. I just had my first trip abroad last month and cant wait for my next trip this December. I would also like to try that experience of yours in the future hehe

  14. That was a once in a lifetime experience 😊👏 Thank God that nothing bad happened to you especially that you are a girl. Just had my first travel abroad last month and since then ive been craving for more travel adventures. Cant wait for my next trip this December and July next year. I will also try that bus trip to explore more about Southeast Asia

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