Every now and then as a long-term traveller, you come across a journey that’s notoriously bad. The last time I seriously considered replacing a chunk of travel with an overpriced flight was when I travelled from Cali to Quito by bus on a road reported to have frequent hijackings and muggings.
As I headed north through Laos, it became apparent that another hellish journey was on the horizon. Other bloggers had described it as a nightmare journey of over 38 hours and the bus ride from hell. This particular route was Luang Prabang to Hanoi by bus.
SO, WHY DID I BOOK IT?!
I’d like to pretend this was an entirely selfless decision with the sole intention of sharing the most up-to-date information, but the truth is, the bus is at least 2.5 times cheaper than flying (380,000 kip vs 1030,000 kip – on a good day). To put it in context, that’s about two weeks’ accommodation, or 65 big bottles of Beer Lao, AND you save on a night in a hostel and transport to the airport.
What’s more, I’m glad I took the gamble because this journey really isn’t that bad. Sure, there are plenty of annoyances, but with a bit of pre-planning it’s borderline luxury (by backpacker standards…)!
REASONS TO LOVE THE SLEEPER BUS
Air con is pretty hard to come by in Laos, unless you pay significantly more for the luxury. Some hostels turn it on during the night, but even then it rarely seems to work. Luang Prabang can get extremely stuffy, and room fans often keep you awake as stray hairs tickle your face and your sheets billow up like parachutes. The air con on this sleeper bus is just cool enough to keep you comfortable, without freezing your ass off, as most Latin American bus companies do.
Blankets and Pillows
As you board, there’s a generous supply of blankets and stuffed cushions, and you can grab whatever you need. The pillows are really helpful in supporting your head as you go round sharp bends in the road.
Seats Like Beds
I’m baffled when people say the sleeper bus beds in Asia are uncomfortable. Even the most luxurious (and far more expensive) long-distance buses in South America only have chairs that partially recline, and don’t even get me started on Europe. Fair enough, there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre – especially if you bring your valuables on with you in your hand luggage – but as buses go, it’s a rare treat for someone of 5″10′ to be able to stretch out horizontally with room to spare.
Regular Bathroom Breaks
Contrary to other reports on this journey, our bus stopped every few hours for people to use the bathroom – and this was never just by the roadside. Not all of the restrooms had toilet roll or a sink to wash your hands, and most were squatty loos, but that’s hardly the exception in Southeast Asia.
WHAT TO PACK
The following items should definitely make it into your hand luggage. I’d also recommend bringing all of your valuables with you and keeping them close (not difficult considering the space available).
🚌 A selection of snacks (assume you won’t be able to buy anything, even though you probably will)
🚌 A generous supply of toilet roll
🚌 Hand sanitiser
🚌 An extra layer of clothing (to wear or use as extra head support)
🚌 Eye mask
🚌 Ear plugs and/or head phones (I use an app called White Noise, which drowns out distracting sounds and makes me sleep like a baby)
🚌 Entertainment (books, podcasts, music, movies, games, etc)
Always take your bag with you when you get off the bus.
Obviously, when you’re travelling for so long in a bus with loads of other people, there will be things that irritate you. All you can do is prepare as best you can.
Lack of Charging Points
There are no charging points on the bus, so make sure all your electronic devices are fully charged before you set off, and turn them off when you’re not using them.
Light and Noise
When you first board, it looks and sounds like a disco, with Asian rave music blaring out full volume and multicoloured lights flashing down the length of the bus. Don’t worry. Things calm down significantly once you’re on the road. The bus is kept dark and quiet for most of the night. The main irritant is the constant horn beeping bus drivers in Asia use to warn motorbikes and other traffic of their approach, but you learn to ignore it. It’s a good idea to try to sleep soon after you board, at 6 pm, as you’ll find it much more difficult after sunrise.
Bumps, Curves and Frequent Stops
This journey isn’t smooth going. Some of the curves in the road seem to go on forever, throwing your bodyweight around like silly putty, and forcing limbs into uncomfortable positions. The best way to get comfortable is to brace yourself with as many bags, cushions and blankets as you can find, so you stay relatively still regardless of the motion of the bus. You’ll also find that the bus stops randomly and frequently to let people on and off, and to pick up and drop off small packages. It seems it doubles as a postal service. Try to block it out. If you’re stopping for a border crossing or official break, they will wake you.
The bus often arrives at the border with Vietnam at least a few hours before the immigration offices open for business. It’s unclear whether this is to give the bus driver a chance to rest, or to act as contingency in case there are problems on the road, but rather than be annoyed by the wait, it’s worth considering that the alternative would have been leaving from Luang Prabang a little later in the evening and getting less sleep. It’s also a chance to get some shut eye without contending with the constant motion and noise of the bus.
Just after 7, things come to life and you’re herded through the departure point. Make sure you have your departure card to hand.
After a welcome chance to stretch the legs while strolling a few hundred metres to reach the Vietnamese side, you might be asked to cough for an official in the least effective border health check imaginable, before hoisting your bags off the bus and watching them go through a security scanner noone appears to be monitoring.
ARRIVING IN HANOI
In total, the crossing should take about an hour. We arrived at our ‘not so final’ destination as advertised, just before 6 pm – 24 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. What hadn’t been advertised was the two-hour transfer into the city centre on a cramped bus that was decorated head to toe in flowery curtains and blasting more of the Asian rave tunes.
The last stage of the journey was a taxi to downtown Hanoi from the bus station. There are loads of scooter taxis offering to give you a ride, but around the corner is a proper taxi rank. A big car cost 150,000 VND and our driver looked only mildly put out that he had to wait for five of us to get cash out of an ATM on the way. It’s a good idea to have a map or screenshots of your hostel location to show the taxi driver, as some have very limited English.
FIND ACCOMMODATION DEALS
I’ve recently started using HotelsCombined to search for accommodation. It’s really cool because it aggregates the results of online searches from over 40 travel sites to bring you the best deals much faster than if you had to look them up to compare them separately.
This journey wasn’t the highlight of Southeast Asia, but it was never going to be. It’s a much cheaper alternative to flying and far more comfortable than routes of similar distance in other countries. If you need 5* luxury, it’s not for you, but if you like to have new experiences, save your pennies for further adventures, and make friends on the road, this is your best bet.