We just managed a crazy 22 hour trip from Cat Ba Island to Muang Khua, Laos. Along the way we stopped in Hai Phong, Hanoi, and Bein Dien Phu. I want to regale you with the story in the hopes that some other traveler doing research will find it useful. Our trip was on the date of this post, starting and ending .
Our goal was simple: get the hell out of north Vietnam and away from their annoying, crooked tourism industry.
Packaged ride from Cat Ba to Hanoi
We started by taking a local bus from Cat Ba town to a harbor where we caught a ferry. The ferry took us to Hai Phong, we got on another bus, then after a short ride it stopped somewhere else in Hai Phong.
We were somewhat amazed that we got to Hanoi without having to fork over any "unexpected" fees, but sure enough the Cat Ba travel agencies are true to their word. A remarkable exception in North Vietnam!
Get to My Dinh bus station
Our bus dropped us off at some random bus station, whose name I forgot. But the station we needed was My Dinh. So we hailed a cab, luckily we bumped into two others we'd met in Mui Ne and split it four ways. The cab was 360,000 VND in total for a 26km ride. Sheesh! For comparison, the whole journey (bus/ferry/bus) had only cost 210,000 per person at this point. Make that 300,000 each now.
Plan for money issues
You might need money at this point and there is a working ATM across from the bus station — not inside it — near the northwest corner. Get at least 2 million VND per person so you can buy your bus ticket at My Dinh, buy another ticket at Bien Dien Phu, and have enough to cross the border and buy your visa for Laos.
Bus ride to Dien Bien Phu
At My Dinh we just wandered around looking for the right bus, because there's no ticket counter at this massive, bus station which was close to one square kilometer. Since we were running a bit short on time we frantically talked to people, pointing at our destination on the phone and saying "Laos? Laos?" until we found the right bus.
We got on our night bus and for the most part it was uneventful. Hooray for a moment of sanity, even if it wasn't the best night's sleep.
Bus ride to Muang Khua
Within the Dien Bien Phu bus station we walked around for only a moment before finding the small bus labeled "VIETNAM ⇄ LAOS" — this is the bus you take from Vietnam to Laos.
This is the "nightmare" part of the trip that everyone complains about online. I wouldn't say it's that bad, but it can wear on the nerves. The bus is slow, stops frequently to pick up packages and passengers carrying the most broad selection of possessions imagineable, and in general is kind of scary as you travel up and down the mountains on sometimes skinny roads.
When things were loaded or unloaded, we often were asked to help do the work. On this trip you're not a passenger, you're a participant.
The final destination of the bus was Luang Namtha, but we'd chosen Muang Khua as our stop because it was closer to the border and we could end the madness faster. Muang Khua is a lovely town and I'd definitely recommend stopping there.
Vietnamese border scams
Even though we got overcharged for basically everything on this trip, it was the Vietnamese border police near Bien Dien Phu who had the last laugh. Their border control lied to us about the Laos border control. They set it up well by posting an officer who was a smooth english speaker, being all friendly and officially declaring that we could return to Vietnam if we wished... part the official process I guess.
Then he proceeded to tell us that the Laos border police would not let us exchange our VND into LAK, and that we should do it before stamping out so we could pay our Laos visas in LAK... a 100% lie so they could scam us on the exchange rate. We knew it was a bad rate, but at the time we believed that we had to exchange then, so we did it.
Not only do the Laos border police at Tay Trang accept USD — which we had in reserve specifically for visas — but they exchanged VND, and they did it at a much more reasonable rate that matched the actual market that day. Vietnamese offered 7500 LAK/USD, Laos border offered 8200 LAK/USD, slightly better than market rate!
Bottom line, exchange nothing at the Vietnamese border control. They're jerks. Wait til you get to Laos border control.
With all of that behind us and visas certified, we got back on our cramped, overstuffed bus and proceeded to finish the remaining bumpy 26km into Laos.
We were so utterly relieved when we got to Muang Khua, a wonderful little town in the mountains. But more on that later!