Several bus lines connect Vientiane, Laos to international destinations like Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. As part of my 100-day Southeast Asia trip, I needed to travel overland from Vientiane to Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Checking the bus prices, a sleeper bus to Vinh and Hanoi have the same price and Ninh Binh is in the middle of these two Vietnam provinces. Going to Ninh Binh from Vientiane requires crossing the Nam Phao and Cau Treo border.
What I did is to get a bus ticket to Hanoi and asked the bus crew to drop me in Ninh Binh. If I had the bus to Vinh, it will cost me an additional bus or train to Ninh Binh. The bus leaves at Vientiane South Bus Station around 5 PM. But you’re in Southeast Asia so wait for the bus to leave until 6:30 PM.
A bottled water, wet tissue, dental kit, and sandwich will be given to all passengers after the bus leaves the terminal. The bus has bunks with all seats already reclined. You can also ask for a blanket and a pillow. So far, it was comfortable compared to the bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Around 9 PM, the bus will stop for dinner. You can get a decent meal for LAK25,000 for a plateful of rice, three types of meat, and sautéed cabbage and carrots.
The trip will continue until you reach the Nam Phao International Checkpoint. We arrived at the area around 4 in the morning but the immigration and passport control opens at 7 AM. You can use the time to grab more sleep while the bus is at rest. Else, you can have your early breakfast in two stores near the border control. Noodles are LAK15,000 while chips and cup noodles start from LAK10,000. Toilet is not free for LAK5,000.
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If the immigration officers start to go inside their office, bus crews will also start to scramble inside the immigration hall. It was a chaotic scene with everyone dumping and grabbing their passports in front of the immigration officers. Passport of locals are processed by the bus attendants but for foreigners, you need to do it on your own. I consider the Vietnam to Cambodia border crossing more organized than this.
An officer grabbed my passport and started looking at his monitor. He had a conversation with his superior first before putting my exit stamp. If the time you cross the border is beyond the office hours, you need to pay the overtime fee. I crossed on a Saturday and was required to pay LAK10,000. However, I had no Laos Kip left so I changed my US dollar to Vietnamese dong in a currency exchange at the border and paid VND30,000, as advised by the immigration officer.
After the hullabaloos, exit the immigration hall and look for your bus. Sometimes, immigration police outside the hall will check your passport to verify if you already stamped out before they allow you to go to your bus.
Your bus will go next to the Vietnam passport control, which is around five hundred meters from the Laos border checkpoint. You can walk to the border or wait for your bus to complete all the passengers. For me, the bus driver suggested that Vietnam passport control is ahead. So I walked. On the way, our bus made its way to Vietnam border. What the heck?!?
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There’s a pre-entry area before the immigration booths of Vietnam. The officers will check your passport if you already had your exit stamp from Laos. Go straight to the Vietnamese immigration for them to check your passport and ask you to pay USD1 for the entry stamp. Ink is probably expensive in Vietnam because I paid VND20,000 for my entry stamp. The immigration officer said, USD1 for the stamp. When I asked why, he returned my passport. I said I had no dollars and asked how much in dong, they said VND20,000. I just complied than being denied entry to Vietnam. I’m not sure if the fee is for overtime or another scam that these authorities do. I didn’t see any information for overtime fees unlike at the Laos side.
After the entry procedure, get your backpack or luggage from the bus for the x-ray scan and check. When everyone completed the procedure, the bus will enter Vietnam. Next step would be Vietnam immigration police again checking the vehicle for anything suspicious or undeclared items. After that, you can return your stuff into the bus compartment.
Everyone again needs to go to the post-entry area where the immigration police checking for your entry stamp. Finally, wait for your bus to reach that point and enjoy another few hours of sleep until you reach your destination. I arrived around 3:30 PM in Ninh Binh.
I was supposed to do Hanoi to Luang Prabang on my first Southeast Asian backpacking trip but the long hour bus ride was too overwhelming for a first-timer like me. On this trip, I needed to cross Laos to Vietnam to continue my itinerary and already prepared for the almost 24-hr bus ride. It was fine because the travel is an experience itself but the immigration processes between these countries, specifically at Nam Phao – Cau Treo border, just add burdens to the tiring trip.