Travelling from Hanoi to Luang Prabang can be either cheap or quick. Direct buses take up to a full day to bring you to your destination but save you some bucks in your pocket while flying is a time-saving but not a budget friendly alternative. There are no cities and towns between the two to make for a convenient stop to split your journey into several parts, so you have to choose whether to spend the whole day of your precious holiday on the move or to invest into a pricy air ticket instead.
Flights from Hanoi to Luang Prabang
It takes just one hour to get from Hanoi to Luang Prabang by plane. There are daily direct flights between the capital of Vietnam and the cultural capital of Laos. The route is served by both Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines with several daily flights operated by both companies. Neither of the two offer dirt-cheap tickets – expect to pay from USD100 one-way if you are lucky enough to catch a promo fare and from USD150 if you are left with the economy standard one. But taking into consideration the length of the overland journey from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, this extra USD50-USD100 may prove a great investment which will save both your time and your nerves.
The international airport of Hanoi, Noi Bai, is located 45 km from the centre of the city and consequently it takes time to get there. The cheapest way to get to the airport from the Old Quarter is by public bus N17; bus N7 heads to the airport from Kim Ma bus station. Note that it is also the slowest way to get to the airport – let at least 1½ hour for the trip (VND9,000).
There is an airport shuttle provided by Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar. Both have offices close to the Old Quarter and advise to show up three hours before your flying time (VND40,000/USD2). You can use the same service if you fly with other airlines, too, but you will not be able to check in for your flight at the office then.
In Luang Prabang, all the flights land in the Luang Prabang International airport, which sits 4 km northeast of the centre of the city. The new airport building was opened in 2013 and still feels too quiet for its international status though it accepts flights from Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Getting from the airport to the city the price for a seat in a shared van is fixed (LAK50,000/USD6), but you can save a couple of bucks flagging down a tuk-tuk on the main road just outside the terminal gates (LAK20,000/USD2.5).
From Hanoi to Luang Prabang by bus
To get from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, buses have to cover a bit under 900 km. The main disappointment is that a great part of the route follows very winding road which doubles the total travel time. Direct buses declare they need up to 24 hours to bring you from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. Though they obviously make several stops en route to let you stretch your legs and stock up on munchies, the journey is going to be a devastating one. On the pro side is the cost of the trip, which is between USD50 and USD60 depending on the operator.
All operators provide VIP sleeper buses on this route what is somewhat compensates the inconvenience of the lengthy journey. Buses leave Hanoi in the early evening – at 5pm (The Sinh Tourist) and at 6.30pm (HTX Van Tai). The latter is cheaper but the former has a more solid and time-tested reputation.
If you have never travelled by a sleeper bus before, note that berths are usually organized in two tiers and in two rows – one row of one berth separated from the second row of two berths by an aisle. If travelling alone, try to grab a separate berth, not a berth in a twin set, if you do not want to spend 24 hours side by side with a total stranger.
If you are staying in the Old Quarter, The Sinh Tourist is a more convenient choice as their buses depart from their office just north of Hoan Kiem Lake while HTX Van Tai buses leave from Hanoi Nuoc Ngam Station 8 km south of the centre.
In Luang Prabang, The Sinh Tourist buses bring you to the Northern bus terminal close to the airport and northeast of the centre. To get to the city, take a tuk-tuk (LAK20,000).
HTX Van Tai buses arrive to the Southern bus terminal, 3 km south of the centre.
From the bus station, walk or take a tuk-tuk to get to the city centre. The rate is flat (LAK10,000 per – well, person, not per ‘seat’), but tuk-tuk drivers tend to insist on LAK20,000.
Tip In Laos, buses from Hanoi to Luang Prabang follow Route 7 which passes through Phonsavan. If you are planning to visit the Plain of Jars, you can get off there instead of going all way to Luang Prabang. You will be able to continue your journey to Luang Prabang later as Phonsavan and Luang Prabang are linked by numerous local buses. The distance between Phonsavan and Luang Prabang is 260 km but buses take no less than 7 hours to complete the route.
Your Lao visa: get it on arrival or in Hanoi?
The majority of the nationalities can obtain a 30-day Lao visa on arrival (check in advance). You can get one at the airport if you fly to Luang Prabang; if you go by bus, VOA is available at the land border crossing you are most likely to use which is Namkan - NamCan (Nge An to Xiengkhuang province).
Note though, that some travellers have reported delays and arguments with the officials not willing to issue VOA at the border crossings, so wish you come prepared, you can apply for your Lao visa in Hanoi. You can do it daily from 8.30am till 11.30am but it is better to come earlier as in fact the Consulate sometimes stops admitting the documents before the official time of closing. It takes three days to get your visa or extra USD5 for a one-day service. Passports with visas are handed out on weekdays from 1pm till 4pm but again try to come between 2pm and 3pm to be on the safe side.
Note that the Lao Consulate and Lao Embassy in Hanoi are located at different addresses: the Consulate section is in 40 Quang Trung, 1 km south of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Why go to Luang Prabang
Full of a very characteristic mix of traditional Lao architecture with elegant European insertions, which reminds of the times when the city was part of French Indochine, Luang Prabang has its zest. From elaborately carved wats and teak houses to white-washed elegant homes and clean streets with lush tropical verdure it possesses its undeniable charm almost no traveller can resist. Luang Prabang is often featured in the most worth-visiting cities in the South East Asia charts and is designated as the World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It does get increasingly commercialized these days, and if you do not want to miss that special atmosphere of a cosy small city with very unique personality, put Luang Prabang on your travel itinerary soon.
Getting around in Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is quite compact and many sights within the city boundaries can be reached on foot.
Bicycles can be rented from many hotels and guesthouses. Per day rates start from LAK10,000/USD1.25 and go up to LAK10,000/USD6 for a good mountain bike. These are also ok for touring some attractions outside the city, i.e. the spectacular Kuang Si Waterfall (30 km).
If you do not feel fit enough to pedal two hours one-way, tuk-tuks are plentiful though not so cheap if compared to their counterparts in Thailand or Cambodia.
You can rent a motorbike, too, but be aware of scams. Park in paid parking wherever possible and lock your bike with an additional wheel lock, otherwise you risk to find it stolen (in many cases – by the same rental company you have rented it from!).
Things to do in Luang Prabang
You can come to Luang Prabang for a couple of days and easily end up staying for over a week. It is next to impossible to leave this charming city where traditional Lao culture and old world European elegance blend together on the background of jungle covered mountains singing with murmuring voices of crystal clear waterfalls. Apart from numerous temples of different historical and architectural interest dotting the city, the two star attractions within an easy reach of Luang Prabang include picturesque multi-tiered Kuang Si Waterfalls, a visit to which can be combined with Kuang Si Butterfly Park; and the famous Buddha Caves of Pak Ou, which are best explored as a part of a canoe tour and pair perfectly with Lao ‘whiskey village’.
There are a number of art and craft villages around Luang Prabang where textiles and pottery is produced and which make for a great half-day trip. A small Garavek Traditional Storytelling Theatre is often overlooked by the guests of the city but is worth visiting for its nice presentation of Lao folktales and legends. An experience not to be missed in Luang Prabang is absolutely otherworldly sunsets over the river which have a special flavour if enjoyed from aboard a cruise.
Onward travel from Luang Prabang
Buses and minibuses link Luang Prabang to many local destinations to the south of the city, including Vang Vieng, a popular spot for tubing and caving (200 km, 3½ hours), and the capital city of Vientiane (340 km, 7 hours). For the eastern destinations like Tha Kaek, Savannakhet or Pakse connect via Vientiane.
A very popular route to be taken from Luang Prabang is a cruise or a slow boat up the Mekong River to the Lao town of Huai Xai in Bokeo province with an overnight stop in Pak Beng. The trip is raved about by many travellers and thanks to a number of different options caters to all tastes and budgets. In Huai Xai you then can cross the border to Thailand and explore the northern parts of the country including Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces.
The most popular international destinations from Luang Prabang you can be interested in, include Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Siem Reap in Cambodia, all connected to Luang Prabang by direct flights.