Though there are airports in both Hanoi and Savannakhet, there is no direct air link between the two cities. Savannakhet airport is served by Lao Airlines only with a very limited list of destinations and unreasonably expensive air tickets. You can still connect via Danang, Vientiane or even Bangkok, but from the point of view of the cost this is not an option to be considered. Travelling from Hanoi to Savannakhet overland takes time but leaves you with a choice of a direct bus hop or a combination train-plus-bus trip with a layover in Hue or Danang.
From Hanoi to Savannakhet by direct bus
The distance between Hanoi in Northern Vietnam and Savannakhet in Western Laos is approximately 700 km. Travelling overland takes no less than 14 hours if you drive through all way long without any stops, as you are going to negotiate quite a few winding stretches of road en route. Add time spent at the border crossing and pit stops to stretch your legs – and 20 hours which a direct bus needs to bring you from the capital of Vietnam to the capital city of Savannakhet province in Laos is explicable.
There are several operators ready to bring you to Savannakhet with HTX Van Tai operating direct buses between Hanoi and Savannakhet. Currently there are four buses a week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday but the schedule can change, so check in advance. Buses depart at 6pm and reach Savannakhet by 2pm the next day: such scheduling making the tiresome trip bearable if you opt for a sleeper bus.
Note that Hanoi–Savannakhet route is served by both soft seats VIP buses and VIP Sleeper buses. If you have already travelled by bus in Vietnam, you are most probably well acquainted with sleeper buses – by some inexplicable reason sleeper buses enjoy great popularity in Vietnam but are hard or impossible to come across to in other neighbouring countries like Thailand, Myanmar or Laos.
Inside a sleeper bus there are two tiers of berths, three berths per row, organized in one+two clusters separated by the aisle. It means that if you are travelling alone, try to grab a separate berth if you do not want to sleep side by side with a total stranger. Another issue with sleeping berths is the angle of the ‘pillow’ thanks to which you may find yourself huddling miserably in the lower part of the berth as the bus moves on. If these two issues do not sound discouraging for you, you may then probably like travelling by sleeper bus.
Tickets cost VND935,000/USD40.
In Hanoi, HTX Van Tai international bus to Laos departs from Hanoi Nuoc Ngam station. In Savannakhet, buses arrive to Savannakhet bus station which sits on Route 9W. It is a 15-minute walk from the bus station to the central part of the city by the Mekong River or just a 5-minute walk to the Royal Thai Consulate-General which is located some 500 m before you reach the bus station on the same side of the road. There are tuk-tuk drivers hanging around the bus station ready to bring you to any destination within the city and beyond. Opposite to Vientiane, prices are usually reasonable.
To get from Vietnam to Laos, direct international buses normally use Nam Phao border crossing located approximately half way between Hanoi and Savannakhet.
From Hanoi to Savannakhet via Hue
Travelling from Hanoi to Savannakhet via Hue makes your journey at least 200 km and a couple of hours longer. It looks unreasonable from the first sight but in fact makes sense for several reasons. First, splitting a long journey into several shorter stretches is often a good idea. Instead of immediately jumping onto your next transport in Hue you can take your time and spend a day or a couple of hours visiting a new place or just stretching your legs in a comfort of a cosy cafe. Second, Hanoi and Hue are connected by both buses and trains, and if you are a railway buff, this is a good point to cover a part of the distance by your favourite means of transport. Third, opposite to Hanoi–Savannakhet route, there are daily buses between Hue and Savannakhet (VND529,000/USD24).
If you are planning to take a direct bus bus to Savannakhet in Hue, you will pass via Lao Bao border crossing which is located further south from Nam Phao border crossing used by the direct Hanoi–Savannakhet bus.
Why go to Savannakhet
Due to its strategic location close to the Thai border and the presence of the Royal Thai Consulate-General, Savannakhet is a popular visa run destination for travellers and long stayers in Thailand who need to get their Thai visa. If you are choosing between Vientiane and Savannakhet for this purpose, go to Savannakhet as queues at the consulate are not so long there as in the capital of Laos. The overwhelming majority of foreigners you are going to meet in Savannakhet – apart from 38 local expats – will come to town exclusively for obtaining their Thai visa, which is a pity as even the city, not to mention its surrounding area, deserves a closer acquaintance. Old time French colonial fleur, fire red sunsets over Mekong, great local coffee and colourful Lao style temples form a beautiful setting for a couple of lazy days.
Where to stay in Savannakhet
The most convenient area to stay in Savannakhet is the old town. There are a lot of guesthouses east of 9W which puts you close to the river and the best cafes and restaurants in town like Cafe Chai Dee, Cafe Chez Boune and Lin’s Cafe – do not miss the breakfast in the latter, it is outstanding. Guesthouses are easily found by large yellow signs with red letters – check several before committing as standards differ greatly but in general you can get a clean double air-con room for about USD15. Savan Pattana Guesthouse is especially recommended.
What to do in Savannakhet
Savannakhet is one of the most underrated destinations in Laos. It may not rival Luang Prabang in its colonial architecture and glamour and do not offer world class attractions but it definitely possesses its very own quaint charm and if you stay around for a day or two you will love the city for sure. Take your time and have a stroll around the old town with its green streets flanked by French colonial mansions and blooming with all possible types of tropical trees and shrubs.
Have your sun downer in the form of beer Lao on one of many simple wooden terraces overlooking the Mekong River – sunsets are spectacular from there – and then head to Saint Teresa Church and Tadat Yen Plaza where a busy night market takes place every evening. Find there all usual Thai, Lao and Vietnamese specialties alongside with some popular Western classics like French fries or burgers at reasonable prices.
Watch how statues of Buddha are produced in the premises of Xaiyaphoum Temple on the bank of the Mekong River. You can witness the whole process from casting the plaster to polishing, coating with white, yellow and gold painter and lacquer. The wat itself is the oldest one in Savannakhet and is said to date back to 16th century. The residing monks are always happy to practice their English speaking skills with the visitors and will gladly share with you some insider information about their life in Savannakhet and Laos.
There is a very modest in size dinosaur museum in Savannakhet, too. It is located close to the Mekong River and houses a huge collection of assorted reptile bones; its major draw being the opportunity to touch millennia old remnants.
Possibly the most interesting historical attraction close to the town is That Ing Hang Stupa located off Route 9W back northeast from town. To get there, negotiate a tuk-tuk ride (USD12) or hire a scooter/bike. There is a 16th century old stupa with beautiful stone work along with a scattering of more modern structures and a long gallery with images of Buddha which runs the length of the perimeter. The stupa is ranked as number 2 most important religious structure in the southern Laos after the famous Wat Phu Khmer ruins in Champasak.
Onward travel from Savannakhet
Savannakhet is a convenient gateway to the northeastern region of Thailand, Isan. In 2007 a 1600 m long, 12 m wide concrete bridge over the Mekong River connected Savannakhet with Thai province of Mukdahan, and now all international visitors should cross the border over the bridge – no more boat border crossings allowed for other nationalities apart from the Thais and the Lao. International buses from Savannakhet to Mukdahan leave regularly throughout the day from Savannakhet bus station – buy tickets on the spot.
Going further down to southern Laos, Pakse is the most obvious stop. The capital of Champasak is a convenient base for exploring the famous Bolaven Plateau and the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu. Pakse is also connected to Hue (VND659,000/USD29) and Danang by daily buses and there are international buses to Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand, too.