As with other destinations in Laos, travelling from Hanoi to Vientiane is easy and straightforward but either time consuming and budget friendly – if you choose to go overland – or pricy and quick – if you prefer to fly. In either case there are daily direct options to choose from plus you can opt for a combination trip flying via Luang Prabang or travelling by train from Hanoi to Vinh in Vietnam and then taking an international bus to Vientiane from Vinh.
Flights from Hanoi to Vientiane
Lao Airlines in cooperation with Vietnam Airlines operate one or two daily flights between Hanoi and Vientiane (depending on the day of the week). There is the morning flight leaving Hanoi at 9.40am and the afternoon one at 4.40pm. Flying time is 1 hour 10 minutes.
Tip Prices for the same flights may differ if you by via Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines. Always check both companies. Chances that the best deals are waiting for you with Vietnam Airlines are much higher. E.g. promo fare from Hanoi to Vientiane with Lao Airlines is USD120, while Vietnam Airlines sell the same tickets for USD90 and even cheaper if you are lucky to grab their special deal.
If there are no direct deals, you can check Hanoi–Luang Prabang–Vientiane flights. There are daily international flights from Hanoi to Luang Prabang with Lao and Vietnam Airlines, which connect very conveniently with domestic ones from Luang Prabang to Vientiane with Lao Airlines. The ticket will cost you double price compared to the direct Hanoi–Vientiane option, but you can get to Vientiane in mere 3½ hours (departure from Hanoi is at 10.30am, from Luang Prabang – at 1.05pm, arrival to Vientiane at 1.50pm) what is very good compared to a long, long bus journey.
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 (VND5,000).
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 Vientiane the International Airport Wattay is located 3 km northwest of the centre. The terminal building has been given a facelift recently and now features ATMs, currency exchange counters, several snacks outlets, restaurants and the information counter. You can get an official taxi to the centre of Vientiane right at the airport in the arrivals hall. The rate is flat and is USD7. A budget option is to get out of the terminal building and walk to the main road (about 500 m) where you can negotiate a ride with tuk-tuk drivers (normally at half of the taxi price) or hop onto a local bus which costs 4000 kip (USD0.5).
From Hanoi to Vientiane by direct bus
The shortest road distance between Hanoi and Vientiane is 760 km. The route follows QL1A and Route 13, crossing the border between Vietnam and Laos at Nam Phao International border crossing. Buses take up to 22 hours to cover the whole distance, making the trip rather a tiring undertaking.
Several tourist bus operators serve the route offering very similar service in terms of comfort and price. Both HTX Van Tai and The Sinh Tourist have VIP Sleeper buses with berths, a popular type of buses for longer travels in Vietnam. Buses depart from Hanoi early in the evening (5pm and 6.30pm – check the schedule in advance as it varies depending on the day of the week) and bring you to Vientiane the next afternoon.
HTX sells tickets at VND670,000/USD30; The Sinh Tourist is more expensive at VND930,000/USD40. Taking into consideration that in Hanoi HTX buses leave from Hanoi Nuoc Ngam Station south of the centre and The Sinh Tourist buses originate from the company’s office just a couple of blocks north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the latter is handier if you stay somewhere around the Old Quarter.
In Vientiane both bus companies use Vientiane Southern Bus Station located off Route 13 – strangely enough – northeast of the central part of the city, which stretches along the Mekong River. It is about 9 km south along Route 13 to the morning market and in-city bus station of Khua Din – tuk-tuk drivers will ask about LAK50,000/USD6 to bring you there.
From Hanoi to Vientiane via Vinh
Splitting a long journey into shorter parts can be a good idea to make the overland trip bearable. In case with Hanoi–Vientiane you can consider making a stop in Vinh in Nghe An province in Vietnam.
Vinh sits on the main Hanoi–Ho Chi Minh City railway line and thus can be reached by train. There is a wide choice of departures throughout the day, the whole trip taking 6 hours. Ticket price varies depending on the type of the car you choose (VND400,000/USD20 for second class AC seats in media). Schedule-wise there are several very convenient trains – make your choice in correspondence with your plan in Vinh. If you want to spend at least one night in the city, then take SE7 at 6am from Hanoi reaching Vinh by midday and leaving you with the whole day for sightseeing ahead of you. If you want to hop onto the international bus to Vientiane immediately after reaching Vinh –what actually does not make much sense, –then consider trains SE19 or SE17 leaving Hanoi at 8.10pm and 8.40pm respectively and reaching Vinh in small hours right in time to catch the bus to Vientiane which leaves Vinh at 6am. Travel time from Vinh to Vientiane is 10 hours, tickets cost USD20.
Why go to Vientiane
At the first sight the capital of Laos may look too provincial, too laid-back and too sleepy compared to the chaotic rhythms of Hanoi. There is a distinctive French influence felt everywhere around, from great local coffee and fresh baguettes to handsome mansions and the stately Arc de Triumph, but this French fleur somehow differs greatly from what you find in Hanoi. Nevertheless, Vientiane certainly has its own character and charm. Its boulevards are wide and leafy, its wats are bright and elaborately decorated, its flavours are spicy and its pace of life is well-measured. The sunsets over Mekong are always spectacular and there are enough sights in the city and beyond to keep you busy for at least a couple of days.
Getting around in Vientiane
Wide Vientiane boulevards and streets do not see as much traffic as other Asian capitals, and the flat terrain makes it possible to negotiate the city thanons by bicycle. These are available for rent in many guesthouses at about USD1 per day, though the quality of such bicycles leaves much to be desired.
Tuk-tuks are plentiful but those hanging around the night market close to Mekong do not fall below USD5 with their rates.
There are public buses in Vientiane (6,000 kip) and the most useful route is #14 from Talat Sao (Morning market) to the Friendship bridge and further to Buddha Park.
Things to do in Vientiane
Though at first sight Vientiane may look modest compared to the capitals of the neighbouring countries, it definitely has enough sights and activities to keep you busy at least for a couple of days. The city features quite a few interesting wats and stupas out of which try not to miss Wat Ho Phra Kaew, the 16th century temple which used to house the sacred Emerald Buddha image, now resident in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Not less impressive is Wat Sisaket, the oldest monastery in Laos with great murals depicting scenes from Jataka. That Luang, one the most important religious monuments in the country, dates back to the 16th century as well, but was rebuilt in the middle of the past century; yet the shape of this stupa reminiscent of a lotus bud has been replicated in many wats throughout the country and in Thai region of Isan.
You will come across Patuxai and the black stupa more than once while taking a stroll around the city; the former has a nice park with a fountain and is especially pleasant at sunset. The weird Buddha Park located 25 km southeast of Vientiane is worth visiting, too, even if you have already seen the similar park in Nong Khai. The atmosphere there is serene and there are usually not too many visitors wandering between the stone images of Buddhist and Hindu deities.
Onward travel from Vientiane
Buses link Vientiane to all major cities and destinations throughout the country. Vang Vieng, once a raving tubing destination, enjoys a much quieter mood now but still offers tubing, caving and balloon flights over the spectacular scenery of limestone mountains, is 4 hours north of Vientiane.
Going down the Lao–Thai border, Tha Khaek (7 hours), Savannakhet (11–12 hours) and Pakse (17–18 hours) are logical stops in your Lao itinerary, all offering plenty of activities including nature trails, national parks, Khmer ruins, bat caves and waterfalls.
For the famous jars head to Phonsavan, 360 km north of Vientiane, but be ready to spend over 10 hours on your overland trip.
Vientiane sits only 20 km from Vientiane–Nong Khai border crossing with Thailand with plenty of international buses linking it to Nong Khai on the other side of Mekong (buses originate from the Morning Market bus station). From Nong Khai you can continue your bus journey to many destinations throughout Thailand, including Bangkok. You can fly from Vientiane to Bangkok (1¼ hour), too