There are two options for travelling between Luang Prabang and Hanoi: you either hop onto a direct flight which brings you from A to B in a sheer hour or you embark on a long, long bus journey. The former is quick but not cheap, the latter can help you save a couple of bucks but makes you lose the whole day. If you are looking for an overnight stop to split your journey into several parts, it is a hard task in case with Luang Prabang–Hanoi route. You can travel via Vientiane – 7 hours from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and more 22 hours from Vientiane to Hanoi by bus – but it does not make much sense neither from the point of view of costs nor from the point of view of saving your time. Phonsavan, from where you can visit The Plain of Jars, could make for a convenient break in your journey, but it is only a 7-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang and in fact does not help much. Another point is that you can find it difficult to grab the onward Hanoi bound transport from Phonsavan, too.
Flights from Luang Prabang to Hanoi
Both Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate direct daily flights between Luang Prabang and Hanoi. Normally you can expect to get a ticket for about USD100 one-way even a couple of days prior to your flying date. Always check both companies as Vietnam Airlines often have better deals on combined flights operated in partnership with Lao Airlines. The flight lasts one hour only and compared to a 24-hour road adventure the extra bucks you spend on your air ticket are by all means a wise investment.
Luang Prabang International Airport is located some 4 km northeast of the city. After the upgrade of 2013 it still looks too large for the number of flights it serves, but the geography of destinations you can reach from Luang Prabang is being expanded constantly. From November, 2016, an AirAsia flight connects Luang Prabang to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore have been already served for a period of time. A tuk-tuk from the city to the airport will cost you (LAK20,000/USD2.5).
In Hanoi all flights arrive to the international airport of Noi Bai, located 45 km north of the city centre. After a new international terminal was opened back in 2015 the immigration queues are no longer so notorious for their length. The easiest way to get to the city from the airport is by taxti (USD15-USD25), but there is budget-friendly public transport, too, though taxi drivers will most probably try to persuade you that taxi is your only option.
Bus N7 takes about 1½ hour to get to the centre and so does bus N17 which heads to the Old Quarter. Both cost VND9,000. Vietnam Airlines shuttle bus brings you to their office some 2 km from the Old Quarter for USD2 (VND40,000). Then there is express bus N86 which plies the route between the airport and Hanoi train station every 20–30 minutes from 5am till 10pm (VND30,000).
From Luang Prabang to Hanoi by bus
The distance between Luang Prabang and Hanoi is about 900 km, but a direct bus takes the full 24 hours to get from Laos to Vietnam due to rather a mountainous road. The trip is obviously quite a tiring one. It steals a whole day of your holiday but allows to save some money if you miss the best air fare and do not want to pay USD200 for a one hour flight. Buses leave Luang Prabang early in the evening (5.30pm) and arrive to Hanoi the same time the next day.
The route is served by a number of operators all offering very similar service; the two most popular being HTX Van Tai and The Sinh Tourist. Prices differ insignificantly with The Sinh Tourist being a more expensive choice (USD60 compared to USD50), but the company enjoys very solid reputation. The Sinh Tourist leaves from the Northern bus terminal close to the airport while HTX Van Tai uses the Southern bus terminal. Both are easily reachable from the central part of Luang Prabang by tuk-tuk (LAK20,000).
For this long route both companies use VIP sleeper buses. In theory such buses let you sleep with more comfort during the night compared to ordinary soft seat buses but note that if you book the upper berth, it is not so handy during daytime. Note also, that berths are organized in two tiers in one berth–aisle–two berths manner – take it into consideration when booking your ticket if travelling alone.
Another point to note is that in Hanoi buses arrive to different stations, too. The Sinh Tourist is especially handy if you are planning to stay anywhere around Hoan Kiem Lake while HTX is somewhat inconveniently stops by Hanoi Nuoc Ngam Station, some 8 km south of the lake.
Getting your Vietnam visa in Luang Prabang
While online application for Vietnam visa on arrival is a convenient and hassle-free way to get your visa, you can also apply in a traditional manner in person in Luang Prabang. The Vietnam Consulate General in Luang Prabang is located in 417-418 That Boset Village, some 15-minute walk from the night market. Submit your documents – passport, one photo and the visa fee actually – Monday to Friday, from 8am till 11.30am and get your visa back the next day from 1.30pm till 5pm if you are ready to pay extra USD10 or in three days if you are against any extra fees. Queues are almost non-existent in the Consulate.
Note that applying for your Vietnam visa online is usually a money-saving option.
Why go to Hanoi
The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi comes second as far as the size is concerned, yielding to the southern sister city of Saigon. It may feel quieter, but by no means less charming. Stately colonial mansions live in harmony with a crazy maze of the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter; rich two-dollar pho bowls are sold in front of the coffee shops pouring out world class flavoursome local coffee; and while the atmosphere of austerity embraces the final abode of Ho Chi Minh, almost palpable French flair fills the air.
Where to stay in Hanoi
The main tourist activity in Hanoi is centred around Hoan Kiem Lake and accommodation options are also clustered there. Backpackers headquarters in Hanoi are located in the Old Quarter, which lies to the north and to the east of Hoan Kiem Lake. Guesthouses and hostels for just under USD20 dot the area. You can find dorms for about USD4. Do not rely on touts’ words and always check the room before checking in. Many guesthouses and hotels include free Wi-Fi and breakfast in their rates and accept cash only.
The Old Quarter is also a good area to search for mid-range digs (up to USD50); while for more up-scale accommodation check the French Quarter, south of the lake.
A fair mix of accommodation in all price ranges is found to the west of Hoan Kiem Lake around St Joseph’s Cathedral.
What to do in Hanoi
Hanoi and its surrounding area have enough sights and attractions to keep you busy for weeks if not months. Here are some ideas to spice even a short visit with remarkable local flavour.
Spend the early afternoon wandering around Hoan Kiem Lake or come in the morning to join people practising tai chi there. The red bridge to the pagoda in the middle of the lake makes for a signature Hanoi pic.
It may sound childish, but even adults will definitely enjoy visiting Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre. You may like it or not, but it is an undeniably special experience; do not miss it anyway (close to Hoan Kiem Lake; tickets are about USD4).
Though not exactly as famous as the Chinese one, the Vietnamese cuisine is outstandingly tasty and diverse. Foodies should by all means join Hanoi food tasting tour (shop for one in tour agencies around the lake) or, if you are strongly against tours, do try street food delicacies!
There are quite a few war and communist era sights in Hanoi, and even if they are not among your top interests, do visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Admission is in the morning hours only with no photos allowed inside, but even in the evening the beautifully illuminated building is very impressive.
Take a day off and go out of the city to the Cuc Phoung National Park. The biggest national park in Vietnam, Cuc Phong boasts great biodiversity and makes for a rewarding day trip. Try caving and trekking, check botanical gardens section, see how the endangered primates are treated at the park’s rescue centre, or try to spot some of the 100 species of mammals, 300 species of birds or 50 species of reptiles and amphibians inhabiting the park.
Your onward travel from Hanoi
The principal North-South Railway line connects Hanoi with Saigon, making destinations south of Hanoi, including Nha Trang and Danang a convenient next-to-visit entry in your Vietnamese itinerary. A train journey from Hanoi to Saigon takes you through the whole country and lasts about 36 long hours.
Sapa, north of Hanoi, can also be reached by train with a short final 40 km leg to be completed by bus or taxi.
Haiphong, a gateway to the thousand islands of Halong Bay, is only three hours away by train.