After 7 weeks in Vietnam, it is time to go to Dien Bien Phu to cross the border with Laos, before quietly joining Nong Khiaw. No precise timing for this trip this time, just the desire to discover the northeast of the country, one of the wildest regions of Laos!
- From Sapa to Nong Khiaw, between Vietnam and Laos
- The village of Nong Khiaw: a real peaceful haven
- Review of our adventure in northern Laos
We took this trip in 2014, but the article was completely revised and updated in December 2022. If you see any price changes or have additional information that might be relevant, please feel free to leave us a comment!
From Sapa to Nong Khiaw, between Vietnam and Laos
Sapa-Dien Bien Phu
The first step is to go to the city of Dien Bien Phu, located 30 km from the Lao border, from Sapa. So a piece of advice: do not make this trip at night, it would be a waste! The crossed landscapes are splendid!
We were lucky enough to have a private driver for this 8 hours section and this, for the same price as the bus! Yes, the company in Sapa absolutely had to pick up customers in Dien Bien Phu. So, it was convenient for them to fill the car a little! So, as we had a very nice driver, we could stop everywhere to take pictures! If you arrive by bus, you will arrive at the new bus station located 4 km from the center.
The town of Dien Bien Phu has nothing special to offer except for its memorial on hill A1 and its victory monument on hill D1. The latter was erected in 2004 for the 50th anniversary of Vietnam’s important victory over France, which led to the end of the Indochina War in 1954. From D1, you have a great view of the city and as a bonus, a sunset 😉. To learn more, the Victory Museum adjoining D1 Hill should fill you up. The entrance ticket costs 100 000 dongs per person and it is open from 7.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
To reach Dien Bien Phu, no need to return to Hanoi, you would make a huge detour! You can go to the Lao Cai bus station (where the buses leave and arrive for Sapa) and take a bus that will bring you to Dien Bien Phu in 8-10 hours. Regarding the schedule, there would be a bus leaving at 7.30 a.m. or a night bus at 7.20 p.m. for 280 000 dongs, but it is best to see directly on the spot.
The border between Vietnam and Laos
To reach Laos from Dien Bien Phu, you have to get up early. Indeed, the only bus leaves the bus station at 5.30 a.m. in the direction of Muang Khua (then Oudomxay)! At that time, the road was chaotic and the passengers had to get off the bus to cross the rivers, to unload the beast. Fortunately, this time is over! The road is now completely paved and concrete bridges facilitate the fordings. The ticket is 115 000 dongs per person. To learn more about how to cross the border in Laos, go to this section about visas.
Getting to Nong Khiaw in northern Laos
After 6 hours of bus, we stopped at the small village of Muang Khua. This village has the particularity to be on the way of the Nam Ou river, one of the branches of the Mekong.
The advantage is that instead of taking a bus to go down to Luang Prabang, we can vary the pleasures and do the whole trip by boat! Well, you can imagine that it takes a little more time! But who cares, we have plenty of time.
After a good night of sleep in a nice guesthouse with a view of the river (Manotham Guest House, reservation on the spot), we pile up to 25 in a small boat in direction of the village of Nong Khiaw. The price is established according to the number of people (approximately 100 000 kips if the boat is full). And here we go for a 5 hours boat trip!
Don’t be surprised if you change boats on the way. Dams have been erected recently by a Chinese company on the Nam Ou River…
If you don’t want to take the boat, you can also continue by bus to the town of Oudomxay, then to Nong Khiaw. From Oudomxay, you can also go down to Luang Prabang, or go in the direction of the north-west of Laos, towards Luang Namtha and its national park, or eventually to the north of Thailand (Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai).
From Luang Prabang, go to the northern bus station at 9 or 11 a.m. to take a bus to Nong Khiaw (70 000 kips for a 4-hour trip).
The village of Nong Khiaw: a real peaceful haven
After 5 beautiful but trying hours on the Nam Ou river, we finally arrive at the village of Nong Khiaw. Know that you can also stop at the small village of Muang Ngoi Neua located upstream. So, Nong Khiaw was a very pleasant surprise for us! There are just a few guesthouses and restaurants, and possibilities of hiking, biking, kayaking, and climbing, all this in a splendid setting between the karst reliefs and the Nam Ou river! In short, there is enough to occupy and relax for 4-5 days. Bonus? There are not that many tourists!
Nong Khiaw has several guesthouses, most of them with a view of the Nam Ou River. For about 220 000 kips, you get a double room with a private bathroom. To get a room at the best price, go to Booking.
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Bike rental and discovery of the surroundings
On the first day, we rented two bikes to explore the surroundings (price: 100 000 kips). Don’t do as we did: don’t rent crappy bikes without gears! The roads are not flat at all despite what the salesman told us… So take mountain bikes right away, it will avoid you to come back exhausted after an hour of vain attempts on the roads around Nong Khiaw.
Once well equipped, it worked much better, I promise you! So, we spent the day walking around the tracks. Yes, since we had mountain bikes, we might as well enjoy it! On the other hand, even if the landscapes are largely worth it, it is not within the reach of all… The climbs are steep and numerous and will quickly break the legs of the Sunday cyclists.
The Pha Daeng Peak
After a good night’s sleep, we go to the viewpoint from the Pha Daeng Peak (in red on the map below). You can’t miss it, it is written in big letters at the exit of Nong Khiaw. The access costs 20 000 kips. Even if I hate the principle of paying for a viewpoint, I really advise you to do this one! The view from the top is simply breathtaking and reminded me a bit of the karst landscapes of Xingping. But once again, I must warn you that the ascent is very steep and rather reserved for the motivated ones! Count between 45 min to 1 h 30 for the first part.
There are also two other viewpoints in Nong Khiaw, Nang None and Phar Khew Lom.
The access to Nang None (in blue) is between the bridge and the bus station of the village. The path is steeper than the one to the Pha Daeng Peak and requires even more endurance. It takes about an hour to reach the top. The two viewpoints offered by Nang None are quite similar to the Pha Daeng Peak but they are less popular than the latter. The price is 15 000 kips per person.
Phar Khew Lom (in green) is also a good choice for a great sunrise and/or sunset! It is the highest and most difficult viewpoint in Nong Khiaw. It takes about 4 hours to get there and back and the entrance fee is 20 000 kips.
Other activities in Nong Khiaw
As written above, you can spend several days in Nong Khiaw to enjoy the activities and the beautiful landscapes. Also, you can take the opportunity to discover the Lao villages. Here are some tracks to extend your stay in northern Laos.
At the time, we had done 3 days of kayaking to reach Luang Prabang. As of 2019, it is no longer possible to kayak in this area due to the various dams along the Nam Ou River. It’s sad news because the construction of these dams has had a disastrous impact on the villages along the river. Entire villages get swallowed up upstream of the dams and the villagers were forced to move ☹️.
Nevertheless, it is possible to go kayaking in the area, especially to discover the minority villages. You will easily find agencies with several formulas (1 day or more, combo kayaking/hiking…).
We had planned to stay in this small corner of paradise for a little more than 3 days, but a discussion with a couple of Bretons (in a round-the-world trip by tandem) around a beer will have wanted otherwise… Come on, a “small” tour by kayak?
Well, we had been promised that the Nam Ou River was not difficult, but we had no idea what an 8-hour kayaking day could mean for our arms! I can promise you that we were already less proud after one hour…
We were kayaking in the direction of the current (fortunately!) and there was no difficulty to report. It is just that we were not used to using our arms for an effort of endurance. Well, OK, also because we didn’t have great coordination, Fabienne and me! As the hours went by, we felt more and more comfortable. In fact, the secret is to have a regular rhythm and to be coordinated with your partner!
Well, that’s not to say that we weren’t tired after 6-7 hours of kayaking! We were thus very happy to stop in the evening in one of the villages bordering the Nam Ou river to eat and rest at the locals’ houses. By the way, after the meal, we collapsed like dead on our beds! We will have at least not spent too much money on beer during these 3 days 😉.
As far as landscapes are concerned, we were amazed! Between the children bathing, the buffaloes refreshing themselves, the cliffs falling steeply on the river, or the elephants crossing it sometimes… We really had the impression of kayaking in Laos we saw on postcards! In short, if you can go on a kayak tour, go for it!
If paddling for several hours is not your thing, you will have many treks at your disposal! There are no free access trails in Nong Khiaw except for the previously mentioned viewpoints, so you will have no choice but to book with an agency. As for kayaking, the options are numerous! The most famous hike in the area is probably the 100 waterfalls hike, which can be done in one day. Its cost is a bit steep: a little less than 100 $ per person…
Visit the surrounding villages
On the other hand, if you move away from Nong Khiaw, there is plenty of hiking and sightseeing to do on your own! To explore Muang Ngoi Neua, only one solution, the boat! It leaves every day around 10.30 a.m. from the pier of Nong Khiaw to reach this charming village in 1 hour. The ticket is 25 000 kips per person for the public boat, but you can rent a private boat for 200 000 kips. As usual, the more you are, the better it is 😉. Take the opportunity to stay there for a night or more and walk around the Tham Kang and Pha Noi caves, as well as the small villages next door (Ban Hoy Seen, Ban Na, Huay Bo).
To read more about Muang Ngoi Neua, we invite you to read a nice article from Monica and her family.
Review of our adventure in northern Laos
Finally, the trip from Sapa to Luang Prabang took us at the time a week counting the 3 days spent in Nong Khiaw and the 3 days of kayaking. Well, today, because of the dams, we would take the bus between Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang for 4 hours…
In any case, we had the proof that the north of Laos is not only Luang Prabang! I would even say that it is not Luang Prabang… In short, this region is clearly worth staying there! We will particularly remember the beauty of the landscapes along Nam Ou and the “Sabaidee” of the children in the villages!
Do you know the north of Laos? Ready to try the adventure 😉?
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