The crossing at Dan Savanh to Lao Bao was the first land border between Laos and Vietnam to open for international travellers. It was for a long time the most popular, but many now opt for the more northern crossing near Lak Xao instead. However, I was adamant to use the crossing here at Dan Savanh (there are many different spellings of this Lao town), as it is a convenient stopover between Savannakhet and Hue and Danang in Vietnam.
As for the journey from Savannakhet to Lao Bao, there are 3 buses per day, one leaving at 07.30, one at 09.00, and the final one at 12.00. It costs 35,000 Kip per person and the journey takes around 5-6 hours. It is advisable to try and book the earliest bus (in case it breaks down), as you still want to give yourself the best chance of arriving before the border crossing closes at 6pm. It reopens at 8am, and it will not be a pleasant experience sleeping on the bus with touts and beggars bullying you throughout the night. You need to the clear the border ASAP, so time your arrival for when you know the border crossing will actually be open!
Almost all international tourists must obtain a visa in advance before they attempt to cross into Vietnam. Some tourists don’t know this as they leave everything to the tour companies who will do it for them, for an extra fee of course. If you cross the border from Laos to Vietnam, you need a visa in advance, since Vietnam visa-on-arrival is applicable to air travel only. As a Briton, it cost me USD 20 to pay for my visa (obtained in Vientiane the previous week) and I required one visa-sized photo and a couple of spare pages in my passport. It was a relatively easy process.
Compared to other border crossings I’ve made by land in South East Asia, this one between Laos and Vietnam was actually the second most pleasant of the lot (only Malaysia-Thailand was more enjoyable). It surprised me as to the relative ease here at Dan Savanh/Lao Bao, as my previous experience of border crossings with Laos were horrible as I exited Laos to Cambodia at Dom Kralor (yikes!). Yet despite warnings to the contrary, the whole experience was relatively hassle-free, and the expected hassle from the locals and touts did not materialise. Maybe I was just lucky? What I did enjoy doing was admiring the scenery here, as it is quite a rural location and the customs and immigration buildings (at least on the Vietnamese side) were very grandiose, just as I found out at Moc Bai when I border-hopped from Vietnam to Cambodia.
As Lao Bao is located in an advantaged area of commerce and border trade between Vietnam and Laos (there’s some weird architecture planted around too), this small town has opportunities to do business and exchange timber with Laos and Thailand for profit. Although it is a small town in the border area, it also provides several jobs for the people there, and passing through as a tourist is somewhat risky in the sense that you may get pestered by the locals! If you are part of a longer bus ride from Savannakhet in Laos enroute to Hue or Danang in Vietnam, they you may escape this kind of hassle if you get back on the bus quick enough after receiving your entry visa! By the way, Savannakhet to Hue on the VIP Bus should cost no more than 110,000 Kip. The bus is always scheduled to leave at 10am Mon-Fri.
However you plan on getting from the border at Lao Bao, you can be sure of a quick introduction to Vietnam’s infamous roads! Make sure your driver isn’t high on something and pray for your life! Just because you’ve entered the ‘Nam via the countryside doesn’t mean your Vietnamese vacation will get any easier now you’re strapped in…