I – Pre-Trip Documents
Before you embark on your visa run, you will need to get a few things.
The first is an “approval letter”, which grants you the right to apply for a visa. Please note, this is not the visa. This is merely a letter that will let you apply for a visa at the border.
An approval letter for most folks should be between $30 and $50. Typically land border crossings are a touch more expensive than airport gates. For approval letters, this site highly suggests using and endorses the reliable visa agencies Vietnam-Visa.com or IVisa. You will need to decide the LENGTH of your visa (depends on nationality but typically 1 month/30 days, 3 months/90 days, 6 months or one year, depending on what criteria you meet) and the NUMBER OF ENTRIES (whether single, a one time visa, or a multiple, re-use visa).
Related post: Guide to Visa on Arrival for Vietnam
Once you have your approval letter, download the Vietnamese and Laotian visa applications, print them and fill them out. In addition, get two (2) passport sized photos. There are countless photo shops around both Da Nang and Hoi An that can do this.
Before we go any further, let’s check, and make sure we have the following:
☐ Approval Letter
☐ Completed visa applications for Vietnam AND Laos
☐ Two (2) passport photos
☐ Money for Lao visa (35usd or 1,000,000vnd)
☐ Money for Vietnam visa (Varies, check this website for current price)
If so, let’s move on.
II – How To Go
Now, you need to get from Da Nang or Hoi An to Lao Bao. You have several choices. Let’s look at those options.
+ Take local buses
+ Driving yourself
+ Hiring a private car
+ Taking a “visa van”
The local buses can be a wild crap shoot. Sometimes they are painless, quick, and efficient, and other times you are in for an experience of a lifetime. To take a trip down this fun road, you’ll need to make your way to the Da Nang bus station. Here, by going down the various rows of bus company ticket windows, you should be able to find a bus going to Lao Bao. Be careful to ask for direct, because if not you will be stopping at every village on the 540 km round trip. It’s also possible to book a ticket direct to Dong Ha on an express bus, and then catch a local shuttle going up to Lao Bao. This can be one of the quickest methods but be ready to sit 25 people in a 15 passenger van.
It is possible to drive to Lao Bao yourself on your motorbike. But before you attempt this, you should know a few things. It is a long and hard day. The trip is close to 540 kilometers round trip, and is a minimum 8 hours of driving. It entails driving on multiple highways, including plenty on Vietnam’s infamous Highway 1. That all being said, it can be doable, provided you approach it with the right preparation and mindset. Go with a fellow driver, and make sure your bike is in working condition. Leave early (6:00 AM) and keep a good pace moving through the day.
Hiring A Private Car
Da Nang has numerous travel agencies, companies, and private transport, so many people take advantage of that and rent themselves a transport to the border and back. The best way to do this is with a couple of other riders who also need to make a trip. Once you split the cost it’s actually not too bad per person. An advantage of this is it is an all season option, as well as being more under your control for stops, speed, etc.
Visa Van Services
There are several services in Da Nang currently that offer visa van services. Mr. Hung, the visa approval letter agent listed above, offers visa van services from Hoi An. For Da Nang, this website strongly suggests going with the original Visa Van ( 090 577 37 90 ). They provide a great service at a good price. Count on about 12 hours to do this way.
III – The Visa Process
So you’ve got your approval letter, your filled-out applications, photos, and the appropriate money, and you have made it to the border. Now comes the actual border crossing process itself, and while it can seem intimidating, it’s actually pretty straightforward and easy if you just follow the correct steps. Below you will find a map of the Lao Bao border area, as well as some simple close=up diagrams of the different sides of the border. Let’s take a run through those steps.
Laos Immigration Map
Vietnam Immigration Map
- Park your bike (or exit the van) at the small coffeshops and restaurants before the border.
- Walk past the Vietnamese border buildings, across the border, and all the way to the buildings on the Lao side. Once over, get your VIETNAM EXIT STAMP at the window with the person in the DARK GREEN uniform.
- Go inside the first room in the building on your left. Give your completed application, photo, and passport to the Lao immigration official. Pay when they are finished.
- Exit the room, turn left and get your LAO ENTRANCE STAMP at the “Entrance Formalities” window.
- Walk back across the border to the buildings on the Vietnamese side. Get your LAO EXIT STAMP from the window with the person in the LIGHT GREEN uniform.
- Take your application, another photo, and passport to the Vietnamese immigration official. Pay when you are finished.
- Get you VIETNAM ENTRANCE STAMP from the same window (but different person) as your Lao Exit Stamp.
- Once you have your new visa and entrance stamp, you are good to go! Most of the time one final immigration official stationed just before the coffeeshops will check your passport one more time to make sure you are good to go but this is more of a formality. Collect your bike or re-join your van or private car, you are done and it is time to head home.
IV – Trip Travelogue
This travelouge will be done going TO Lao Bao, leaving the coast and heading into the mountains, with the border of Laos the ultimate destination. Hopefully this can give you a little bit of information about some of the things you will see on this trip, and for those that have already done it here’s a little bit of filling in the blanks!
QL-1 Section 1: Da Nang, Hai Van & Phu Loc
Whether you are going on a visa run from Da Nang or Hoi An, you will follow roughly the same route; although vans may travel through the city, for independent travellers it is best to travel along Nguyen Tat Thanh street, which follows the curve of Da Nang Bay. At the end of the road, where a left-hand corner takes you two blocks to the highway, you will get a glimpse of Nam O Point, a chunk of limestone that sticks out into the bay. There is a popular intermediate-advanced surf spot here so during times of good surf (anytime September to February) you may be able to spot surfers out there. Shortly after the turn, the highway crosses over the Cu De River, a remarkable river with it’s own valley worth visiting on another trip. Not far after this, take a left and the follow the highway to the Hai Van South Bus Station. If you are on a bike, you will need to put the bike on a truck, buy a ticket for it and for yourself, and then ride on the shuttle bus through the tunnel. If you are confused people will show you where to go and what to do. It is possible to drive over Hai Van Pass, but this can potentially add extra time to the trip, so it is up to you if you want to do that.
Once through the tunnel, reclaim your bike in Lang Co, and then set out. For those on motorbikes its best to follow the small road along the lagoon north for a couple of kilometers, until it joins with Highway 1. The highway will pass through Lang Co for several kilometers, until the town peters out. To the left is the An Cu Lagoon, with the peaks of Hon Chay, Nui Hai, and “Dragon Fang Peak” rising abruptly behind. Through a short tunnel under the old Phu Gia Pass and you are into the valley of Loc Tien and Loc Thuy. In this area is the beach at Canh Duong, the luxury resort of Angsana, and the ultra-popular swimming resort of Suoi Voi. One more tunnel under the old Phuoc Thuong Pass, just past which is the turn-off for Highway 49-B, “The Sacred Highway”, and across a few open fields brings you to the town of Phu Loc. This is the base for Bach Ma National Park, and the immense mountains rising behind the town are the peaks that make up the NP.
Just past Phu Loc, the road goes around a small point, before finally reaching the Hue basin proper. A turn off for Ho Truoi, the famous island monastery at the bottom of Bach Ma, comes up fairly quick on the left. Beyond this is approximately 15 kilometers of not-so-fun highway; heavy road side activity creates a dangerous combination of people on the road way, bikes and cars turning, and vehicles and people crossing the road. It can take some time to cross this, but once you reach the toll gate you are just about finished.
QL-1 Section 2: The Hue Bypass & QL-1
Although it is possible to go through the city of Hue, for almost everyone, van or motorbike, it is more sensible to take the bypass around the city. Having made controlled tests, it really doesn’t matter which way you go as the average time is about the same both ways, or certainly within five minutes or so of each other. So do yourself a favor and skip the busyness (and elevated risk) of the city and take the bypass. It goes fast and by looking for a few landmarks you can make quick work of it.
QL-16 Section 1: Dong Ha to Cam Lo
Dong Ha to me has never been a great place; it’s in a awkward location, too far from the sea to get the sea breeze, and too far from the mountains to get cloud cover. Instead it just sits on it’s hill, with it’s lake, and is either too hot, too cold, or too wet. One or the other. But, it does provide a good stopping place if you’ve just come non-stop from Da Nang. There are a few decent coffeeshops and restaurants in town, as well as some convenient photo services if you forgot to get yours. Once done, continue down the main street, and it will eventually turn back into Highway 16.
If you’ve chosen to follow the bypass, not far after turning onto it, the massive Quang Tri hospital comes up on the left, conveniently across the street from a petrochem plant that is releasing a plume of brownish black smoke that drifts right over the hospital, 24/7. Oh, Vietnam. Shortly after this is the Quang Tri University, and for the next seven or eight kilometers beyond that are several industrial zones broken by small valleys and hills.
When you get out of Dong Ha, it remains similar character for a while, with small rolling hills and valleys, with occasional small lakes in between. In occasional spots you will get a great view of some decent sized peaks off to the west, However, they are often covered in clouds so you may not either. After a short time the small town of Cam Lo is reached. This small little town is right before the true entrance into the mountains beyond, and is where the East Ho Chi Minh Road takes off for Quang Binh to the north.
QL-16 Section 2: Dau Mau & Rockpile Valley
Eventually you do start wandering through some small hills covered in second growth. The small town of Dau Mau is shortly reached. This little hamlet is nothing more than a small logging camp, fed by the large amount of eucalyptus and other quick growing tree plantations that surround the area. There is one noteworthy attraction in the area, Camp Carroll, which is a historical marker from the US war.
A large sign indicates the turn to the old camp site, which was a US and ARVN [South Vietnam] army base that was surrendered and turned over to the PAVN [North Vietnam] during the Battle of Quang Tri in 1972. Today there isn’t much left at the site except for a large concrete marker and a couple of epitaphs being slowly overrun by the vegetation. Just past and down the hill from Dau Mau, you join the Cam Lo River on your right, which you will briefly follow for a few kilometers. On the left is a new and impressive shrine that is in the process of being turned into quite the site. For the next fifteen kilometers or so, you will follow a small valley, first up one stream to a perceptible rise, and then down another stream and valley.
QL-16 Section 3: Krong Klang and the Da K’Rong River
At the end of the Rockpile Valley, the small town of Krong K’Lang is reached. This town is actually the District headquarters for Da K’Rong District of Quang Tri, which encompasses a huge rural area of the province, and it must be a pain in the butt for a lot of the folks who live far away from this town. To the south, accessible via a long and bumpy road, is the Ba Long Valley, which is currently a very rural and quiet valley, but was home to intense fighting during the Vietnam War. The road makes a big turn from the south to the west after Krong K’lang, and you will join the Da K’Rong River at this point, who’s river canyon will dominate the landscape for the next section.
QL-16 Section 4: Khe Sanh, The Banana Republic, and Lao Bao
Once you leave the valley of the Da K’Rong River, the road very briefly follows the Rao Quan River, until crossing over it and driving up the hill past a small but impressive gorge on the south side of the road formed by the Cat Duoi River. The road keeps climbing quite consistently. Before long the road wraps around a large switchback corner – if there is the possibility of stopping here it is worth it, as there are two things, one on each side of the road, that are well worth seeing. The first is on the hill side of the road, which is a nice exposure of columnar joining, a very interesting igneous rock that forms in very striking columns. On the other side of the road is a view down to Co Ho Village, a local ethnic village that sits below some green mountains and is framed with rice paddies and slashed crops.