Photo: Hat Sa boat landing.


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Situated on the banks of the Nam Ou river in Phongsali Province, Hat Sa is a small village at one end of a spectacular river journey between Hat Sa, Muang Khua, Muang Ngoi and Nong Kiaow.

The village is 20 km from the provincial capital. Unless you enjoy stomach churning bus rides on serpentine mountain roads, travelling to or from Phongsali by boat along the Nam Ou river has, until recently, clearly been the more attractive transport option. With scenery of jagged peaks cloaked in thick forest and mist, it is one of the great river journeys of Laos, perhaps even surpassing the Mekong, its tributary.

Meet the thriving metropolis of Hat Sa. Photo taken in or around Hat Sa, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Meet the thriving metropolis of Hat Sa. Photo: Cindy Fan

Opinions may change on the matter now that the boat ride between Hat Sa and Muang Khua is an obstacle course—the obstacle being Dam 5, one of a cascade of seven dams that form the Nam Ou Hydropower Project by China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation. Reportedly financed by China Development Bank, the project spans 350 kilometres of the 450-kilometre long river, which flows from the Lao border with China down south through Udomxai and Luang Prabang provinces to join the Mekong. Hat Sa itself lies a few kilometres downriver from Dam 6.

The project is nearing completion and all affected villages have already been relocated and resettled, with the ecology, biodiversity and forests that communities rely on forever altered. The once towering mountains are dwarfed, drowned by high waters that resemble a glassy lake rather than a flowing waterway. However, to the traveller’s naked eye, the journey remains a pleasant, smooth and scenic one—until reaching the massive wall of concrete. Passengers must then take ground transport around the dam to Muang Khua, which is a hub for onward travel to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. It’s almost the same story from Muang Khua down to Muang Ngoi and Nong Kiaow: boat, tuk tuk around the dam followed by another boat.

Get out on the water. Photo taken in or around Hat Sa, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Get out on the water. Photo: Cindy Fan

The trip is no longer a straightforward one and the road conditions from Udomxai to Phongsali have improved in recent years, but we say the slow boat on the Nam Ou is memorable and worth the effort—and definitely less nauseating than the bus. The experience is reminiscent of a bygone era. Do the trip while you can. With roads slowly yet steadily improving and untold development underway in north Laos, there is chatter that this river network will eventually dry up, figuratively speaking.

Phongsali Province is known for its mountainous terrain and ethnic diversity, and the area around Hat Sa, which sees relatively few tourists, is still ripe for exploration. Hill tribes such as the Akha, Hmong, Tailue, Hor, Phunoi and Laoseng can be found near Hat Sa along the Nam Ou or high atop the peaks. There are villages that require a full day’s walk to reach, and some do not have electricity or even running water; a homestay would be an eye-opening experience. Treks can be arranged in Phongsali with either the government tourism office or private company Amazing Lao Travel.

Travelling down the Nam Ou before the dams went in. Photo taken in or around Hat Sa, Laos by Stuart McDonald.

Travelling down the Nam Ou before the dams went in. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Those who do not have anything organised and find themselves stuck in Hat Sa for a night, prepare to have a lot of spare time on your hands. There is one basic guesthouse, a noodle soup shop by the boat landing and not much else. Not surprisingly, there are no ATMs in Hat Sa—the closest is in Phongsali (where there are plenty) so be sure to bring enough cash with your for onward transport and/or accommodation.


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Hat Sa.
 Read up on how to get to Hat Sa.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Hat Sa? Please read this.
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