Sam Neua domestic airport (also known as Nathong airport) is two kilometres away on the road to Vieng Xai. Service to Vientiane is irregular; Lao Airlines and Lao Skyway frequently add and cancel the route. If flights are not running, the closest available airport is Xieng Khouang. If there are flights, be advised that they will be cancelled in the event of fog, a common occurrence in Sam Neua.
There are two bus stations in Sam Neua. The one most people will arrive at (coming from Vietnam and other provinces in Laos) is Phoutanou bus station, located on top of the hill. It’s a one kilometre downhill walk from the bus station to the town centre. The Tourism Information Office posts the bus schedule on the outside of the building but check the station for the current schedule.
Arrive to the bus station to buy a ticket one hour before the scheduled departure time.
The quickest way to Vientiane is via Phonsavan—taking the bus that goes through Luang Prabang takes much longer. Of all the options, the most comfortable is the sleeping bus.
Bokeo (Huay Xai): departs at 10:00. Costs 250,000 kip.
Luang Nam Tha: departs at 10:00. Costs 210,000 kip.
Luang Prabang: VIP bus departs at 07:30. Costs 150,000 kip and takes 14 hours.
Luang Prabang: minivan departs at 07:45. Costs 130,000 kip and takes 13 hours.
Muang Hiem (Viengthong): departs at 07:20. Costs 50,000 kip. Second departure at 15:30. Costs 60,000 kip.
Pakmong: take Luang Prabang bus. Departs at 07:30, costs 140,000 kip. Bus at 07:45 costs 120,000 kip. VIP bus at 16:00, costs 140,000 kip. Udomxai: departs at 10:00. Costs 180,000 kip.
Vientiane (via Phonsavan): sleeping bus departs at 15:00. Costs 210,000 kip.
Vientiane (via Phonsavan): regular bus departs at 10:00, 13:00. Costs 190,000 kip.
Vientiane (via Luang Prabang): departs at 07:30, 17:00. Costs 190,000 kip.
Xieng Khouang (Phonsavan): departs at 08:30. Costs 80,000 kip and takes 7 hours.
Nathong bus station is used primarily for destinations to the east of Sam Neua, including the local Lao bus to Vieng Xai. It is located four kilometres east of town.
Vieng Xai: departs at 09:30. Costs 20,000 kip and takes 1 hour.
Another option to reach Vieng Xai is to take a Vietnam-bound bus. In addition to the bus from Phoutanou, another company departs in the morning from the Vietnamese restaurant across from the Tourism Office. As of 2018, it departed at 10:00. Costs 20,000 kip.
Getting to Vietnam
In years past, the Sam Neua-Hanoi route was notorious for overcharging and shady tactics. A common scam was that foreign travellers would pay for a ticket to Hanoi and once across the border, they were put onto the inexpensive local bus or kicked off in the middle of nowhere and extorted for a lot of money in order to continue the journey.
We were told that this particular bus company no longer operates the route—we’re skeptical and suggest you still keep a healthy level of skepticism for the journey too. Tickets to Thanh Hoa can be purchased at Phoutanou main station. The bus will stop and pick up passengers in Vieng Xai and anywhere along Route 6 to the border. For Hanoi, change buses in Thanh Hoa, buying your own onward ticket. Though the station posts a schedule for a bus to Hanoi, in 2018 we were told that it was only available for Lao and Vietnamese nationals.
Thanh Hoa: departs at 08:00, 10:00. Costs 180,000 kip and takes 9 hours.
The town is easy to explore on foot, as the centre is compact and flat. Songthaews are scarce and this is one of the rare places in Laos that the taxi vehicle is a car. There’s no meter and you or your guesthouse has to phone them up. When arriving at Phoutanou main bus station, it’s a kilometre downhill to the centre.
The only places we could find that rented motorbikes was at Dannao Meuang Xam Restaurant.