Summary: The Dien Bien Phu / Tay Trang border crossing (also called Pang Hoc) is a popular route between northern Vietnam and northern Laos, but you can’t exit from Vietnam here with an e-visa and you can’t get a Visa on Arrival for Laos. Read on for the details.
UPDATE: As of January 2020, this border crossing and several others no longer grant Lao visas on arrival. I’ve received one report of a traveler being turned away already. Supposedly several more borders will have their VOA phased out by June of 2020.
Travelers wishing to cross into Laos at Tay Trang now need to get their Laos visa ahead of time in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, in addition to holding the correct type of Vietnamese visa for exiting (no e-visas).
While on a recent bicycle tour through northern Vietnam I met some travelers who had been denied crossing here due to their visas, so I started researching the issue to see if my own visa would be problematic.
Good news, it wasn’t, but the information I found online was a bit confusing. If you’re an independent traveler hoping to exit Vietnam at the Dien Bien Phu border crossing with Laos, here’s the deal as of October 2018.
No Vietnam E-visas Allowed
If your Vietnam visa is an E-visa, you cannot exit Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu border crossing. Not at all. Not on a motorbike, not on a bicycle, not in a car, not on a long-haul bus you already have a ticket for. You will be turned back and, according to most reports, not given much help, direction or sympathy from the border officials. There is not a lot of transport at this border crossing, so don’t expect to just hop in a taxi if you’re turned away. It will take some work to sort this out.
Some earlier online posts reported people being allowed through on the last day of their visa validity period, but somewhere (unfortunately I can’t find it again right now) I saw a more recent report that this is no longer true. So in that case you are really screwed.
Note that the next border crossing south, near Sam Nuea, is also not open to e-visas. You’ll need to head even farther south to Nam Can if you want to cross by land between northern Vietnam and northern Laos. Here is a helpful site with a map showing which border crossings are open to e-visa holders.
What is a Vietnam E-visa?
An e-visa is a new option since 2017 that allows citizens of 40 different countries to apply for a visa through an official government website. It’s convenient for some travelers because, unlike a Visa On Arrival, you don’t have to enter Vietnam through an airport. But, the border crossings you may enter and exit at are limited to only those in this list, which does NOT include Dien Bien Phu as of 2018.
Which types of Vietnam visas can I exit with?
As of 2018 there are three ways to get a tourist visa for Vietnam:
- Visiting a Vietnamese embassy in your home or other country. This is the most flexible – you can enter and exit at any border open to foreigners – but it’s also usually the least convenient to get, requiring a longer wait and parting with your passport for at least a few days.
- Pre-arranging a visa on arrival (VOA) which you will pay for and pick up at one of the international airports. This is usually done online through one of many Vietnamese companies, for a small additional fee, and is easy and quick. You can exit at any crossing open to foreigners, but you can only enter at the allowed airports.
- E-visa: a visa applied for on an official government website which allows entry and exit through only the ports on this list.
Type 1 and 2 above are fine for crossing to Laos at Dien Bien Phu – Tay Trang. Type 3 is not.
Crossing the Border Into Laos
Dien Bien Phu is a large Vietnamese town about 35km from the border crossing itself. Tay Trang refers to the small area immediately around the border crossing; there is no town there.
The crossing was pretty straightforward with the correct visa.
Lao visas are available on arrival for most nationalities and the rates were clearly posted. There were a few additional small fees, including an overtime fee for weekends, which were also clearly posted so no arguing was allowed.
UPDATE: As of January 2020, this border crossing and several others no longer grant Lao visas on arrival. I’ve received one report of a traveler being turned away already. Supposedly several more borders will have their VOA phased out by June of 2020. Travelers crossing into Laos at these borders should get their Laos visa ahead of time from an embassy in a neighboring country, or their home country.
Note that crossing in the other direction, Vietnam visas are NOT available on arrival. You’ll need to arrange a visa in advance through an embassy (type 1 in the list above).
I crossed to Laos on a bicycle with no issues, except for the fact that the border is at the top of a huge hill and the road on the Vietnamese side is very bad. Lots of dust/mud and potholes and washed out sections, with plenty of lumbering trucks until past the rock quarry about halfway.
There are a few kilometers of no man’s land in between the Vietnam and Laos border posts, which you’ll probably need to walk or hitchhike unless you came with your own wheels or a bus booked all the way through.
On the Vietnamese side there is a small restaurant and shop that can also change money. I’m not sure about the Laos side.
I arrived at 11:30am and the border officials were already on lunch break, which ended at 1pm. During this break your only option is to wait. I hung out at the restaurant and chatted with some other folks waiting to cross.
On the Laos side the road was new and beautiful and nearly empty, making for a blissful downhill coast.
Transportation into Laos
Most tourists cross this border on buses booked from Dien Bien Phu or farther away in Vietnam. If you’re crossing independently, note that it’s hard to find transportation on the Laos side. There were no taxis waiting when I was there and traffic was sparse (granted it was a Sunday).
I did meet a hitchhiker who managed to find a ride to Muang Khua without too much trouble. But on the Vietnam side he said it took 7 different rides and a lot of walking to get up the hill from Dien Bien Phu to the border crossing.
Changing Money When Crossing into Laos
I would recommend changing enough money at the border for a couple days in Laos, either at one of the small shops or the immigration window itself. The rates were not great but I had trouble finding a working ATM in Laos and as it was the weekend, the banks were closed and local shops did not seem to be in the currency exchange business. Fortunately some other tourists helped me out, but I should have just bought more Lao kip at the border.
Once In Laos
When crossing into Laos your first town with a guesthouse is Muang Mai, about 30km from the border. I stopped there as it was getting late. Most tourists who aren’t pedal-powered continue to Muang Khua instead, 65km from the border, which is more charming and tourist-friendly.
From Muang Khua I recommend taking a “slow boat” on the river to either the backpacker village of Muang Ngoi or the larger town of Nong Khiaw (or both, one after the other). From Nong Khiaw most travelers continue to Luang Prabang.
It’s a beautiful area on both sides of the border. I highly recommend it. Just double check your visa situation and enjoy.
SE Asia Cycling Resources
If you happen to be crossing this border by bicycle as I did, here are some other related posts to help you plan your trip: