For most tourists it is seen as a transport stop-over, which is quite a pity. While there is not much to see in this small town, it's a good place to adapt to the Lao lifestyle: sit on the banks of the Mekong, have a Beerlao and watch the river flow past.
Immigration: The Lao immigration office is just a few metres from the ferry on the right and efficiently issues 30-day Visas-on-Arrival (around USD35, depending on nationality, or Baht 1500. The cost in Euros tends to be the same as the dollar cost, with Lao authorities ignoring exchange rate differentials). A passport-sized photo is needed and this can be obtained in Chiang Khong,Thailand, before crossing the river or earlier near the bus station in Chiang Rai. If you arrive without a passport photo, the official will use a scan of your passport photo for 40 baht. If you arrive on a weekend there is an extra $1 "weekend-fee" for the visa on arrival. During weekdays after 16.00 pm there is also extra charge of $1, called "overtime fee". It also applies for nationals who dont need lao visa. "Overtime/weekend fee" seems to be official now, with a printed notice on the counter referring to it.
You can drive from Vientiane on the haunting road. If you want to touch how "haunting" it is, you have to drive at night. There will be no buildings and lights, and sometimes with the tall trees on the side (scary when you drive at night).
Houay Xai's tiny airport has service three times a week to/from Vientiane on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Until November 2010 there was one flight a week toLuang Prabang on Saturdays, but none in the other direction. There is talk that this flight will resume.
The 9:30am bus from Luang Namtha arrives at the bus station 2km out of town (and 5 km from the border) at around 2:30pm. Tuk-tuks charge 10,000 kip to the border or guest house of your choice in town.
Upon arriving in Houay Xai, you might be approached by touts asking about your next destination. If you answer Luang Prabang, you will be pressured to reserve a ticket on a VIP bus, because the bus is invariably "sold out". The ticket price will be infalted to around 210,000-260,000 kip, which includes transport to the bus station. Upon arriving at the bus station, you will be handed a ticket with the actual price, 110,000 kip, staring back at you as a stinging reminder of your gullibility. At the bus station you can get a ticket all the way to Vientiane for 210,000 kip, which should give some indication of how much of a rip-off the touts in town are trying to pull on you.
If you're going to be in Houay Xai for at least a day, simply take a tuk-tuk to the bus station for 10,000 kip and buy your ticket for the day you plan to leave. The extra money you spend on tuk-tuks is more than offset by the 100,000-150,000 you'll save on your bus ticket.
There is a daily sleeper bus Houay Xai to Kunming for 320 yuan, leaving around 9-10 am (Jan 2013) It is not operating for few days during Chinnese New Year. It is fast, comfortable and cheap way to get to Kunming.
Ferries cross between Chiang Khong, Thailand and Houay Xai for 10000 kip or 40 baht per person, no charge for luggage (Jan 2013). Immigration offices on both sides of the river close at 6PM. The small ferries carry only a few passengers and leave as soon as there are more than a couple of people on board, so you do not have to hang around. The landing point is near the middle of the town centre. In Chiang Khong, the ferry pier is at the northern end of town, a 30 baht tuk-tuk ride from the bus station.
The slow boat is mainly used to leave Houay Xai as the journey moving upstream is usually just too long for most people. See GET OUT, below, for details. The pier is one km north of town, where the truck-carrying ferry barges also dock.
The 9:30AM bus from Luang Namtha arrives at the bus station about 2 km out of town at around 2:30PM. The tuk-tuks cost 10,000 kip to the border or any guesthouse in the town. Local tickets can be bought online via Pombai.
Pay a visit to the market. This is commonly known locally as the Morning Market and the best time to visit is early morning. The market is in the suburb of Ban Muangkeo. To get there, follow the main road south along the Mekong. After passing a hill, there is a turn-off to the left, which you should follow until you reach the place. Ask people for directions to make sure you don't take the wrong turning.
Fort Carnot. On top of one of the hills in the center of the town is the ruins of the French colonial-era Fort Carnot. One of the towers can be climbed up for a good view around.(20.271874,100.415243)edit
On main street, there is the office of The Gibbon Experience. This is a forest conservation project that raises its funds through taking guests into the Bokeo Nature Reserve. Every other day there is a truck covering the 3.5 hours to the last village, where you start your hike to the project. Accommodation is provided in terrific treehouses which are constructed on giant trees over 40 m high. To access the houses, you glide on a cable from the surrounding hill range. There is an extensive cable network being set up to explore the canopy, providing breathtaking views of the scenery and probably due to its increasing popularity prices have recently increased. Warning: Recently (as of July 2012) multiple people have reported safety issues and a steep decline in quality. The use of the funds for their intended purpose has also come into question. Make sure to make proper inquiries and research to get the most up-to-date information on the quality and safety situation.
The most important thing to buy is something to eat & drink for the slow-boat journey to Luang Prabang, although nowadays food and drinks are available on most boats. Food is not great but acceptable.
Money: There's a small bank office offering change for cash and travellers' cheques just next to the immigration office. It has no commission and good rates, better than in the town. Most guest houses and restaurants in town deal in baht, kip and US dollars at decent rates. There are ATMs on the main road straight up the hill from the immigration office with a maximum withdrawal per transaction of 1,000,000 kip. It is better to get baht from Thailand and exchange them here because of the higher limits in, especially if you can obtain an Aeon ATM (nearest: Chiang Rai) which is the only bank in Thailand not having the extra THB150 withdrawal fee.
Most of the guest houses also provide simple meals. The restaurant next door to the Gibbon Experience office is home of the ex-pat crowd in town. It has a nice garden restaurant and terrace overlooking the Mekong river.
Along the water, on the main road, about 1km south of border check there is an outdoor restaurant with a big terrace built on the banks of the Mekong. It offers Lao Barbecue, a tasty combination of Japanese Shabu-Shabu and Korean BBQ, i.e., you grill and stew up your own meats and veggies.
Daauw home, (Go up the steps to the temple and take the first dirt road on the left, you'll see it on the right hand side.). Terrace overlooking the Mekong river with Campfire right on the terrace; bar and restaurant run by Kajsiab Initiative that seeks to empower the Mountain People in Bokeo Province. Dinner 15,000-50,000 you can adjust the menu according to your own taste and budget; beer, herbal teas and Fresh Mojilaos available in the drinks department. Nice setting around the fire or on the verandah, very relaxing atmosphere. They also have bungalows and a shelter for the mountainpeople. There are volunteering possibilities and there is a Woman Empowerment Shopedit
Dream Bakery, (from ferry pier down to right on main street). Bakery and cafe, nice brownies and good bread! The iced chocolate is really good. edit
Khongvab Duck BBQ, (20m further past Sabaydee Guesthouse on the opposite side.). From 14:00 to 17:00. For all those tired of chicken and pork. Popular with locals and delicious! Evening only. When the Duck is on the BBQ you can't miss it.edit
The Latsuly Return. Restaurant overlooking the slow boat wharf and truck ferry - a nice place to watch the world go by.edit
There is not much nightlife in town. To have a beer, simply visit a restaurant or get your own stocks of Beerlao at one of the shops.
Bar How on the main road offers nice surrounds, good food and a reasonable array of cocktails and spirits if you're looking for something beyond the ubiquitous Beer Lao.
Daauw Home, halfway up the templestairs to the left, is just a 5 minute walk to feel and breathe in nature and mountain atmosphere with a beautiful verandah overlooking the Mekong, nice relaxing music and passionate efforts to empower the mountain people of northern Laos.
BAP Guesthouse is somewhat of a backpackers' hangout. Unfortunately, the rates are not the cheapest in town and staff are unfriendly and have a reputation for overcharging. Booking a bus here to Chiang Mai may very well leave you stranded in Chiang Khong overnight.
Friendship Guesthouse is a great family run guesthouse located in the central strip of town. Rooms are available as double or single and all have private bath with hot water. The building's tiled rooftop balcony provides panoramic views of the city and neighbouring Chiang Khong across the Mekong River, making for a great place to read a book during the day or have a cup of tea at night and watch life pass by, albeit slowly. Room rates range from USD4-7/night. Make sure that you book a room that is close to the street front as the rear rooms lack natural light. No Internet/wifi. Room rates gone up dramatically (December 2011), expect to pay at least 70,000 kip for the cheapest room. Also make sure you're clear about the rate. For example, at least one person reported expecting to get a 10,000 kip key deposit back when checking out, but being told suddenly that there is no key deposit.
Manirath Guesthouse right next to the soi that goes to the ferryboat to Thailand. Doubles with attached Bathroom from 160 Baht/40000 Kip. Clean and good value.
Gateway Villa Hotel, (On the right, at the top of the hill leading up from immigration). free WiFi for hotel or restaurant customer. Coordinates: N20° 16.601 E100° 24.689from USD 10. (20.276689,100.41147709)edit
Oudomphone Guesthouse 2. has double-bed rooms with spotlessly clean floors and hot-water showers /night. It's a 3-minute walk north of the BAP guesthouse, on the right-hand side of the road. There is a good, cheap restaurant and a small convenience/souvenir shop. Coordinates: N20° 16.686 E100° 24.671from USD 10. (20.2781,100.411183)edit
Sabaydee Guest House. Opposite Oudomphone Guest House and of a good standard. Make sure about room rates or pay in advance. Wifi as irreliable as to be expected in small Lao town. Coordinates: N20° 16.688 E100° 24.651 (Update 2011-12)90,000 Kip. (20.278139119,100.410854819)edit
Daauw Home, (at the crossing to the passenger pier halfway up the temple stairs, go left for about 100m and it is on your right side), ☎ +856 309041296, . 3 beautiful wooden bungalows whit shower and toilet inside and a balcony with hammock. Also 1 tent is available. The attached restaurant has a relaxing terrace overlooking the Mekong River. Because it is halfway up only a five minute walk but just above the increasingly busy main street you feel you have actually arrived in the valleys and mountains of Laos. All profits go to their Woman Empowerment Activities for the Ethnic Minorities in the Mountains of Laos. Coordinates: N20° 16.675 E100° 24.702 (Update 2013-05)60,000 to 80,000 kip. (20.27792084,100.41170577)edit
At the Houay Xai border crossing a tourist agent offers to help fill out visa forms and make arrangements for the slow boat and hotel in Pak Beng. However, he overcharges (asking 1,100 baht for the boat only) and does not really make the reservations he promises.In fact, although paying premium prices at this Houay Xai "Customs" office for a room in Pak Beng, rooms may have no windows and/or no water. There are many many guest houses in Pak Beng. Carry your own gear from the wharf and check out the rooms (and the water) before you commit.
There are now numerous "high-speed" Internet cafés in town. The cost is around 5,000 kip for 20 minutes.
At Gateway Villa hotel, they charge 5,000 kip for one hour. It's pre-paid by the hour so don't forget to sign out of your e-mail and bank accounts or else the next person can access them.
If you have a Thai SIM card and have activated some of their Internet packages you can use this service. The signals of all Thai GSM networks reach across the Mekong and the locals often use a Thai number phone number in preference to a Lao one.
There are many offerings of the Lao telecoms for data SIMs as well. Lao Telecom (M phone) has one offer for 1GB costing 50,000 Kip that has to be used within a month.
Long boat ferry across the river to Chiang Khong in Thailand is 10,000 Kip. The boat guys are among the most pleasant transport providers in Laos. Be nice to them so it continues.
A two day (slow) boat ride to Luang Prabang. Arrive early to avoid being stuck in the incredibly loud (think: conversation hardly possible) engine room or don't get a seat on the overcrowded ride. It takes 8 hours plus ride to the half way point at Pakbeng. As of April 2013 the fare Hooay Xai to Pakbeng is 110,000 kip, and 220,000 kip to Luang Prabang when bought at the boat port. Buying tickets from travel agents in the town will generally cost you considerably more (approx 950 baht or 250,000 kip) to Luang Prabang, though the Dream Bakery advertises tickets for 220,000 kip/normal price.
in Chiang Khong: 850 baht incl. transport to the ferry pier, ferry to Houay Xay and transport to the slow boat pier
near the ferry pier in Houay Xay: 800 baht
at the slow boat pier: 760 baht, depending on your bargaining skills. Houay Xay - Luang Prabang is 220,000 Kip or 900 baht. The price from Luang Prabang is at least 250,000 kip, which is a bargain for one of the most scenic trips in the world.
Speedboat to Luang Prabang. There seems to be a real reluctance to take foreigners on the speedboat. You sit there watching as speedboat after speedboat leaves without you on them. The phrases "come back tomorrow" and "just wait, wait", is repeated a lot. If you are in a hurry use your money to kick things into a higher gear and make demands that you leave. This is definitely not a means of transport to be relied on. It is a good idea to work out with your fellow boat passengers to remove the seat dividers in the fast boat which allow you more space to move around as long as you don't mind a bit of contact. It will be better than being jammed in one place for the whole trip. Keep in mind, recently the speed boats have been pulling a scam where you are dropped off 10km outside of Luang Prabang at a small bamboo dock. Refuse to get off here and force them to take you two minutes further down river to the Luang Prabang boat dock. If you are forced to get off before Luang Prabang the tuk-tuk driver may demand as much as $US15, but you should not need to pay $US5 for everyone, however bear in mind he ia the only ride into town.
A special boat ride for Luang Namtha is also available for around 1,500,000 kip / 6,000 baht for the whole charter. It can carry between 6 - 10 people, but fewer in the end of the dry season when the river is low.
There's a local bus to Luang Prabang, US$14, 12-15 hours. The bus station is 7km from the town. However, if you buy the ticket at the bus station rather than through your guesthouse or agent then the price is 110000 kip (around $12US). You're likely be told the journey is 10 hours, but be warned that it can be more than 15 hours. Buses leave 9 am & 2 pm, wih a VIP bus at 5pm.
Buses to Luang Namtha leave in the morning 9:00AM and 12:30PM. The bus costs 60,000 kip if you get your ticket at the bus station. From BAP guest house for around 95,000 kip / 350 baht you can get a ticket which includes a 10 min tuk-tuk ride from the guest house. The journey is 198km and now takes around 4 hours on the local bus (only stopping when somebody makes it clear to the driver that they can't hold it longer). As at July 2012 the entire route was a well sealed, two lane road the entire way, (with no sign of previously mentioned damage from trucks) but still very windy.
A VIP bus leaves at 5pm, for 90,000 kip from ticket agents in town, including tuk-tuk ride to the bus station. The ticket price is 75,000 kip at the bus station. It arrives in Luang Namtha around 9:30pm .
There is a direct bus to Jinghong in China at 8AM, 150,000 kip at the bus station.
Bus to Muang Xay leaves at 8:30AM, 85,000 kip for the distance of 330km.
Luang Prabang buses leave at 2:00PM (120,000 kip) and 5:00PM (145,000 kip since its a VIP bus); distance of 505km.
On the way to Luang Prabang, make a stop over at Hongsa in Sayaboury Province for an elephant ride. Elephant adventures  have 2-5 day elephant trekking on retrained logging elephants. These treks are supported by ElefantAsia NGO , focussed on elephant veterinary care, educational/environmental awareness and economic viability for mahouts. Local tickets can be bought online via Pombai.
Vientiane one bus at 11:30AM, 230,000 kip to cover the 900km.
This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!