The Hua Phan region, bordering Vietnam, is one of the remotest areas of Laos. The roads leading there are long and windy (but paved) as you ascend into the mountains. It is one of the most ethnically diverse provinces in Laos .
At first glance the town itself has little to offer a tourist, however, the surrounding area has some of the best mountain scenery in Laos, and if you're willing to brave the roads on a motorbike you will not be disappointed. The surrounding mountains have waterfalls, hot springs and many scattered minority villages. Despite their stern exterior and confusion upon seeing foreigners the local villagers are very friendly and a polite 'Sabai dee!', and a wave will elicit a warm response.
Also of note are the communist monuments in Sam Neua and Vieng Xai which were the strongholds of the Pathet Lao during the American bombing campaign.
Luang Prabang - two daily buses: Departing around 8:30am and around 5:00pm. The evening bus travels from Vientiane and can be up to 2 hours late. 140,000 kip at the bus terminal, 175,000 kip from booking agencies. 19-20 hours (Sep 2013). 15 hr (March 2011). The bus stops in Nong Khiaw and passes through Vieng Thong. You seem to be able to confirm seats on the morning bus. However this is not possible on the evening bus. The bus has a chance of being full by the time it arrives in Luang Prabang. So be prepared that you may have no choice but to spend half the night standing.
Vietnam - via the Nam Soi-Na Meo border crossing. Laos visa on arrival available. See the Laos page for visa requirements and prices based on nationality. Make sure you can pay in USD (cash only) as there isn't an ATM at the Nam Soi/Na Meo border. It is unknown if you can pay visa fees in VND or Lao Kip at the Nam Soi/Na Meo border. In June 2015, a form fee ($1 USD) was charged as I needed a visa-on-arrival application/form at the border.
CAUTION! If travelling during Tet you will arrive in Sam Neua and discover that the buses to Thanh Hoa and Vinh are not operating. Neither is the bus to the Laos side of the border. The only option therefore is private transport to the border and then a frightful negotiation follows with locals in Na Meo for a ride to Thanh Hoa or Hanoi. If travelling alone this can be incredibly expensive as they demand amounts up to $300. Hitching, whilst an option is fairly unreliable as many of the commercial vehicles (trucks) are not running. Unless you like riding long distances on the back of scooters with luggage and long walks consider an alternative route!
There are many tuk tuks around. You will need to take one to get to the bus stations.
There are two bus stations just outside of Sam Neua: one intraprovincial for Vieng Xai and other nearby destinations and one inter-provincial (for Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Vietnam, etc).
Don't bother going to Nathong bus station east of town for the Hanoi/Thanh Hoa Vietnam bus as it starts at the main bus station 800m from town (some guesthouses owners will tell you to go there). Nathong station is a couple kilometres away past the airport.
Also when arriving you can avoid a tuktuk by just walking down the hill to the market and guesthouses if arriving at the main station.
There is a Chinese owned and run bike rental office just opposite the Tourism office, although the bikes can have shoddy brakes and mirrors. However, if you want to see Sam Neua this is the only place in the town offering rentals. (Update, July 2015: the Chinese rental office no longer offers rentals, and it appears as if there is no where else in town that provides rentals.)
Hintang archeological site is about 60 km of sealed road and approximately 6 km of dirt tracks. Pass the blue sign on the right and a few km past that you will come to a logging camp of some sort on your left. One of the Hintang sites is 200 m from the camp. Due to the remoteness of the site and poor roads Hintang receives few (if any) visitors so you will have the entire sight to yourself.
There are several restaurants around the main guest house area near the river.
Cheap foe can be found at the market (across the river).
Fresh produce can be purchased at the market.
Dan Nao Meuang Xam restaurant, next door to BounHome guesthouse (close to the big monument), ☎ 02022348895. Big portion, good food if u get bored of the noodel soup. Fried rice with vegi : 12,000 kip. French Fries 30,000 kipedit
Vieng Xai - hourly songthaews. You can either do a day trip to the caves or stay here. Songthaews won't leave unless there are enough people.
Vietnam - daily buses to Thanh Hoa (180,000 kip, March 2011), or you can make your own way to/fro the Lao side of the border at Nam Soi. The bus to Thanh Hoa may continue to Hanoi. Buses leave from both stations and the timings are haphazard at best and can only be purchased on the bus or 30 minutes beforehand. Took 8 hours as of Feb 2013, 180,000K. Get the bus in Sam Neua at main bus station in town (not Nathong as you wait for it to arrive from main station). Driver or border guards will change money, but know the exchange rate and bargain them up (started at 2 dong for 1 kip, got the bus conductor up to 2.4 but had to pretend to walk away, current rate was 2.62, Feb. 2013)
Luang Prabang - 12-15 hr by local bus - a long but scenic journey. The bus passes through Vieng Thong and Nong Khiaw if you want to stop there.