There are approximately three ways to get from Luang Phabang to Hanoi: fly, catch several buses over about 30 continuous hours, or try to get to one of the little-used border crossings in the north. The first two options seemed unsatisfying, so we decided to try the road to Dien Bien Phu.
It ended up taking about five days. First we caught a songhtheaw to Nong Khia and a boat to Muang Ngoi and spent a night in a bungalow overlooking the Nam Ou river. The next day we were lucky to be able to charter a boat with a japanese couple, and enjoyed a gloriously scenic five hours on the river as our driver, softened up by at least five shots of lao lao by one of the local passengers, flicked the boat through rapids and around islands. We arrived in Muang Khua and got stuck for a whole day because a piece of paper on a wall, our only source of information, said that the bus to Vietnam only left on every second day. There is nothing in Muang Khua except two rivers and one clanky bridge - so this led to a serious amount of boredom.
On the second night, we sat in the only restaurant open after about 8, drank Beerlao, and invented a card game (since we didn't know any good two-player games). Later, two Lao guys invited us over to their table. It turned out they couldn't really speak english so all we did was said cheers every time we took a sip of beer and kept smiling enthusiastically. The one who spoke a nonzero amount of english kept proudly introducing the other one, Mr Hong. This became absurd and a running joke between Gregor and me. We learnt that "Mr Hong have money", that his father owned a lot of guesthouses or something. Later we named the dummy in our card game after Mr Hong, because all he did was sit there grinning modestly and having money.
The seven-hour bus to the border winced along a barely-constructed mountain road, with many fords and few villages. The border itself was dramatically perched on top of a mountain. After waiting for ages (but without problems) to get our passports stamped, we looked across to the next mountain and saw some flags waving bravely up there indicating the vietnamese side. It took about half an hour to drive through no-man's land to get there. But finally, we had made it to Vietnam.
In Dien Bien Phu we got stuck again because the extremely enthusiastic bus ticket salesmen were incapable of telling us anything other than what time the bus left (but they told us that hundreds of times to make up for the deficiency). So we were mistaken about the fact that it was actually an 11-hour night bus, and we ended up staying a whole day in Dien Bien Phu. There is nothing to see in DBP except one museum from the First Indochina War - this is where the French were decisively and famously beaten. After we had done this, there was nothing to do but spend an entire day playing our card game, provoking much curiosity on the part of the locals, and have lunch in the market which involved being forced to drink many shots of vodka. This curiosity was in stark contrast to the indifference of the Lao, and an entirely positive first experience of Vietnam.
Now it only remains to catch the bus to Hanoi and our detour will be complete. It was worth it!