Adventurers, athletes, nature lovers and penny-pinchers, rejoice! Vang Vieng, Laos may be the destination of your dreams. It’s full of fun outdoor activities in a truly stunning setting.
However, those looking for a serene, zen place to take sunrise yoga photos for Instagram while practicing competitive spirituality, Vang Vieng may not be right for you. It’s more of a lively place.
Let’s talk about what makes Vang Vieng so special, what to experience, when to visit, where to stay and how to get there:
What to see and do in Vang Vieng
Soak in the stunning, weird scenery
When Mother Nature made Vang Vieng, she decided she was done making sense. She took a flat landscape and then just randomly threw down some steep, sheer-cliffed mountains here and there. And then she made some of the mountains hollow just for fun and put some clear, blue water at the bottom of the caves, because why not?
While adventurers with lots of energy to burn will be thrilled to have and vast array of outdoor activities to choose from, I recommend spending at least a day exploring the area on a motorbike or by mountain bike just to take in the breathtaking cliffs, the peaceful rice fields, the emerald-colored Nam Song River and the picturesque organic farms. You can rent a motorbike in town for 50,000 Kip/day ($6USD).
Pro tip: in the heart of the dry season (December-May), the dirt roads are exceptionally dusty. So pack a dusk mask, bandana or buff, and sunglasses.
Hot air ballooning
Standing in the hot air balloon and taking in the breathtaking vista of sharp, dramatic limestone mountains rising straight out of the rice fields, I wondered what I was more excited about: the amazing scenery or the fact that the hot air balloon ride cost only $90USD. I mean, that’s a deal of a lifetime, and a view of a lifetime!
You can do it either at sunrise or sunset – I did the sunset ride and it was spectacular to see the golden and orange rays of light over the mountains. And did I mention it cost only $90?! In other locales, vendors charge $350-500 for balloon ride, so getting a screaming deal like this just adds to the effervescent exhilaration of floating over jagged mountains. No need to book in advance of arrival – I booked mine an hour before lift-off.
A word about safety though: the ride I took looked and felt safe. But there are Tripadvisor reviews from some whose hot air balloons landed in trees and distant rice fields. (Um, extra bonus adventure?)
Get your outdoor activities on
The land around Vang Vieng is paradise for outdoor adventurers. But just note: the town itself is a dirty eyesore that has about as much charm as a Malaysian public bathroom. I recommend getting out of town as fast as you can and enjoying the countryside in all its stunning beauty. You can do most of these things on your own, but there are also lots of super affordable tours for those who prefer group activities. You can book them all when you get there – one day advance booking is usually all that’s needed.
Tube and kayak down the Nam Song River
Want a fun way to spend a lazy day cooling off with friends? Hop on a shuttle that takes you a few miles outside of town, rent an inner tube for a couple bucks and float down the river. You can even float right up to a river-front bar to refill your beer-cozie.
You can also tube inside of some caves, which is…m’eh. Sounded cooler than it actually was.
If you’re up for something less boozy/lazy, book a kayak trip – prices start at $8 for a 2-hour trip floating down the placid river in a semi-leaky boat. If you join a group tour (as I did), you’ll likely get to make friends with some hilarious and giggly Koreans who have never held a paddle before and who will somehow manage to flip their incredibly stable kayak at least 3 times in still water, which is guaranteed to make you laugh. (Number of Samsung phones lost in the river by said giggly Koreans on our tour: 5).
Hike up karst mountains and enjoy the views
Just about every pointy mountain you see in Vang Vieng has a rickety viewing platform at the top, and a steep, rocky trail to climb. You’ll see the signs from the road. Note: all the signs lie. When they say “250m to the top!” expect a sketchy, sweaty hour-long scramble using vines and tree roots to haul yourself up the hill. And you know what, it’s worth every drop of salty sweat in your eyes. The views are truly remarkable!
Explore caves and swim in underground pools
There are countless caves to explore, many of which feature beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. And most also have swimming hole inside, some lit by the sun, and others in pitch darkness. Just ride down any road in the valley and you’ll see signs pointing you to a number of caves. I can’t really recommend any one cave over another – they all kinda looked the same to me after a while. Some also have pretty pools outside at the mouth of the caves.
Limestone is fantastic for climbing, and so as you’d expect with karst mountains, there are tons of places for rock climbing. It’s easy to book half-day and full-day rock climbing adventures in town.
Picnic and swim in blue pools with a bunch of fun-loving Koreans
There are numerous “blue lagoons” around Vang Vieng that have a party atmosphere and lots of happy crowds. At Blue Lagoon #1, it’s actually pretty funny to watch what I call “The Korean Act of Courage,” in which dudes in tight shorts and quivering ladies climb (or crawl) onto not-so-high branches or platforms, assume the likeness of a vertical corpse, and jump-squeal into the water to the cheers of everyone around. Generally, I avoid crowds, but it’s a crack up to watch this and everyone is so happy that it’s pretty infectious.
There are some healthy push-bike rides to do in the area, from just cruising “the loop” around the most iconic and scenic mountains of Vang Vieng on a mountain bike on the dusty roads, to road cycling on skinny tires for as far as your legs will take you. Here are 29 cycling routes to explore in the area.
I couldn’t find any high-end full-suspension mountain bikes or road bikes for rent. The ones for hire will get you around, but you may turn into new species of dinosaur afterward: the assasaurus. (I certainly roared like a dinosaur the next day when I sat on a hard surface). So if you’re serious about riding, bring your own bike.
Stay in a treehouse
Who hasn’t dreamt of staying in a treehouse?! Well, for about $20usd, your dreams can come true at the Elephant Adventure Village Tree House. It’s pretty basic, but c’mon, it’s a treehouse!
You can also do it as a 2-day adventure with a guided trek up Ana Mountain to see “Secret Eden,” zip-line, swim at Blue Lagoon, and kayak on the Namsong. Here are details.
Tours, tours, tours
From zip-lining through the forest, to tubing, to noisy dune-buggy rides through the dirt roads in the backcountry, to swinging from ropes into cool natural pools, there are affordable tours for anything you want to do. Most are group tours, but private tours are also quite affordable. Your hotel will have books of tours you can flip through, or walk into town and you’ll find lots of tour companies.
Where to stay
When it comes to accommodations, Vang Vieng is kind of a strange place. There’s a massive range of backpacker-type places to stay for a few dollars per night. But if the ambience provided by bare, florescent lightbulbs and cement walls decorated with dubious stains isn’t your thing, there are several spendy hotels and resorts with room rates soaring into several hundred dollars. The odd thing is that there isn’t much in between these extreme poles, but fear not, I scouted around and found a few good choices for you:
Outside of town, beneath a gorgeous mountain, sit the cute little individual chalets of Bearlin Bungalow. I chose to stay here since it’s in a quieter location but still close enough to town, it’s very affordable, you get your own private bungalow, and the owners are some of the nicest people on earth. The husband-wife owners are Laotian but were refugees taken in by Germany during the war. They met each other there and married, and lived/worked in Germany for nearly 3 decades. They returned to Laos to take care of elderly parents, and built schools and health clinics for impoverished villages. They’re such sweet, wonderful, welcoming people! Note though that there are annoying, loud dune buggies that zoom down the road, so you’ll likely hear a bit of that noise, but my bungalow was far enough off the road that it wasn’t very noticeable.
Vang Vieng Eco Lodge
This is the most peaceful, quiet hotel I could find in the area. This little lodge is 6km outside of town, and it’s right on the river – well away from the main road. Priced at $20USD/night, Vang Vieng Eco Lodge is also incredible affordable. It’s pretty basic though, so don’t expect anything fancy. To get around, you’ll either need to rent a motorbike/bike to get around, or you can just book tours through the hotel.
Villa Vang Vieng Riverside
This cute little resort is on the edge of town beside the river. Averaging about $75USD/night during high season, Villa Vang Vieng Riverside is a nice option if you want to stay within walking distance of town. Since it’s across the river from town, it’s a little quieter.
This newly opened hotel is pretty cool! Kong Resort is made out of recycled shipping containers, and the rooms are very pretty. It’s on the other side of the river from town, so it’s not so noisy, the beds are soft and comfortable (which is pretty rare for Asia), and it’s just kind of amazing to see how beautiful you can make a shipping container by cutting out walls and replacing them with windows, installing wood paneling and designing them with style. And at $45USD/night, it’s a steal.
Riverside Boutique Resort
This is a nicely done resort right on the river. I stayed here as well and found the grounds and views to be lovely, and the rooms were very comfortable. At $145usd/night, it’s a bit pricey though.
When to visit
The best time to visit is generally considered to be October through early March since it’s the dry season and the temperature is pleasant. However, don’t be too scared off by the wet season – May through September – since it typically rains for about an hour per day during this time. There are some stretches with full-day rainstorms, but my Laotian friends tell me that’s fairly unusual.
It’s best to avoid Vang Vieng during most of March and April since it’s their “burn season” during which farmers set fire to dried out crops and weeds, which leaves the air thick with smoke and ash. Plus, it’s the tail end of the dry season, so the roads are insanely dusty.
How to get to Vang Vieng
The closest airports are Luang Prabang and Vientienne. Both are about a 4-hour drive away. The roads are windy, but it’s quite beautiful and scenic driving through Khmu villages, rice fields and mountain passes.
You can arrange a private, air conditioned van to get you there, which will cost anywhere from $120-150USD, or get on a group minibus, which usually costs around $12-20USD per person. There’s also a large bus, but after hearing nightmare stories of super long journeys and vomiting children, I’d pass on that. You can easily arrange your transport when you arrive in Vientienne and Luang Prabang.
You could also rent a car, which I considered doing myself, but I’m quite glad I opted for the van instead. My driver had to avoid a couple near head-on collisions with dump trucks trying to pass on blind turns, and the road was broken, rough and under construction in places. It’s much more relaxing to just let someone else do the driving.
Plus, it was fun trying to talk with the Laotian driver, who told me I am “very lip-face.” 🙂
Have a great trip to Vang Vieng, my very lip-face friends!