After some nice moments spent in the north of Laos, in Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang, we explored the famous city of Vang Vieng. The latter has long been the talk of the town between tubing and alcohol… In the end, is it worth spending a few days in Vang Vieng today?
- Presentation of Vang Vieng
- Getting to Vang Vieng
- Things to do in Vang Vieng
- The Lao food in Vang Vieng
- Our review of Vang Vieng
We took this trip in 2014, but the article was completely revised and updated in January 2023. If you see any price changes or have additional information that might be relevant, please feel free to leave us a comment!
Presentation of Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a small town whose bad reputation precedes it. Tubing, booze, drugs, wild nights, and… great sandwiches! In short, these are the ingredients that made Vang Vieng the eldorado for young backpackers in Laos a few years ago.
Vang Vieng and tubing: when the party is over
But what is tubing? Basically, you rent an inner tube and let the current carry you down the Nam Song River. So far, nothing dangerous. But the bars at the river’s edge pulled by a rope the young people to offer them drinks and various drugs… The inevitable happened… Following an increasing number of deaths of young riders who had the unfortunate tendency to forget their survival instinct after ingesting a few buckets, the police decided to put the brakes on this activity rightly.
What does the city look like today?
Today, most of the bars along the river are closed or no longer serve alcohol. Moreover, drugs are strictly forbidden. OK, in theory…
We had a strange impression of a ghost town in transition, between a destination of debauchery and a small resort for young retirees… Huh?! Yes, you’ll always see a few young people walking around shirtless with numbers written on their bodies, but also a whole bunch of older customers sipping their fruit shakes next to the young people and their buckets. But most of the time, let’s be honest, the streets are deserted!
It seems that Vang Vieng is trying to recycle itself. The city has entered the catalogs of destinations for seniors but persists in the dreams and memories of younger people. During the day, the atmosphere is a bit gloomy: 80% of the bars are empty, and a few people are slumped on the sofas watching for the 46th time the same episode of Friends running in a loop in all the bars.
Getting to Vang Vieng
From Luang Prabang
For the modest sum of 120 000 kips per person, we booked our place in a minibus from the southern bus station of Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Departures are scheduled at 7.30 a.m., 9.30 a.m., 11.30 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6.30 p.m. The minibus is the cheapest option compared to the VIP buses, but it is also the one that will guarantee you an exciting trip!
The road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng is beautiful in itself: 185 km of mountain roads with beautiful views and small villages. But who says mountain road, also says curves, many curves! Add to that a road that is not always very smooth and a driver who seems to have missed his vocation in Formula 1. As a bonus, some Laotians don’t digest the road very well and spend the trip throwing up. Mix all this and you get all the ingredients to spend an unforgettable moment which lasts… 6 h! Yeeeeaaah!
If these thrills are not for you, don’t panic! A brand new train line now runs between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. The tickets are more expensive compared to the bus (from 360 000 kips), but the time is divided by 2 with transfers 😉. To check train tickets, go to 12go!
From Nong Khiaw
A new bus line connects Nong Khiaw and Vang Vieng directly. No need to change buses in Luang Prabang! Meet at 10.30 a.m. at the bus terminal in Nong Khiaw to take a minibus (15 seats) for 150 000 kips per person. Well, that’s still 10 hours of travel with your buttocks screwed to the seat, still on mountain roads! If you skip Luang Prabang because of a lack of time, this can be a good option. Otherwise, stop for 1 or 2 nights in Luang Prabang and take the opportunity to discover this city where it is good to wander!
Vang Vieng is a tourist town par excellence and has a wide range of accommodations for all budgets. From the youth hostel from 4 euros per night, to the luxury hotel and the charming hotel at 40 euros per night, you will find the establishment that best suits your desires! Find all the hotels in Vang Vieng at the best price on the Booking website.
Do you want to spend two or three days in an extraordinary place while participating in a beautiful project? Join Christophe in his sanctuary, 30 km south of Vang Vieng. This nature lover has established a reserve on the shores of Nam Ngum Lake in an exceptional setting. There, everything has been thought for the needs of the rescued animals. Take part in the daily tasks for an immersion among monkeys, bears, and leopard cats. Count 80 dollars for 2 days and 1 night.
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Things to do in Vang Vieng
You will have understood we were not particularly fans of Vang Vieng… Nevertheless, even if the charm of the city clearly leaves something to be desired, the surroundings are worth it! Walking along the river or going to the caves are very nice activities! A tip: rent a bike (30 000 kips/day) or a motorbike and explore the surroundings! Everything can be done with the strength of your calves 😉.
Take a swim at Blue Lagoon
Swimming in a turquoise water pool is undoubtedly the must-do activity in Vang Vieng! Who says unmissable, says very often crowded… Take a tuk-tuk early and go to the Blue Lagoon, 7 km from Vang Vieng. There, you will have the choice between 6 pools to relax and enjoy the facilities (diving, swings, zip line…), especially in Blue Lagoon 1, the most popular pool. The entrance fee is 10 000 kips. Another advantage of Blue Lagoon 1 is the Phoukham Cave (which we’ll talk about later) which is worth a visit!
If you want to escape the crowds of the Blue Lagoons, go to Blue Springs & Patong Cave, near Blue Lagoon 3. It is a natural pool, as beautiful as the first one and much less crowded!
Visit the caves
If you like caves, then Vang Vieng will seduce you! Here are the two caves that we think are really worth exploring:
- Tham Phu Kham (or Phoukham Cave): probably the prettiest cave in Vang Vieng. To visit it, go towards Blue Lagoon 1 and take a steep path. If you have a flashlight, feel free to bring it, otherwise, they rent some on the spot for 10 000 kips (the phone flash is not powerful enough 😉). The entrance to Blue Lagoon 1 and the cave is 10 000 kips.
- Tham Chang (or Jang Cave): this is an ancient shelter, established following the Chinese invasion in the 19th century. To get there, cross the Nam Xong River on the new bamboo bridge and pay 5 000 kips. Then pay the 15 000 kips entrance fee and climb the 147 steps before entering the cave. Tip: come early to avoid the tourist crowds!
We do not recommend the Water Cave (or Tham Nam) and the Elephant Cave (or Tham Xang) which are less interesting than the other two in our opinion.
There are a lot of scams around the cave business and the Blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng. There are several schemes:
- Under the pretext that some passages were narrow, the guides ask to leave the bags at the entrance, which left them all the leisure to steal tickets… Be careful to keep your stuff with you all the time!
- Beware of “fake caves”. Signs indicate a very famous cave and you end up in a corner where there won’t be much. There are just holes in the wall that are of little interest but where you have to pay! The caves mentioned above are “real” 😉.
- There is only one Blue Lagoon, divided into several pools. Some places claim to be it when it’s only a small pool…
Tubing, kayaking, climbing, or ziplining
Yes, tubing has not disappeared in Vang Vieng, but it is hardly practiced anymore (if at all) with a minimum of 0.5 g of alcohol in the blood. Nowadays, you can rent an inner tube and sail quietly on the Nam Song River without running into those who used to race for alcohol. If you want to be really quiet, it’s best to do it in the morning! The rental costs about 60 000 kips, as does the deposit.
If you want to go ziplining, climbing, or kayaking, you will find many agencies in town. To book online, it’s here! On the program: kayaking on the Nam Song River, tubing, and a zip line over the forest!
Hiking to access the viewpoints of Vang Vieng
Who says karst relief, says viewpoints! Vang Vieng has three notable viewpoints. Find all the trails on the map below! The indications on Google Maps are confusing, especially between Pha Ngern and Silver Cliff…
- Nam Xai (in blue on the map): the most famous viewpoint. Be careful, the slope is very steep and slippery, so bring good shoes! It will take you about 30 minutes to reach the breathtaking viewpoint. You will have a 360° view of the valley, the rice fields, and the karstic reliefs. If you go there for the sunset, be warned, it is a very popular place! The entrance fee is 10 000 kips and the departure is at the west of Vang Vieng, 600 m on the left after the junction with the Blue Lagoon 1.
- Pha Ngern (in green): a lesser-known hike that leads to three beautiful viewpoints on the surroundings of Vang Vieng. More difficult than Nam Xai, it is reserved for people with good physical condition. Indeed, there are 500 m of positive slope and you will have to climb some rocks! To get there, take the Blue Lagoon 1 road and turn right at the junction where you will see a sign indicating “Big Phangern”. If you’re super fit, you can walk there from the city, otherwise, take a tuk-tuk or go by scooter 😉. Allow about 3 hours to do the hike, and the entrance fee is 10 000 kips.
- Be sure not to confuse it with Silver Cliff (in red)! This hike is “easier” in distance compared to Pha Ngern and the viewpoints are beautiful, although less high. Count 1-hour round trip and 10 000 kips the entrance fee. The departure is at the end of the dirt road leading to the elementary school.
Take a hot air balloon ride
During the dry season (between November and March), it is not uncommon to see colorful balloons poking the sky at dawn and dusk. Vang Vieng is known as the cheapest place in the world to take a hot air balloon ride! For 40 minutes in the air, the price is 120 dollars. To give you an idea, the prices are usually around 200 or 300 dollars…
We did not try the experience but the opinions are quite unanimous. The two companies that come back the most are Balloons over Vang Vieng and Above Laos. Even if the prices are low, the flight remains qualitative! The landscapes around Vang Vieng are beautiful from the ground, no doubt they are even more beautiful from the air at sunrise or sunset! In short, go for it if you have the budget and the time!
One thing that may surprise you in Vang Vieng is that bridge crossings can be paid for! Yes, you read it right, toll bridges in Laos… It’s a bit ironic when you see the size of the bridge, but well…
The Namsong bridge near the Riverside Boutique Resort is a priori free and it is only possible to cross it on foot or by two-wheelers. In the south of the city, the bamboo bridge that leads to the Jang Cave is not free: 5000 kips. Be aware that a bridge can be free or not depending on the time of the day…
The Lao food in Vang Vieng
To eat, you will have the choice among many restaurants! Well, it is pretty limited since 80% of the restaurants have exactly the same menu… Otherwise, you can also opt for a sandwich. There are about ten stands, all with the same menu and the same price (between 15 000 and 20 000 kips).
But let’s not be mean, Lao sandwiches are indeed a killer! Besides, we met many backpackers who swore by them! Well, you just have to ignore the combination of ham, bacon, omelet, and cheese in a piece of white sandwich bread, the whole sprinkled with mayonnaise. This is a bit like a cholesterol challenge for the body!
Our review of Vang Vieng
You will have understood through our lines, Vang Vieng did not convince us… Is a trip to Laos absolutely necessary to pass by Vang Vieng? The answer is no unless you are close to 20 years old and a thrill seeker. Otherwise, only the surroundings would justify a quick trip to the area. Our advice? Prefer Luang Prabang or even Nong Khiaw further north!
On our side, the bitterness left by Vang Vieng will be quickly dissipated by a highlight of our stay in Laos: a scooter road trip around Thakhek! Are you coming with us 😉?