In this trip report we travel to the town of Vang Vieng and explore its sights and activities, answering the question whether or not this destination is worth it to include on your Laos itinerary.
When I was still in the planning stage of my trip I was unsure whether or not I should include a stop in Vang Vieng. On the plus side the scenery looked amazing, there seemed to be plenty to do in and around town.
However, Vang Vieng also has the reputation of being a hedonistic party town for backpackers. There are quite some reports on the internet of travellers complaining that the idyllic charm has disappeared and given way to overtourism.
Even though it has been a few years since my backpacking days as a student and nowadays I pretty much prefer quaint destinations above popular, crowded places, I did in the end decide to give it a try. I figured that even in the most saturated places it is always possible to escape the crowds if needed.
Besides, despite not being the backpacker target group anymore, I still like a beer or two in the night so I might as well give in and see what the party vibe is all about.
Vang Vieng is a rather obscure, small town on the Nam Song River without any cultural sights. What it lacks in culture it does however make up for in natural landscapes – bigly.
The town of around 30,000 inhabitants is famous for its karst landscape, which shows itself in the form of limestone cliffs along the Nam Song River which bisects the town.
Thanks to its geology, there are also numerous of caves and natural pools in the direct environment of the town. When backpackers discovered the location of the town in the 1990s it therefore quickly became a must-see stop on most people’s itinerary across south-east Asia.
One of the reasons why Vang Vieng has such a notorious reputation is ‘tubing’. You are basically taken by a local tour operator upstream, from where you float back in an inflatable inner tube on the Nam Song River to Vang Vieng.
Over the years the activity has however claimed the live of dozens of tourists by drowning. Despite having a few river rapids, the Nam Song is a relatively calm and shallow river and not particularly dangerous.
However, over the years the backpacking crowd made out of Vang Vieng such a party town, that thousands of youngsters went tubing while completely drunk or high on drugs. They consumed even more alcohol while floating back to Vang Vieng, buying beers or cheap homemade whiskey from wooden shacks along the river which doubled as bars.
Needless to say, this played a huge role in the drowning deaths of dozens of youngsters. In 2011, there were for example 27 tourist deaths in Vang Vieng.
The massive surge in deaths caused anger among the local population, which even feared that the river was haunted. The Laotian authorities responded by banning tubing outright and closing the ramshackle bars along the river.
The situation now has somewhat relaxed. Tubing is currently allowed again, although most of the bars along the river have remained closed since. The ones that are still open are much more sedated than during the heydays of tubing and local authorities have increased surveillance by speedboats.
Those who are still found on the river when the sun starts to set are even forced to get out of the water and to pay for a tuk-tuk back in town.
On one of my days in Vang Vieng I went tubing myself (going down the river by kayak is possible too). It was good fun going down the river, admiring the wonderful landscape along the way. When stopping at one of the riverside shacks for a beer there were at most seven other travellers around.
Although the vibe was upbeat and cheerful, there was certainly not any wild partying, drug use or people getting wasted. It seemed to me that the local authorities have finally found the middle ground in regulating tubing by still allowing the popular (and admittedly fun) activity to continue while cracking down on the excesses.
Exploring the surroundings of Vang Vieng
There are plenty of beautiful places to visit in the countryside around Vang Vieng. There are basically three ways to explore the surroundings:
– By organised tour in a minivan
– Renting a buggy
– Renting a motorbike or mountain bike
As I love cycling, I of course opted for the mountain bike. If you do rent a mountain bike, make sure that it has a good suspension and shock absorber. A lot of the roads in the countryside are gravel roads and some of them have a rough surface, which can make biking around very uncomfortable after a while.
Despite not having the best bike available (and feeling like I just completed a one-week trek on horseback after finishing my ride) I still thoroughly enjoyed biking. Sure, buggies might be the more comfortable option. I do however think they are noisy and a rather brazen intrusion into the calm countryside life, especially when tourists drive them around at speeds of 80kph without caring about other road users.
Seeing tour groups passing by in 10 to 15 buggies is a pretty good symbol of unsustainable overtourism, if you ask me. At least on a bike, you can feel much better what is happening around you, feeling much more connected with the countryside and local village life.
Tham Chang Cave
My first stop by bike was the Tham Chang Cave, located just a few hundred feet south of Vang Vieng. To reach the cave, you need to cross a small toll bridge. There is also a small entrance fee to the actual cave, although combined it won’t set you back more than a dollar or two.
Given the porous nature of limestone there are quite a lot of caves like Tham Chang in the surrounding area. Some like Tham Chang are popular destinations, while others are largely unexplored and completely off the beaten track.
It is a bit of a climb up some steps to Tham Chang. So much that I feared that some of the elderly French people of a tourist group which visited at the same time as I did might pass out.
Once you are up on the hill, the views over the surrounding countryside are well worth the climb. The cave is pretty too and larger than I expected. Some chambers are even used as a small Buddhist shrine.
The riverside grounds are pretty too and features a spring, which is popular among travellers for a quick dip to freshen up.
Most awe-inspiring sights and beautiful landscapes are located on the right bank (western side) of the Nam Song River. The main road crosses the river over a wooden toll bridge in the centre of Vang Vieng, with every car, biker and pedestrian having to pay a small fee.
The road to the west is the gateway to the some hiking trails, caves as well as a series of blue lagoons. Many tourists make the mistake thinking there is only one blue lagoon. However, there are five main blue lagoons, numbered from Blue Lagoon 1 to Blue Lagoon 5. There are also several other freshwater pools and springs located off the beaten track which are not numbered, although some require a substantial hike to get there.
Blue Lagoon 2
Blue Lagoon 1, located next to the Phu Kham Cave, is by far the most popular of all the blue lagoons, which does not come as a big surprise as this is the one which is most accessible and the closest to Vang Vieng.
I however opted to visit Blue Lagoon 2, which seemed like a more quaint and beautiful spot when comparing some pictures and reviews.
The first part of the road is paved and is perfectly easy and comfortable to ride, with some great views over some limestone cliffs on your right side. At one point you however need to take a road to the left at a junction. After just a few feet, the tarmac of this road will give way to an at times very rough gravel road.
Even though biking can be a bit uncomfortable at times, it is a lovely stretch of road. On a mountain bike you do feel one with the surrounding nature, agricultural fields and small towns where time seems to have stood still. Driving through on a buggy and you can easily miss out on all of this.
At the blue lagoon
Blue Lagoon 2 is one of the most quiet of the Vang Vieng lagoons and seems to be most popular among Korean tourists (which may have to do with the fact that the only restaurant located directly at the lagoon is a Korean one). When I visited, there were no more than eight or ten other people around.
The blue lagoon is a lovely place to take a dip and to relax for a couple of hours. Just grab a beer or a coconut from one of the nearby shops, put your towel on one of the wooden loungers and you have all the ingredients for a perfect morning or afternoon. The lovely gardens surrounding the pool are lovely for a stroll as well.
Daredevils will appreciate the wooden platforms (one of them quite high!) from where you can jump into the lagoon.
After some hours relaxing at the blue lagoon I decided to cycle back to Vang Vieng. My initial plan was to continue on the same road to another blue lagoon, but the distance and the bad road quality made me think twice about that.
Instead, I opted for a quiet bike ride back and lunch in one of the restaurants along the road to Vang Vieng.
Lazing the day away
Although there are plenty more caves and blue lagoons to explore and some fabulous hikes to make in the area, some of them leading to viewpoints on the top of one of the many cliffs, I decided to take it easy for most of my time in Vang Vieng.
Having a hotel in Vang Vieng with a lovely swimming pool, it was certainly not a crime to laze away the day at the pool while drinking a beer or two and admiring the scenic views.
Vang Vieng night market
There is enough to do in Vang Vieng at night to keep you entertained. Despite being a small town, there are a large number of shops and convenience stores which are open until late. There is also a daily night market in one of the city centre streets.
Although the Vang Vieng night market is completely tailored to tourists and doesn’t come even close to those in Vientiane and Luang Prabang in size, it makes for a fun stroll and decent shopping.
Vang Vieng restaurants
As the centre of Vang Vieng is small and compact, it is easy to discover all on foot within an hour. When it comes to restaurants or bars it is probably best just to follow your nose and eyes and just stop whatever looks good and where the crowds are.
You can find restaurants everywhere in the centre as well as on the central waterfront. The street running parallel to the night market has some great hawker stalls if you want to eat some authentic street food.
Vang Vieng nightlife
As I already wrote before, Vang Vieng is a popular party hotspot on the backpacker circuit of south east Asia. While originally mainly a focus point of Australian, British and American backpackers, Vang Vieng has nowadays a more diverse crowd as also the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, French as well as Koreans have discovered the town.
Vang Vieng is also a popular destination among young Chinese tourists from the neighbouring provinc of Yunnan.
The town is small enough to walk around and just see what the most popular spot is that particular night, although old favourites such as Sakura, Jaidee’s Bar, Viva Pub and Gary’s Irish Bar never disappoint. Many backpacker hostels also double as nightlife spots. A lot of the bars have free shots and drinks during happy hour in the early evening.
One thing to be careful with in Vang Vieng is drugs and magic mushrooms, which are freely sold in some of the town’s watering holes and are the main reason why Vang Vieng has such an infamous reputation. Note that all drugs are forbidden by Laotian law.
It is not uncommon for tourists to be busted by police on the streets or in their accommodation for illegal possession of drugs, which can easily result in a fine (and bribe) of several thousands of dollars if you want to escape jail. Robbery and sexual assault of intoxicated travellers – mostly by fellow backpackers – is also not unheard of, so be vigilant. That said, the town of Vang Vieng is otherwise a perfectly safe destination, even when walking around at night.
Vang Vieng is a fun town and having a few beers and meeting new people is never a bad idea, although it really pays off to be vigilant.
I was a bit unsure what to expect from Vang Vieng but in the end I was happy that I decided to give the town a try. Even though it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the landscape and the surrounding countryside is without doubt gorgeous and makes for some fun exploring. Whether you do this by bike, buggy, organised tour, motorbike or kayak is all up to you!
Despite its turbulent history, tubing has made a comeback as a more laid-back activity and is certainly some good fun too. With some decent accommodation options available for a town its size, you can easily stay a night or two or three in Vang Vieng and not feel bored. There are plenty of restaurants and bars as well to keep you occupied as well.
It is for sure true that the town of Vang Vieng is dominated by the backpacker crowd. But given that most backpackers congregate around a few particular hostels, bars and activities like tubing, it is also easy to avoid it altogether if this is not your scene.
If you are young and up to partying and meeting new people, you will love Vang Vieng. If you want a quiet place to enjoy the natural surroundings and have some good food, it is also absolutely doable as Vang Vieng basically is two different worlds in one. The town ended up growing on me, and I would certainly love to come back one day.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Lazing in Laos and Gallivanting a Wee Bit Around Asia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Aegean Airlines Business Class Bucharest to Athens (Airbus A320)
2. Review: Goldair Handling Lounge (Non-Schengen) Athens Airport
3. Review: Saudia Business Class Athens to Jeddah (Airbus A320)
4. Review: Saudia Alfursan Lounge Jeddah Airport South Terminal
5. Review: Review: Saudia Business Class Jeddah to Kuala Lumpur (Boeing 787)
6. Review: CitizenM Hotel Kuala Lumpur Bukit Bintang
7. Kuala Lumpur in One Day: What to See and Do in 24 Hours
8. A Batu Caves Half Day Trip From Kuala Lumpur By Public Transport
9. Review: Plaza Premium Lounge Private Resting Suite Gateway KLIA2
10. Review: Air Asia Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane (Airbus A320)
11. Review: Hotel Khamvongsa, Vientiane, Laos
12. Destination Trip Report: A Day in Vientiane, Laos
13. Guide: Domestic Bus Travel in Laos and How to Book a Ticket
14. Review: Simon Riverside Hotel, Vang Vieng, Laos
15. Trip Report: Vang Vieng – Worth a Stop on Your Laos Itinerary? (current chapter)
16. Review: Villa Ban Phanluang, Luang Prabang, Laos
17. Luang Prabang: The Stunning Pearl of Indochina
18. Guide: Luang Prabang Morning, Food and Night Markets
19. Kuang Si Falls: A Gorgeous Luang Prabang Day Trip
20. Review: Thai Smile Economy Class Luang Prabang to Bangkok (Airbus A320)
21. Review: Ibis Styles Bangkok Sukhumvit 4
22. Review: Air France/KLM Business Lounge Bangkok Airport
23. Review: Garuda Indonesia Business Class Bangkok to Jakarta (Boeing 737-800)
24. Review: Sapphire Plaza Premium Lounge Terminal 3 Jakarta Airport
25. Review: Garuda Business Lounge Terminal 3 Jakarta Airport
26. Review: Review: Japan Airlines Business Class Jakarta to Tokyo Narita (Boeing 787-8)
27. Review: Capsule Hotel Transit Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
28. Tokyo Stopover: What to See and Do in the Capital of Japan for a Day
29. Review: ANA Business Lounge Tokyo Narita Airport
30. Review: United Club Tokyo Narita Airport
31. Review: Turkish Airlines Economy Class Tokyo Narita to Istanbul (Boeing 777)
32. Review: Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles Lounge Istanbul Airport
33. Review: Turkish Airlines Economy Class Istanbul to Bucharest (Airbus A330)