Moving on from a nice trip in Luang Prabang, the adventure capital of Laos was our next stop. Vang Vieng is famous for the beautiful karst mountains that surround it, the inexpensive activities in town, and for the out of control parties it used to throw on the Nam Song river. The town is significantly less prone to heavy partying than in years past, and we found a relaxing place to stay on the opposite side of the river from town at Maylyn Guesthouse. Our tuk tuk dropped us off just before the run down suspension bridge that spans the river, and we were told we’d have to pay fifty cents to cross in that direction every time we ventured over. We later found a smaller bamboo bridge a few hundred meters downstream where we could cross for free.
Caves and Viewpoints near Vang Vieng
There are too many caves to count around Vang Vieng, with signs lining the roads advertising different options. Our first stop was Tham Jang Cave, a 2km walk south of town. To cross the bridge which leads to the cave you’ll need to pay 2,000 kip (25 cents) per person and then another 15,000 kip ($1.85) each to enter the cave. The stairway to the mouth of the cave is over a hundred steps, and has a nice view of town from the top when the haze isn’t too intense.
Entering the cave we found that it was fully lit, so no headlamps or flashlights were necessary. Walking along the paved paths brought us to some really nice stalactites and stalagmites, among the best we’d see in the area. Our 20 minute visit to the cave obviously couldn’t compare with the caves in central Vietnam or the further south Konglor Cave, but was impressive in its own right.
Back down the stairs from the cave, we took a right and found a river flowing from a narrow cave, which fed an incredibly clear lagoon. There’s a wooden platform with a ladder into the water where swimming is allowed, which was a refreshing way to get out of the heat. Swimming into the cave you can see the water falling from a rock wall a short way in.
Heading west of town, across the bridge and down the main road, there are tons of caves and viewpoints to visit. We stopped at the first major viewpoint we saw, Pha Ngeun. Everything in Vang Vieng costs money, including hiking up a karst mountain, but luckily it’s generally pretty cheap. 10,000 kip got us a parking spot for our bikes and we hiked for 45 minutes to the lower viewpoint, which is the one to the left at the fork. It was hot and humid when we visited, and we were glad we brought plenty of water. The view from the top was great, although the seasonal haze was as thick as ever. The higher lookout, which we didn’t visit, appeared to be another 45 minute ascent from where the path splits.
Probably the most popular swim spot in town, The Blue Lagoon, is further down the road heading west, and we bicycled there over the next 30 minutes from Pha Ngeun. Arriving at The Blue Lagoon, we paid our 10,000 kip pp entry and parked our bikes among the thousand others that were there. Every tour in town seems to go to this spot, and we found the lagoon teeming with tourists, mostly standing around and taking pictures, with maybe two dozen people actually in the water. A tree has two platforms to jump from, and an odd rope swing or two that don’t let you swing over the water, but just kind of drop you straight into it.
Heading across the bridge and away from the lagoon, we walked up a few hundred steps to Phu Kham Cave, which is included in the entry to The Blue Lagoon. As disappointing as the lagoon was for us, the cave was pleasantly impressive. Walking down a short way brings you to a small shrine, and continuing on from there you can explore the cave for quite a way. You’ll need a flashlight or headlamp, which you can rent at the stairs to the cave for 10,000 kip, or your phone’s flashlight should suffice. We explored the huge cave for 45 minutes before heading back to The Blue Lagoon to cool off in front of a large audience.
Bicycling back toward town, we stopped off at another lagoon that we saw sign posted, Num Bor Keo cave and lagoon. The lagoon sits in front of a medium sized cave, and costs 10,000 kip as well. Hopping into the crystal clear lagoon sent shivers through us, which was more than welcome on a day that hit 37 degrees celsius (100 Fahrenheit). Exploring the cave was much more adventurous than the others we visited in Vang Vieng, with a headlamp being an essential item. We shook an old wooden ladder inside to rid it of giant crickets before climbing further, and spent a good half hour inside the cave.
Hot Air Ballooning
Word is that Vang Vieng has the cheapest hot air ballooning in the world. While we’re generally skeptical about claims to “the world’s cheapest…” or the “world’s most beautiful…” as they’re usually sales pitches or examples of blatant nationalism, $90 per person for a hot air balloon ride sounded too good to pass up. We loved our first hot air balloon ride over Inle Lake in Myanmar, so we signed up for our flight over Vang Vieng at our guesthouse and were picked up at 5am the next morning. A songthaew drove us to an empty dirt lot in town, where two balloons were being set up.
This experience was very different than our last flight, mainly because this was a no frills, what you see is what you get operation. There was no breakfast, safety briefing, or description of what was to come like we had in Inle Lake, and our basket would pack ten of us in instead of the six person basket we had the last time around. Hopping in the basket and feeling the heat of the burners firing, lifting us off of the ground was still a great experience, and the karst mountains around Vang Vieng were beautiful from above.
As we flew along, we climbed to over 1,000 meters into the sky and watched the town shrink below us. We could barely make out water buffaloes walking along through fields below, and saw the sun rising through the hazy sky to the east. While the flight was sold as an hour long, after 30 minutes we began descending and could clearly see the field we’d be landing in. We flew over streets and power lines, grazing some trees and just missing a wire or two before landing with a thud in a field full of the ballooning crew. Our pilot hopped out first, letting the balloon slide along just off the ground before the crew pulled it back down again.
As we emptied out of the balloon, new guests were brought on and fuel tanks were changed out. Running a budget hot air balloon operation seemed to require a few flights a day, with sunrise and sunset both as options, and apparently just after sunrise as well! While our ballooning experience in Vang Vieng didn’t come close to our time in Inle Lake, it was also a third of the price, and felt like it. If this will be your first time ballooning and you expect a half hour flight, then the experience should be worth the money. If you’re after a special experience and can afford it, you may hold out and choose to hot air balloon elsewhere.
Tubing down the Nam Song River
Once regarded as the thing to do in Vang Vieng, tubing down the Nam Song River has chilled out quite a bit from the old days of debauchery. Once upon a time, tourists poured into Vang Vieng to rent rubber tubes and float down the Nam Song, which was lined with dozens of bars selling alcohol and drugs. Parties raged all night as drunken westerners jumped from platforms and flew off slides set up at the bars. The obvious consequence to this anarchy was a death toll of tourists that climbed from a few, to a few dozen, to a few dozen per year. In 2012 things changed, the government stepped in, and virtually everything along the Nam Song was shut down.
We signed up for our tubing trip at one of the few offices in town, paid our 60,000 kip ($7), and were taken in a songthaew full of westerners to a spot downstream. Nowadays tubing trips visit two bars over the course of a few hours, and those bars charge double to triple the prices compared to what you can find in town. There are no more joints or magic shakes being sold, and the trip is more about tubing down the slow flowing river than partying.
At the first bar, about 100 meters from where we started our tube ride, we grabbed a few drinks and jumped from a platform into the river. While the loud music sounded like a party, it was pretty subdued due to the prices and regulations, which is all for the better. After a half hour we jumped back onto our tubes and floated along, expecting another bar shortly. Almost two hours of lazily floating later, we came to the second, and final bar. The bar had a high zip-line set up, which ended in a four meter drop down to the river, and local kids were jumping off a nearby bamboo bridge. While we enjoyed our tubing trip, it was definitely not a party anymore, and a bit too slow to be exciting. If you expect a relaxing, sometimes a bit too slow tubing trip, your expectations should be met.
Vang Vieng was a nice stop on our trip through Laos, and if you like caves and karst mountains like we do, you should have a great time! Expect everything, including walking on some bridges and walking up some trails, to cost a small fee, and understand that the party is much more subdued now than in years past. Heading south from Vang Vieng, we were on our way to a 7.5km long river cave and a three day motorbike loop in Thakhek to get there!