Ah, Vang Vieng. Few places in Southeast Asia are so preceded by their reputation. Once known as Laos’ wildest party town, Vang Vieng was a place where you could spend long days tubing down a winding river, stopping at bars along the way to guzzle cheap booze and fly off rickety home-made rope swings.
With the closure of many riverside bars in 2012, Vang Vieng has grown up and quieted down – but not enough to keep away the backpackers. And with good reason! Once the bar music fades, visitors find themselves enmeshed in stunning natural scenery, with more than enough daytime activities to keep them going until the night begins.
Here are a few of our favourite things to do in Vang Vieng, whether you’re a party animal or a nature hound.
1. Tubing – in the pitch black!
You can still experience Vang Vieng’s classic Nam Song river tubing trip, down the river, hopping from bar to bar, however – there’s one tubing trip available in Vang Vieng that’s got a much cooler element – cave tubing! At Tham Nam (‘Water Cave’), a flooded cave system has a long rope guide along the wall, so that intrepid inner-tubers can pull themselves easily through the caves and explore the network of rivers running through the mountainside. Your Stray tour leader can help you sign up for a local tour, where you’ll be provided with a headlamp and inner tube. Once inside, ask your guide if the entire group can turn off their headlamps at one point – it’s a rare opportunity to experience true darkness (and a great time to scare your friends).
2. Swim in the fantastical setting of the Blue Lagoon
Ever wanted to feel a bit like you were in Avatar? Then hire a mountain bike or grab a tuktuk and head out to Vang Vieng’s best little swimming hole, the Blue Lagoon, where a river of soft, delicately pale blue flows slowly out of the jungle, deepening in the middle to create a perfect place to swim in during those hot afternoons. Best of all, there’s a tree that grows right over the deepest part of the river, with branches perfectly aligned overhead as diving platforms. Come here with friends, hang out with the local families, watch the kids showing off jumping from the tree, and just relax in a little slice of paradise. Just a short hike away are a few caves with Buddhist shrines inside, but we won’t blame you if you’re too busy blissing out at the Blue Lagoon to visit.
3. Connect with your inner farmer
If you’re looking to slow down in Vang Vieng, take some time out to spend at one of its two local farms. Mr. T’s Organic Farm is just to the north of downtown Vang Vieng, and specialises in producing mulberry wine and – believe it or not – goat cheese! By staying on at the farm, you’ll help out with daily tasks such as caring for the goats, feeding the guinea pigs, and assisting classes at the nearby community centre. There’s also the SAE LAO Project, out by the Blue Lagoon, where a flat daily fee gets you room and 2 meals a day, plus the opportunity to volunteer with their daily English classes or gardening tasks. You might be planting tomatoes one day, then building a meditation dome the next – who knows? Best to dive into whatever tasks are on for the day, and then put your feet up and watch the sunset over their fish pond after a job well done.
4. Scale the heights
Upon seeing the rocky karst landscape that surrounds Vang Vieng, you might just be the type of traveller to look out to the hills and think – ‘How do I get up there?’ Luckily for the outdoorsy visitor, Vang Vieng has a number of rock climbing groups, which run trips for everyone from first-timers to old pros. Trips range from half-day tours to four day courses, so that you can get up close and personal with these hills with any type of schedule.
5. Rise high above the town in a hot air balloon
Yep, the adventures aren’t just tethered to the ground in Vang Vieng – this is one of the few places to have an affordable and stunning hot air balloon tour in Southeast Asia. Whether you’re an early riser ready to see Laos’s iconic karst landscape emerging from morning mist, or an afternoon lover looking to see the sunset from above, the company Balloons Over Vang Vieng runs different hot air balloon tours each day. Choose from sunrise, afternoon, or sunset trips, and see this party town in a new light – for the stunning landscape that drew travellers in the first place.
6. Party in the urban jungle
Though the riverside bars aren’t as wild as they once were, there are still several open, happy to pull you in for a refreshing beverage as you float down the river. After a day of adventure activities or tubing, the nightlife in the heart of the town doesn’t disappoint. Get a good dinner for cheap at one of the many restaurants downtown, then head out to the bars to get your night started. One of Vang Vieng’s biggest events takes place at the weekly Jungle Party, though don’t let the name fool you – ‘jungle’ in Vang Vieng means more ‘someone’s backyard with potted plants scattered around.’ Slightly comical setting aside, it’s still one of the biggest parties, and you can get free tuktuks out from the city centre. If you’re still standing when all the bars start to close at 1 and 2, head to the Moon Pub just on the other side of Vang Vieng’s disused airstrip, and party with the locals.
7. Stay safe
No matter whether you’re an early-rising nature lover or a party-hard night owl, Vang Vieng has something for everyone, but the best way to make sure you have an enjoyable stay is to play safe. Make sure to take care of yourself and your friends, stay hydrated in the hot Lao sun, and keep a level head on your shoulders. It’s easy to get into trouble here, but just as easy to ensure that your trip to Vang Vieng stays fun and stress-free. And don’t feel bad about taking a day off if you’re feeling burnt out – sometimes all you need is an inner tube, a cold drink and a long lazy river.
Want more? Check out the Vang Vieng Destination Guide