Surrounded by majestic karst mountains and nestled along the Nam Song river in Laos is the town of Vang Vieng. This sleepy town wasn’t much more than a bus stop along the river at one point, then turned into one of the most notorious backpacker spots in all of southeast Asia. But things are changing…fast! The beauty of the natural scenery and the awesome activities in this outdoor paradise are loved by more than just the backpacker crowd, and investment is giving way to a big transition. So here are several reasons why the best time to visit Vang Vieng, Laos is NOW!
Why You MUST Visit Vang Vieng Now!
If you don’t know already, Josh and I are real suckers for natural beauty. We love the outdoors – from mountains, forests, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The peace and tranquility of nature’s beauty is something that we thoroughly enjoy. And Vang Vieng definitely ticks all those boxes — and will forever stand out to us as one of the most beautiful destinations we have traveled to.
But years ago this once sleepy, rural town quickly turned into something totally different from its roots. In a place where the locals are so conservative that they always stay covered up (even when they go swimming), now tourists are walking around town in barely there bikinis. Local customs are being ignored, the natural setting of this town is being destroyed.
Even though Vang Vieng owes it’s popularity to the rowdy backpacker crowd, the party reputation fueled with drugs and dangerous activities on the river is not the future the town wants. And in our opinion, it’s not the reputation this town deserves.
They’ve been slowly getting away from the “party town” image for years now for a few reasons. First of all, it’s not cool to be the town where scores or tourists die. But let’s be honest, there isn’t as much money being made from this crowd — aside from booze (and that money isn’t benefiting most of the community).
Don’t get me wrong, the Lao people know how to party (as evident at that crazy Rocket Festival we attended during our visit), but they want more for the town. And knowing that they are in a prime setting with natural beauty and outdoor adventure all around them, they want to capitalize on that.
So change is coming to Vang Vieng.
In general, Laos is a country with pristine beauty, but lack of funds for development. This has prevented them from creating a tourism infrastructure like other nearby countries. But the money is being invested now, and development is everywhere. And from our discussions with the tourism board, it seems that Laos is really planning to be the next big destination for tourism in southeast Asia in the coming years.
So while the Vang Vieng tubing culture has been on the decline in recent years with the crack down by the government, it’s the on-going development in Vang Vieng will likely speed up the transition into a more up-market travel destination.
The New Vang Vieng is Coming…Fast!
Being in Vang Vieng for a couple weeks, it was easy see the transition taking place. Numerous hotels and construction projects are visible, including a massive “Vang Vieng Grand Hotel” right in the center of town (if you want to call it a town). It’s nothing more than a collection of cheap guest houses, cheap restaurants, lots of bars, and a few tour companies.
But the “Vang Vieng Grand Hotel” is supposedly going to have a huge shopping center and more. Being plunked right in the middle of this dirt road town and a million carts selling sandwiches, I can’t imagine the heart of the town will stay like this for long.
As travelers, it’s difficult to know how to feel about this transition. On the one hand, we would love for the people of Vang Vieng to benefit from more jobs and prosperity in the area – and it would be great if there were more options for visitors besides bars and “happy pizzas.” However, we know that mass tourism has many downsides…and we would hate to see this rural town explode and lose the very things that make it a great place to visit.
So Why is NOW the Time to Visit Vang Vieng?
The reason now is the best time to visit Vang Vieng is that you can actually get the best of both worlds. There is plenty of luxury to be found in Vang Vieng, like we experienced at the Riverside Boutique Resort and the Silver Naga Hotel. But if you do want to have a bit of fun, you can still go tubing or walk down the street and pop into a bar giving out free whisky drinks.
Also, the prices in Vang Vieng are still cheap. Where else can you get a luxury hotel for $100 USD (or less) with million dollar views and great service? But there’s no doubt that as this transition takes place, prices in Vang Vieng are going to go up dramatically. This will attract a different type of tourist, and definitely change the dynamic of the town.
Things do in Vang Vieng, Laos – Besides Tubing the River
Water Activities in Vang Vieng
Sitting along the Nam Song river, water activities are abundant. Tubing is the more famous option, and visitors can easily tube the river without participating in the rowdy scene (if that’s what you prefer). Kayaking is another popular activity on the river, and we saw countless kayakers everyday during our visit.
If you prefer to stay dry, then you can just take a leisurely boat ride up and down the river too.
For water activities beyond the town center, check out the famous Blue Lagoon — with its surreal color, crisp (and quite cold) water, it’s a refreshing way to spend the day. In fact, many people stay out here all day long. There are areas to relax and eat, and it’s only 7 kilometers from town. Tuk-tuks are expensive, but you can ride a bike or motorbike — which we recommend because it gives you flexibility, and it’s a beautiful ride!
Caving in Vang Vieng
Caves are seemingly everywhere around Vang Vieng! You can easily walk to a few of them from town (just across the river), or you can take a motorbike and explore numerous caves on your own. You may also choose to take a day tour to some of the more popular caves or go it alone.
Personally, we enjoyed Water Cave after all the tour groups left. It was eerily quiet as we floated through this dark, water-filled cavern on our tubes with only our headlamps to light the way.
A few of the caves require guides, or at least, locals who guard them will tell you that. But it’s not a bad a idea to have someone with you who at least has a little more familiarity than you do about it. For a fee, they will take you around and even give you some insight into the area and the history.
** Entrance Fees **
Many of the sights and activities around Vang Vieng have fees, including just crossing some of the bridges! It can definitely get annoying when you have to pay 5,000 to 10,000 kip just to cross a bridge or walk up a mountain. But honestly, I can’t blame the local people for trying to capitalize on tourists who come to explore their beautiful homeland. I just hope the money is going to a good place.
So overall, if you plan to go out exploring on your own around Vang Vieng, be sure to bring lots of small bills to pay these “tolls” wherever you are.
Hiking and Waterfalls in Vang Vieng
There are a number of water falls in the area. Unfortunately, we visited during dry season so they weren’t very exciting. But with caves and water everywhere, you know there are going to be lots of trails.
Having a good map is key, so be sure to get one of the local “hobo maps” that they sell all over town (roughly 25,000 kip). They are one of the most detailed maps we’ve seen, and give lots of details about trails and attractions – like caves and waterfalls. However, you can also use your phone apps such as Maps.Me or OffStreet Maps.
We found that Maps.Me had a good map of the area and showed many of the trails, but the Hobo map was definitely more detailed!
Adventure Activities in Vang Vieng
Being and outdoor town with so much natural scenery, it only makes sense that Vang Vieng would also have a number of adventure or extreme activities too. Rock climbing is huge here, as you would expect with such amazing mountains. But also adventure caving and multi-day hikes (including camping) are quite popular. There are also zip line courses and even a NEW paramotoring activity (parachute with a motorized vehicle).
For those who prefer great views without the extreme adrenaline, there is also the hot air balloons that go up everyday. Now that’s quite the way to see this majestic landscape!
But for travelers on a budget, just hiking and climbing around on the trails can be fun. We had a blast walking around across from town through the fields and dried up rice paddies. We even scaled one of the hills across from Vang Vieng – with the flagpole on top. It’s not as easy as it looks, but it was a beautiful way to spend an evening and the view was awesome!
Where to Stay in Vang Vieng
There’s a wide variety of accommodation options to choose from in Vang Vieng, Laos. If you want super cheap, then you can find budget dorms and some guest houses for under $10 a night. But there are also a number of “workaway” and other volunteer options where you can get even cheaper (or even free) accommodations in exchange for some work.
We also discovered a nice variety of mid-range options during our visit, as well as some beautiful off the beaten path bungalows, situated away from town and even in rice paddies! Now that’s a cool experience!
Then there are the luxury hotels, and there are a few of them in Vang Vieng (with more on the horizon). Situated along the Nam Song River, we were thoroughly impressed with the Riverside Boutique Resort as well as the Silver Naga. These are where you want to stay if you are looking for a fabulous hotel in a surreal setting.
When to Visit Vang Vieng (or avoid)
As with anywhere in Laos, there is a distinct hot and rainy season (or green season as they call it). If you are willing to brave the intense heat and prefer less crowds and lower prices, then visiting in the low / dry season is great — around May. But there’s also a lot of burning of the fields that can take place, making the air a bit hazy.
However, June will start to bring the rains. While crowds are still fairly low through June, July, and even August, it will definitely be hot and humid…with lots of rain! The rain is inconvenient and will put a damper on some of your outdoor and hiking activities, but the clouds and mist make for the most amazing views and photos of the mountains!
The ideal time for weather in Vang Vieng is October through March — but this also means that prices will be high and there will definitely be more crowds.
How to Get to Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng is just north of the capital city of Vientiane, about 96 miles. It’s a lovely drive from the city of Vientiane to Vang Vieng up in the mountains. If you take a minivan, it will only take a few hours. We took a VIP bus and it took us 4 hours.
The road is winding, but it’s nothing like the road north toward Luang Prabang! It’s actually quite a beautiful ride and not terribly long. You can book a seat on a bus or minivan almost anywhere in Vientiane. I recommend just going through your guesthouse or a travel agent office in the main tourist part of town. We found the prices to be roughly the same as the bus station, and they’ll come to pick you up – which is quite convenient.
A long windy thrilling road from #vientiane to #vangvieng. 96 miles, 4.5 hours, and a couple of stops to let the cows cross the road we finally made it. #beer time #lppathfinders #explore #travelstoke #peanutsorpretzels #POPLaos #simplybeautifullaos #travel #travelgram #carride #mountains #shotgun #adventure
A photo posted by Peanuts or Pretzels (@peanutsorpretzels) on
From the north, like Luang Prabang, bus is also the primary form of transport to Vang Vieng. Again, minivans are quick but VIP buses are a bit cheaper. It’s a good 6 hour trip, and it’s SUPER winding! One of the most beautiful drives we’ve done, but be prepared with the Dramamine if you get car sick (of even if you don’t!). It can be brutal.
Sleeper buses are also available — but I can’t imagine trying to sleep (or even laying down) on that winding road!
Rental Cars / Motorbikes
It’s possible to rent a car in Laos to drive yourself, and that would be a truly wonderful way to see the country! This would give you the opportunity to stop off to admire the views, or just take a break. However, renting a car is quite expensive in Laos. You can also book private cars and transfers through many hotels or travel agencies. The prices will definitely be high, but you will be quite comfortable and have much more flexibility than the buses.
Motorbikes are also a popular options for getting around Laos. In fact, we met some people in Vang Vieng who had bought bikes in Cambodia and were riding them through Laos and into Vietnam — then planning to sell them at the end of the trip. It seems to be a popular idea because we found many flyers around Laos for people selling or buying bikes.
Honestly, we’d love to be able to ride motorbikes all over this country. What a journey! But it certainly brings it’s own set of challenges – from sand and dirt roads, lack of facilities like gas stations, rain, and long stretches of remote area. But it would be an adventure indeed!
Do Yourself a Favor and Get to Vang Vieng Soon!
Regardless if you are looking for a party or looking for some relaxation…you must get to Vang Vieng, Laos soon before it changes forever. The partying backpackers won’t be there much longer, and I’m afraid that the chill atmosphere and affordable quality accommodations won’t last much longer either. As the area becomes more of an upmarket destination, it’s going to bring some of that nasty commercialism, crowds, and higher prices with it.