A village shaped by visitors, fun shaped by nature
Vang Vieng is a small town in Laos, a Southeast Asian country. It is located just about four hours by car from both, the modern capital, Vientiane, and the amazing old royal capital of Luang Prabang. Most locals and visitors alike would agree that here, fun for visitors is the main engine that sustains the local economy. Others might even say that once a quiet village, this place was developed primarily thinking on tourists.
Unlike Siem Reap, Bali or Jogjakarta, just to mention a few, this place is not famous for its temples, history or food. It is not even ‘just the town next to that big touristic spot where you spend the night’. But do not get me wrong, there is a good reason for budget travelers to search for transport straight to this town as soon as the plane touches the ground at Wattay International Airport in the capital.
That reason is the incredible natural beauty and all the leisure activities related to it. In this place you could go on a hot air balloon ride to see the sunrise and the magnificent landscape shaped by the limestone formations around the area; then come back down to have a generous breakfast in town for just a few bucks. Soon enough, off for a kayak trip down the Nam Song river, and back for lunch. As the sun goes down, go for a bike ride along the trails, hike one of the nearby mountains, and watch the golden hour painting the land beautifully. To end up the day on a relaxing note, go for the floating restaurants on the riverside to have a well-deserved meal paired up with (lager) Lao Beer.
Basic daily expenses
Due to the fact that this is a (very) touristic area, daily expenses are a bit more inflated compared to other cities in the country. A sound daily budget would be USD 55 considering the following:
- Food is around USD 5-7 per meal.
- Accommodation wise, it is reasonable to consider USD 7 per night in a backpacker hostel.
- The rest of my daily budget went to leisure activities, that is USD 40. Of course, this part of the budget will depend on each person.
- It is possible to get a SIM card with a bit more than 5 GB of data for at least 7 days of validity at either Vientiane or Luang Prabang airport starting from USD 6.
There are several options of transports to get here from Vientiane or Luang Prabang, where the main airports are located. The budget option ranges between 60,000 Kips (USD 7) to 90,000 (USD 11).
To enjoy Vang Vieng properly, I consider three days as the minimum time of stay. During that time one can at least experience the mainstream activities this place has to offer, some of which I describe below. This time, however, with so much to explore in the area, can be easily extended to five days or even an entire week. As for the best time to visit, namely, the dry season, the period from November through February is generally the best time to visit Vang Vieng, when drier, cooler weather prevails.
Nature’s recipe for fun
1. Take a morning walk
You might not be a morning person, but for once, make the effort and wake up at sunrise. It surely pays off in Vang Vieng. The view of the limestone formations painted with the soft, pink morning light is truly worthwhile.
One can also cross one of the wooden pedestrian bridges to the east of the Nam Song river, away from the hostel area, to enjoy the silence while walking the dirt and gravel roads just before the rest of the tourists begin their activities. The beauty of the open fields with flowers found here and there, the plains abruptly interrupted by towering limestone formations, and the soundless river waters just before the morning hustle can lift anyone’s spirit right at the beginning of the day.
2. Go kayaking
The peaceful and shallow waters of the Nam Song river are a central part of Vang Vieng’s charm and provide the ideal conditions for a pleasant kayaking experience.
Once you book your kayak tour at your hostel or with one of the many tour brokers available at every corner of the village, they provide transport to the starting point of the course a few kilometers upriver. Safety equipment is also provided as well as a guide to ensure a sound journey downstream. The three-hour kayak ride is about USD 10 with all of the above included and it can be booked with one day in advance.
3. Take a bike ride
Most caves, ponds, and peaks are within bicycle distance, making a trip on foot very tiresome and inefficient. While there are other more convenient motorized options, they are more expensive, noisy, pollutant and leave a big dust cloud behind. Thus, for the sake of a respectful coexistence with the local residents and other tourists, grab a mountain bike for as low as USD 3 and ride freely for a whole day until the sun sets. The bike includes a cable lock to secure it to a tree or fence every time you stop to explore the surroundings.
Be aware that most of the transport rental stores ask for a valid passport as a deposit for the rental. Additionally, the public lighting infrastructure across the Nam Song river, west from the hostel area is very basic. If night falls while you are still exploring, be extremely careful with coming vehicles and other people walking or riding bikes in the dark.
4. Hike one limestone peak, or many!
Most of the limestone peaks in the area can actually be climbed and have a somewhat decent man-made trail to follow to the summit. At times there is some rock climbing or steep segments with aiding ropes. Typically, there is a rustic wooden platform at the top at which one can rest and enjoy the view. And what a view!
Regarding the starting point of the hikes, some of them are well signposted from the main roads, so they are easy to find and follow. To reach higher and more remote peaks, though, a quick look to a local map is needed. Every hostel has a map of the region where all the attractions are pointed. Take a photo of it or ask for a copy, and carry it with you for further reference.
Making it to the top of these rocks is “officially” free of cost, but some locals take advantage of the strong touristic presence and charge an unofficial entrance fee. In order to avoid unnecessary confrontation with them, the best thing to do is to bargain for a reasonable amount (say USD 2) and pay for it. Once at the top, a small entrance fee feels insignificant compared to the astonishing sight of the surrounding landscape.
5. Ride a hot air balloon
By far the most expensive activity available, but probably the most rewarding and unique. The view of the rural landscape dominated by the majestic presence of the limestone giants, the fertile valley, and the cool, dry air of the atmosphere at more than a couple of hundred meters above the ground is what you get from a silent hot air balloon cruise over Vang Vieng.
For USD 80, you get transportation from the village to the take-off site, a thirty-minute ride over one side of the town to the other, and a ride back to the hostel. Rides can be booked on the previous day or during the same day, depending on the demand.
Naturally, the “flights” with higher demand are those to see the sunrise and sunset. Hostels and brokers will try to fill up the spaces available for every trip regardless of the time of the day. In order to get the right one for either sunrise or sunset, keep a close eye to the sunrise and sunset time (check online), then make your booking for the closest time of departure to that sunrise or sunset hour with enough anticipation.
I found the staff to be professional and all the procedures were focused towards the passengers’ safety. Moreover, the basket, the burners, navigation and communication equipment seemed in adequate conditions for commercial use. Being that said, I consider the only fear to overcome for this experience is your own fear of heights.
6. Relax at the shores of the Nam Song river at nightfall
Local eateries have come up with the idea of building wooden platforms that sit very low above the river shallow stream, and they serve as the dining area for customers. After the sun goes down, order your favorite Laotian dish and sit on the mats while you wait for your food to be served in a low table. Enjoy the local cuisine with the gentle sound of the fresh, clear water flowing while the night cools down.