Welcome to Vang Vieng. This is a hidden mountain town hemmed in by dramatic karsts and cut through by babbling rivers that ebb and flow with the coming and going of the monsoon. Dank cave systems, soaring peaks, primeval jungles inhabited by monkeys – it’s all here. But is Vang Vieng worth visiting?
That’s what this guide will aim to answer. It will run through seven reasons why you might want to consider adding good old VV to your Laotian travel itinerary this year. We’ll try to reveal the top draws and the alluring vibe of the river town in the rainforest, so you can start getting excited for all it has to offer.
It really is one of the bucket-list spots of Loas, too. A big change came in 2012 when the Laotian government cracked down on the party bars. Now, it’s all about outdoors adventure and adrenaline pursuits, not to mention a few cultural treats and top-quality riverside hotels. So, is Vang Vieng worth visiting?
The adventure pursuits
Vang Vieng has been making a name for itself as an adventure town for the last 10 years now, ever since the nightlife was stopped. It’s well-suited for that, being plonked amid jagged karstic mountain ranges and dashes of wild jungle. There’s really no end to the adrenaline-pumping pulls that are on offer.
The rock climbing is of particular note. The jagged spires of stone you see on the horizon host walls and bouldering faces for all levels of climber, from complete beginner to expert a la Jimmy Chin. If you prefer to stay out of the harness, then consider swapping the rocks for a hiking path – there are a couple in the region that can be done in a day, but also multi-day hikes that involve stays in rural Laotian villages.
Water babies might prefer to hit the water in a kayak or a tube (see below). The main Nam Song River and its narrower tributaries are a great ticket to unexplored parts of the jungle. You’ve also got Ziplines and MTB trails. There’s loads.
Tubing and Vang Vieng have always gone hand in hand. The town was first put on the map thanks to this activity, which was combined with pub crawling and quirky river bars to create one of the undisputed nightlife musts of Southeast Asia. When the infamous river bars were shut down in 2012, everyone thought it might be the death knell for tubing here too. Not so.
Tubing still goes on along the Nam Song River. It’s much less of a hedonistic pursuit now; more of a chilled romp through the jungles, perhaps one or two cold beers at hand if you fancy them. The views are wonderful, too, taking in dramatic karst peaks and wild forests over the course of a couple of clicks.
You can rent the tube (basically a big rubber ring) from an outfitter in the town center. It costs around 110,000 LAK (about $8) in all, which includes a tube deposit that you get back so long as you return the gear by 6pm. Packages also involve a tuk-tuk ride to the designated tubing starting point to the north of town.
There was a time when Vang Vieng was the nightlife hub of Laos. In fact, it was considered one of the nightlife hubs of all Southeast Asia, mentioned in the same breath as Koh Phangan and Gili T for its sleepless bars and – most of all – it’s tubing. That all changed in 2012 when the Laotian government decided that enough was enough. Consistent injuries and complaints of drunken behavior had pushed things too far and the river bars were closed for good.
But Vang Vieng’s nightlife didn’t completely disappear with the end of the tubing pub crawls. It’s just become a shadow of its former self, though still kind of fun. The main street is where you want to be. That hosts the likes of Sakura, a boho backpacker joint with dance floors under a thatched palm roof. The beer there is very cheap during happy hour, which lasts until 10pm. You also have Viva, which is the late-night option.
The old tubing on the river is now all but gone. There are still one or two bars there, which, rumor has it, are connected to the local police chief (we wonder why they didn’t close?). However, don’t come expecting the boozy river cruises that once existed. For better or for worse, it now looks as though they are gone forever.
You’re sure to be wowed by the sheer vision that is Vang Vieng the first time you swing around the bend in the mountain road to behold the town. It’s sat in a truly breathtaking place, with views that are up there with the very best in the country.
On the horizon, the great karst peaks around Ban Nampè rise and fall like needles of stone topped with tufts of jungle. They descent into lush forests where macaques and slithering snakes dominate the boughs and the undergrowth. Now and then, the whole lot is bisected by a murky river of tea-brown water, which cuts through occasional pockets of emerald rice paddy. Basically, this is a stunning place!
We’d say try to score a hotel that’s close to the riverside. Those places are the ones with the top views going west, which is the most dramatic side of Vang Vieng to look at, especially at sunset.
There are now plenty of pretty fantastic hotels in Vang Vieng. The town has budget-friendly backpacker dives and elegant boutique resorts. Some of them really do stand out from the crowd, offering deluxe swimming pools next to the gurgling Nam Song River, and fantastic views of the rugged karst peaks from their suites.
Here’s a look at just a few of the most tempting hotels in Vang Vieng that we think you should consider:
- Vang Vieng Savanh Sunset View Resort ($$) – This midrange hotel has comfy rooms and a garden pool, along with suites that have massage Jacuzzi baths. That could come in handy after long hiking sessions in the mountains!
- Riverside Boutique Resort ($$$) – Give yourself some luxury in this four-star hotel with charming bungalow rooms. Some look over a garden which has a lovely green pool. Others are right by the river’s edge.
- Vangvieng Rock Backpacker Hostel ($) – This is a top choice if you’re on a tighter budget, especially if you like social hostels where it’s easy to meet other travelers.
Back in early noughties when Vang Vieng was a hub for partiers and tubers, the town channeled the vibe of a Euro 18-30s resort. It was filled to bursting with gaudy bars, cocktail lounges, and places that pumped with tacky chart and pop tunes until the early hours.
That’s no longer the case. Now, there’s a cool, off-beat backpacker vibe to it all that’s at once chilled and endearing. It’s the sort of place where you can meet and mingle with other globetrotters in a ramshackle hostel bar, telling tales of your tubing on the river and climbing in the karst ranges.
One curious feature of VV is the replays of Friends that happen every night in the bamboo-built restaurants along the main road. Everyone seems to gather, devour noodles and cold beers, and watch episodes over and over again.
It’s a convenient stopover
Loas isn’t like Thailand or Vietnam. The country is WAY less developed and built up than its frenetic compadres to the east and west. In fact, there’s only one real road crossing the country, and even that’s just a one-lane highway that weaves and winds as it navigates the rugged highland regions. To put it another way: It can be hard to get around here. Journeys that might take one or two hours in the Land of Smiles can take upwards of three or four this side of the border.
That’s where Vang Vieng comes in. The town is conveniently plonked right on the main road that runs between two of the must-see destinations in Laos – the UNESCO-tagged temple town of Luang Prabang to the north and the French-styled capital of Vientiane on the Mekong River to the south.
Is Vang Vieng worth visiting just because it’s conveniently located midway between those? Probably not. However, it is nice to know that you can add in this pitstop to break up your travels through this wild corner of Southeast Asia and get all the adrenaline pursuits and stunning views on the side!
Is Vang Vieng worth visiting? Our conclusion
Is Vang Vieng worth visiting? It sure is. Even after the town has relinquished its claim to being one of the nightlife hubs of Southeast Asia, this one’s worth checking out. Though the hardcore tubing is now a thing of the past, there’s still fun activities like kayaking to be done on the Nam Song River. On top of that, the whole area is a playground for adventure travelers, what with climbing and caving and more on the menu. You’re also likely to be wowed by the views, which are downright stunning!