I’ll be honest, we were a little bit dubious about our stop in Vang Vieng. Situated in between Luang Prabang and Vientiane it was the obvious stop over but we were unsure about the images of hundreds of “gap yah” students chugging vodka buckets, talking about how much they had “found” themselves and generally just patting each other on the back for being super ‘at one’ with nature.
It sounds mean but not only is Vang Vieng historically known for tubing which is all the above shoved into a tube on the Nam Song river but we (being grannies) had currently had our fill of such people and were looking for a more relaxing, actually be at one time with nature, in which we stopped thinking about everything else and actually just enjoyed the scenery 😎.
While this is a generalisation of gap year students and I know some (my sister included) would be nothing like this, I have found it alarming how many young people travelling spent a lot of time looking inwards and a lot less time looking outwards. While this wouldn’t matter too much, it has rubbed me the wrong way seeing one too many 17 year old kids not bother to learn to basics of the local language, refuse to try anything other than western food, focus more on drink than where they are and look down on the locals helping and serving them. They are young, and will of course grow up over the years but sufficed to say, as oldies in comparison, we’re here to experience and be in awe of the world and perhaps side step some of the more gap yah towns. Hence, the doubt about Vang Vieng.
Doubts aside, having booked only two nights we knew we would be able to keep ourselves entertained in the town with endless activities listed online such as exploring caves, swimming in blue lagoons and renting bikes. What most of the articles/forums failed to note – or perhaps we just densely missed – was the incredible scenery Vang Vieng has to offer. The most incredible limestone cliffs litter the land, towering so high and so steep it’s impossible to imagine how they are able to remain densely populated by trees. On our winding bus through the hills we were given front row seats to one of the most incredible lands I’d ever seen. I managed to spend the entire drive fantasising that I was in a Lord-of-the-Rings-meets-Avatar world of which I was very happy to be the star of the show. With lovely thoughts of a town fit for Aragorn, Legolas and Nagiri, we were pretty certain that we wouldn’t regret coming here.
Alongside the amazing views, Vang Vieng has also been known to calm down over the last couple of years. The crazy, drink fuelled days are behind most of the town with a number of accidents (alcohol and a lake? Not a good mix) and also a bad rep for the town meaning the government cracked down on the bars and restaurants on the lake with most of them shutting down. Now, only a few remain and the focus has shifted onto the amazing scenery of Vang Vieng (amen sister 🙏🏻) and the copious amounts of outdoor activities such a place offers.
Of course that’s not to say the town has gone from party central to natural oasis. The small town itself has two main roads, most of which are cafes and restaurants that cater to both local and western tastes. Some cafes only serve western breakfasts all day long, while others have ‘Friends’ playing on tv, back to back all day, every day. Almost every street seller or waitress will speak very good english, and while the days are quiet and lazy, the nights are still wild with every man and his dog coming out for a drink in the numerous clubs of pumping music and flashy bars with the streets teeming with the night owls of Vang Vieng.
As you can imagine, our one full day was pretty hectic. We decided to forgo the tubing as bus costs had wiped us out slightly and tubing is by far the most expensive activity – you’re just renting a tube but as the must-do thing the prices are rather over inflated. Skipping the 55,000 kip/pp hire we decided to hire a bike and instead go to Than Chang Cave. Just 10 minutes out of town, Chang Cave can be accessed by a small toll bridge which leads you to a small blue lagoon you can swim in. Alongside the lagoon are the stairs to the cave. Hard work but worth it, the climb up the stairs leads you to the cave itself with huge crevices and gorgeous, cool stone, you can explore the cave for a good 20 – 40 minutes as it stretches further than you think and even gives you some great views of the surrounding area in some places. We went into a few of the less sanctioned areas by climbing over some rocks and blockades which lead us even further into the cave with only a few war wounds (see picture below)!
📷 Exploring inside Chang Cave
📷 The incredible views from Chang Cave of the crystal clear Nam Song and race paddies
After the cave we sat by the lagoon while Fitz cleaned my knee and told me I was very brave. By this time the blue lagoon had been swarmed by buses of people in the peak tourist time of the day so we made a slow walk back to the bike, taking in the crystal clear water of the Nam Song and the forever incredible back drop of mountains.
📷 Nam Song River
After our cave expedition we thought we would go for a drive and take in the mountains and views so as not to feel like skipping tubing had robbed us of anything. Stuck in a valley, trying to find some higher ground was harder than we thought, however the drive itself was still gorgeous and meant we got to pass through several villages on the way.
Snapping shots as we went, we took in the amazing views around us and enjoyed the serenity of the road. That was until fitz’s helmet came loose and flew off his head. When travelling at high speeds, anything that comes off ones head (like a helmet) flies straight backwards off the bike. If you’re carrying a passenger (say, me) this means the helmet will crack you in the nose. Second war wound of the day! With the helmet retrieved and having confirmed that my nose was not bleeding, we decided to continue back to town before the curse of Vang Vieng took anything more from me that day.
Because it was our last night – and we still just couldn’t get enough of the damn amazing view – we had dinner at the Elephant Crossing Restaurant. Ever so slightly pricier than the other restaurants, this restaurant had hands down the most amazing view of the Nam Song river at sunset and with 2-4-1 happy hour, you can’t get a more perfect spot.
And so, like all good things (and thanks to our shotgun planning), Vang Vieng came to an end. While we could have stayed longer we both knew it would only be for the ‘Friends’ cafe marathons and lazing about in the numerous bars and restaurants so we forced ourselves onwards to be more cultured in Laos’ capital, Vientiane.
In heinsight I think we should have stayed one extra night. While you need to immerse yourself in travelling and the local culture, taking a break every now and then can be a real treat and Vang Vieng was actually a really enjoyable town. Had we had an extra day we could have treated ourselves to a few home comforts as well as probably being able to go tubing which – despite our best efforts – is still hands down the best way to see the scenery as well as being able to sip a lovely beverage as you go. All in all, we were pleasantly surprised by Vang Vieng and the towns renewed chilled yet still fun atmosphere that seems to have something for everyone. If you plan on going, give yourselves a couple of days and really enjoy it (and you can do it for us as well as yourselves!).
Next Stop: Vientiane!