Vang Vieng, Laos is one of the most beautiful spots in all Southeast Asia. Don’t let what you’ve read about the place being “closed down” deter you – Vang Vieng became a favorite on the full moon party circuit amongst backpackers throughout Asia during the 2000’s. The once pristine village, set on the Nam Song River, surrounded by large karst mountains, got out of control, as river bars complete with rope swings over the river, became the scene of drunken binges, with foreigners dying due to drowning, hitting their heads on rocks jumping off the swings, and plenty of other alcohol related incidents. In 2012, the Lao government stepped in and banned the river bars, banned inner-tubing, and reduced the party town to a ghost town. However, today it has returned as a much nicer, subdued, and still wonderful spot to relax in.
It’s easy to come up to Vang Vieng for even just a weekend if you are in the capital Vientiane. It takes about three hours to drive up, there are plenty of buses and minivans, and an early morning start can ensure a few full days here. Of course, it’s better to stay longer, but you can still check out just what makes Vang Vieng so special.
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The main activity here, inner tubing along the Nam Song River, is now open again, although one has to be off the river by dark, and the bars and rope swings lining the banks are out. You can also rent kayaks and float down under the gorgeous karst pinnacles, as well as visited a few underground caves further upstream. You can also rent motorbikes and bicycles to go check out the lovely backcountry that lies across the river from town. There are abundant caves here to explore, plus several pristine natural jungle pools with emerald water to swim and relax in (the Blue Lagoon is a magical spot).
Air ballooning has also taken off in Vang Vieng, a way to really appreciate the magnificent limestone, and there is also some fabulous rock climbing, with schools like Adam’s Rock Climbing now operating to take beginning and intermediate climbers out above the crowds.
While Vang Vieng used to be only a backpacker’s haunt, it has now gone more upscale, with the first boutique and five-star resorts opening up (check out the Riverside Boutique Resort), along with more family and flashpacker travel restaurants and services. Green Discovery Laos and Wonderful Tours run eco-tourism programs here, ranging from overnights to hidden off the beaten path spots in the area, to one day kayaking, cycling, or trekking programs.
From Vang Vieng, you can also continue travelling if you have time, as buses and vans leave from here to Luang Prabang, a beautiful journey through the mountains that takes 6-7 hours. There are also connections from here to the remote Plain of Jars that take about the same.
Despite the reports that Lao’s party capital is no more, it still is one wonderful travel destination that ought to be on anyone’s bucket list in this part of the world.