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Vang Vieng, Laos: Transformed from party capital to nature paradise

Virginie Kury, General Manager of Asian Trails Laos, made a solo journey to Vang Vieng to experience the charms of this eco-haven.

One of the principles in my life is to believe in things from my personal experience and not based them on the opinion of other people. Of course, I have heard of the bad reputation of Vang Vieng in the last decade, and I am also aware of how much the town has changed and become cleaner. It remains as popular as before with visitors and I wanted see the changes for myself and find out what the destination has to offer. What I didn’t know then was how hard it would be to leave that place (after my visit).

Vang Vieng used to be infamous as Laos party capital where young travellers spent all day drinking and tubing, and continued the partying late into the night. However, after swift actions from the government ordering the closure of most bars on the riverbank the town is transformed into a paradise for lovers of nature and adventure, as well as for peace-seeking travellers who can enjoy numerous activities in a unique scenic and mountainous landscape.

The charm of Vang Vieng does not lie in the town itself but in its pristine rural nature and the magnificent limestone karst mountains.

Vang Vieng is accessible only by road. It is a four-hour drive from Vientiane and about six to seven hours from Luang Prabang. Eager to make my journey in a completely new way I decided to take my scooter and go on a solo trip, starting from Vientiane and riding all the 150 kilometres to Vang Vieng.

Before leaving I made sure I was well prepared: scooter ready and operational, good and sturdy helmet, fabric mask to avoid swallowing (too much) dust.

Finally I was ready! The road condition was not as bad as I had thought and there wasn’t too much traffic. I reached my destination in five hours, and treated myself to a relaxing back massage before enjoying the sunset over the Nam Song River with a refreshing drink.

On the eastern river bank lies the village of Vang Vieng and on its western bank, not Vang Vieng in the proper sense, but different small villages. The river flows right through the middle of the valley created by the enormous and luxuriant karst mountains. It reminds me a bit of Ninh Binh, which is billed as the “inland Halong Bay”.

Next morning, after a good night sleep and a delicious breakfast, I decided to explore Nam Song River. I rented a traditional long tail boat and cruised down the river for a good hour. The boat ride was both exhilarating and relaxing. Being in the middle of the river, breathing in the fresh air and admiring the sublime mountain scenery I felt I owned the whole world!

I saw other travellers who were enjoying themselves with diverse activities such as cycling, zip-lining, kayaking, tubing (of course!) and even flying – I’ll get to that later.

On the second day I went for a tour on my scooter around the villages and rice fields. Riding through the area I felt it is one of the few places left in the country where a traveller can still taste a sense of real freedom. It has all the facilities of a tourist destination but combined with the relaxed vibe of a laid-back place.

There are many Korean visitors to Vang Vieng, but thanks to their travelling in droves and always to the same places it is easy to get off their circuit. At the same time it is amusing to see the roaring procession of 4×4 buggies, especially developed for the Korean market, with the tourists wearing their life jackets. They wear the jackets all day – to the lagoon, at lunch and everywhere they go – just because they have been told to do so from the travel company.

Although the high season has started I could still drive for kilometres without seeing other tourists, and this is absolute freedom! Instead there was just the peaceful sight of buffalos seeking shady water ponds, cows crossing my path slowly, some chickens and goose on the grass verge and colourful butterflies flying around. In such serene surroundings you just want to stop, turn off the motor and listen to the sound of nature – the buzzing sound of cicadas, the crowing of roosters and the soft wind blowing through the ripe ready-to- harvest green-yellow paddy fields – so relaxing and revitalising.

There are activities of local life all around – women working in the paddy fields and men repairing a vehicle or working on the farm. This region is inhabited by not only Lao people but also the Hmong and Khmu tribes – warm and welcoming people. I stopped and talked to them and asked for directions – always with a “Sabaidee” and a smile in response to their friendliness.

No visitor to Vang Vieng will miss hearing about or seeing the numerous billboards advertising the Blue Lagoon. This is a clear natural pool of blue water entirely sourced from an underground spring that feeds it from below. I have been told that there were actually eight lagoons in total. They are very popular with tourists and everyone has his/her favourite. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are the most famous. Interestingly, Lagoon number 4 and 7 have never been seen.

At that time of the year, because of the recent rains, the ponds are more brownish than blue in colour. However, they will undoubtedly become blue again in the next couple of weeks.

Each Blue Lagoon usually sits at the base of a magnificent limestone mountain surrounded by a garden with some wooden huts where you can enjoy the food and drinks from a local restaurant, a feature in in each lagoon. You can also enjoy the various water activities such as tubing, cliff diving, rope swings and even zipline that ends right in the middle of the natural pool.

Talking about ziplines there is a perfect experience for lovers of this thrilling activity: a 2-day or 3-day zipline trail and overnight in a tree house, the ideal place to spot the gibbons.

As I mentioned before, Vang Vieng is well known for its outdoors activities and amongst them some thrilling ones. I had the chance to experience one of these ‘thrillers’, thanks to a very nice Swiss young man who has been living in South-east Asia for close to 10 years. He introduced me to flying with a paramotor, a skill he learned in France and Thailand. He runs a club in the town and gives training on this extraordinary way of flying.

We had to wait for two days for the perfect weather conditions. The adrenalin rush starts once you take off. The view from high up in the sky is stunning, even better (and definitely way less effort required) than climbing for an hour to reach a viewpoint to watch the sunrise, which will definitely be on my must-do list for my next visit.

We flew for about 25 minutes at sunset and the view is absolutely spectacular from high up. You can see the rice paddies and the surrounding majestic mountains. And as luck would have it, it was almost full moon.

The more time I spent in Vang Vieng the stronger was my crush for the destination. There are hidden gems everywhere with some caves having just been discovered recently. As there is no general entrance fee here visitors have to pay for crossing a bridge, entering a cave or visiting a waterfall or lagoon. However, the fee for each activity does not excess USD1.50, so it is well worth it.

In the following days I visited some of the well-known and lesser-known caves and waterfalls. These are peaceful places, best exemplified by the most famous Indo Chinese saying: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow, the Lao listen to the rice grow”. Once you get out of the town into the countryside, the whole atmosphere changes to one of a slow way life and peacefulness.

Asian Trails Laos is offering several excursions in Vang Vieng such as kayaking on the Nam Song River surrounded by rugged karst mountain and rural scenery, exploring several limestone caves, rock climbing, trekking, cycling and many more. For travellers looking for a challenge we recommend a 2-day zipline and ferrata adventure with an overnight camping in the thick jungle.

With the new and improved infrastructures in Vang Vieng Asian Trails Laos have decided to focus on the small town and make it one of our top destinations. We trust our clients, coming from any background or with varying tastes, will find their own little piece of heaven in Vang Vieng, whether it is thrill-seeking activities or a relaxed communion with wellness and nature. There are very good places for massages and yoga classes as well.

With this in mind we have created a brand new SIC pre-tour that runs from Vientiane through Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Clients on this 3-days/2 nights tour will discover Laos by road, through the famous beautiful trail to the North.

Vang Vieng is a place that needs development and investors are aware of this. More hotels projects are currently being built in the town. There a few privately-owned boutique hotels and other type of accommodation. The town, which used to offer mostly basic accommodation like guesthouses. , are now able to cater to travellers of all budgets.

For foodies, the destination offers a wide selection of both local food and international cuisine. I particularly liked a Thai fusion restaurant located in one of the town’s main streets, an Irish pub for its excellent burgers and stew, and a tiny pizza place just across the main bridge that makes delicious oven ones. And of course, I had to try one of the famous Friend’s bar (named after the famous TV series) where they play the show on a loop while people are drinking, eating and laughing. This is one of the “funny’” reminders of the “old version” of Vang Vieng. Now there are about three to four Friend’s bars compared to 20 in the days of old.

After having seen and experienced Vang Vieng and, especially its natural surroundings, with my own eyes I can now with confidence highly recommend that you make a two or three nights’ stop in this charming town on your way from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. As the activities offered are so diverse I am sure you will find some that will meet your expectations. Maybe you will be the lucky traveller to discover where Blue Lagoon 4 is hidden!