Surrounded by mountains and limestone karsts, with emerald green rice paddies, these days Vang Vieng has left its hedonistic past far behind, focusing instead on its breathtaking natural beauty and adventurous outdoor activities like caving, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.
First established as a staging post in 1353, before being colonized by the French in the 1890s, and used as a secret US Air Force base during the Vietnam War, Vang Vieng’s most recent reincarnation is just its latest. Nonetheless, it has managed to retain its small-town feel, with its main draw the beautiful setting along the river with a mystical backdrop of limestone karsts and jungle.
A key stop on the road from Vientiane and Luang Prabang in the heart of Laos, the small town of Vang Vieng was once the spot for partiers and backpackers to let loose in an otherwise very laid-back and conservative country. Tourists would flock to the village and float down the river in rubber inner-tubes, sipping on buckets full of cheap alcohol, launching themselves into the water from homemade trapezes and aptly named ‘death slides’. However, this unfortunate combination resulted in injuries, deaths, and an unwanted reputation, resulting in a 2012 crack-down on tubing bars, loud music, illicit substances, and inappropriate behavior.
Since then, Vang Vieng has worked hard to re-establish its reputation as being about so much more than just tubing, with adventure seekers flocking for rock climbing and yoga. The majority of Friends and Family Guy bars have been replaced with organic health food cafes, volunteering opportunities and countryside farm
Although river tubing is still popular, it’s more tightly controlled, run by police-affiliated bars where scams between Tuk Tuk drivers and the rental places are rife. After paying to rent the tube for the day, and paying a deposit (around 20,000
If the tales of rope swings and trapezes leave you wanting more, then the nearby Blue Lagoon – 7km out of town – is worth visiting. A bit of a tourist trap, the lagoon features an array of rope swings and wooden platforms where adrenaline junkies can leap into the bright blue waters below. If you decide to take the plunge, then it’s at your own risk and if you do get hurt, your travel insurer may ask questions about unnecessary risk. Be sensible.
Fast becoming popular, caving is a great way to explore Vang Vieng’s unique geology, with hundreds of caves – many still unexplored – dotting the nearby landscape.
Some are easily accessible by bicycle, while others will necessitate hiring a Tuk Tuk, a motorbike, or an ATV. Just beware that you’ll need to wear a helmet and hold a motorbike license to be covered by insurance. The quality of the roads, especially in rainy season, makes riding a scooter or a motorbike a risky affair for anyone.
Adrenaline junkies can also check out the zip lining trails at Tham Nam Cave, where visitors can soar across the jungle. Visit the Elephant and Water Caves, where you can swim and tube underneath the stalactites.
Kayaking trips up the picturesque Nam Song River are a great alternative to tubing, with some of the best vistas and natural highs, without the booze and debauchery. Some tours will take you more than nine mi (15km) upriver through pristine jungle, where you can go paddling through ancient limestone caves.
There are also amazing mountain bike trails and great trekking opportunities for both beginners and the experienced, including the relatively easy Sunset viewpoint. Laos has some of the best rock climbing opportunities in Asia and a variety of local companies offer trips like the two-day mountain assault for adrenaline junkies, which includes trekking, climbing, wild swimming, rappelling down waterfalls, zip lining, abseiling and jungle camping.
If all these adventure activities sound a little too strenuous, and sitting by the river watching the world go by is a little tame, then flying over the mountains and rice paddies in a hot-air balloon is another option for those not afraid of heights. Whatever activity you choose to do, always do your research and check the company’s safety record.
Almost unrecognizable from previous years, Vang Vieng has become one of the region’s biggest success stories. This resilient little town is a testament to how unsustainable tourism can sometimes be, and how by putting safety
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