Vang Vieng is in central Vietnam, between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The small town is located in an absolute beautiful area, surrounded by quite a few limestone karst and rice fields, a river passing by, and a few caves nearby. Even if you just would like to sit back and enjoy the scenery without doing any activity Vang Vieng could provide that. The outdoor activities like tubing, kayaking, cycling or walking are just an additional bonus to visit Vang Vieng.
Unfortunately Vang Vieng earned itself the reputation as a party town due to the numbers of backpackers arriving here, drinking in the bars in town or at one of the many bars along the river you could visit during tubing. The mix of drinking, drugs and water caused unfortunately a number of fatalities amongst tourists, and it also deterred other non-backpackers to visit this place. Thankfully this has changed in recent times. Most bars along the tubing route where before beer and shots were sold to a very low price were dismantled (not voluntarily by the owners..some stories exist involving the military and flamethrower – though you can never be sure if these stories are actually true…) and the amount of binge drinking was reduced. So now it is possible for families and other tourists to visit this beautiful area, and backpackers still can enjoy a few drinks in one of the many bars, though not to an extent as it was possible pre 2012.
If you want to enjoy spectacular scenery and a wide selection of outdoor activities than Vang Vieng is surely worth a visit.
Arrival / Departure
There is no airport near Vang Vieng, so it is only possible to arrive or leave Vang Vieng by road. Buses are going regularly between Vang Vieng and Vientiane as well as Luang Prabang. You can also get a bus to Phonsaven.
Normal buses and minibuses take around 3-4 hours to Vientiane. The road is rather flat and it is a comfortable journey.
The journey to Luang Prabang is a bit more challenging as you will follow a mountain road that goes up and down with some interesting serpentine. The 6-8 journey might be difficult for those with a weak stomach, though you get offered some great views. There is a new road to Luang Prabang, that will shorten the journey. Check what buses go via the old or new route.
There are two bus stations, one 15 minutes outside of Vang Vieng. Most buses from Luang Prabang arrive there, and you need to join others for a ride with a songthaew. Costs should be around 20.000 Kip.
The other bus stop is in town, next to the old airstrip, a few minutes from the river front. Some buses left here for Vientiane. So when booking a bus ticket double-check where the bus leaves from.
Another alternative is getting a private car for the journey to Vang Vieng. Check with local agencies about the cost for such a transfer.
There are plenty of guesthouses and hotels covering all different budgets. Most are located along the river in the main part of Vang Vieng. There are also some bungalow style accommodations on the other side of the river, however, if the bamboo bridge is not ready during the dry season the only way to cross the river is via the bridge in the north that charges a small fee. The setting there looks fantastic though.
I stayed at the River View Bungalow located on a little island next to the main strip of Vang Vieng, connected to the mainland by two small bridges. Here is my review of the place.
Food & Drinks
You will not have an issue finding a place to eat or drink in Vang Vieng. Along the river you will find all kind of paces. Further north is the main backpacker area where one food place is next to each other. They all serve similar food for similar prices – and they also play constantly episodes of Friends. The main difference is if you find a seat overlooking the river. The few further down the river offer better views.
Walking from the backpacker area to the main road there is a square with street food stalls selling nice and cheap food.
When passing all the food places heading north you will pass a little alley that leads to a small courtyard. Here you can find a street food stall serving fantastic pho, much better what you get in the other food places. They are also open very late.
On the main road in the middle of Vang Vieng you find more food places serving traditional Lao dishes or Western food. Again, you won’t find a big difference price or quality wise.Though there are some restaurants in that stretch offering A/C and higher quality food.
Some of the upper scale resorts also offer foods in their restaurant for a higher price.
Overall Vang Vieng has a lot of option, but in my opinion the food cannot compare to the quality in Luang Prabang or Vientiane.
In the evening the places along the river also become popular drinking spots, with a few additional bars opening as well. On the main road you can find some bars for a nice evening drink, or you can visit some of the bars that are open till late. In addition of beer they also serve little buckets shots, aiming for backpackers coming in. They also have DJs at some nights.
On the other side of the air strip you can also find a local nightclub. During the weekend you will find locals there rather than tourists, which can be an interesting experience.
So while the big party scene is over in Vang Vieng, you can still have long nights out there, or also just a beer enjoying the view over the river.
What to do
The main attraction of Vang Vieng is clearly the beautiful surrounding, inviting you for vast selection of great outdoor activities.
Maybe the most popular activity in Vang Vieng is tubing. Without the obsessive alcohol consumption it became a far more relaxed method to float down the river enjoying the spectacular scenery.
Another way to experience this view is through a kayaking tour.
The area offers some great activities on land. You can easily hire a bicycle or motorbike to explore the area.
Or you can get a songthaew and head to the Blue Lagoon & the stunning Tham Poukham cave.
The local agencies can also help organising guided / activities. As an alternative a little stroll through Vang Vieng itself is also not bad idea, as it has some nice alleys and nice buildings.
If you need a break you can just sit at one of the many food places overlooking the river and enjoying the view.
And if you are lucky to be in Vang Vieng during Boun Awk Pansa make sure you do miss the boat race and the river lid up by hundred of little lanterns floating downstream. It really is something special to experience.
(stayed in Vang Vieng in October 2012)