We ended our travel through Laos with Vang Vieng and Vientiane. To be honest, we would have skipped both if we didn’t have a fixed date to meet my mom in Cambodia, and we probably should have.
Vang Vieng is a riverside town in Central Laos. The town has been known as a party destination for years, where people would float down the river in tubes and get ridiculously drunk and high on all kinds of substances. But then a series of serious injuries and a couple of deaths happend, the riverside bars were forced to shut down and the partying stopped. Well, we didn’t come for the tubing anyway. Coming from Berne, a city where floating down a river is practically a popular sport, no other tubing-destination can possibly top this. We had read though that there are many outdoor-oriented activities available such as mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming and rock climbing.
The first impression we got from the town wasn’t all that good. Since there are no paved roads, the town was extremly dusty, dirty and very dull. It almost seemed like we were coming to a party too late (which we in fact were, given the shut-downs of all the bars). We knew we had to get out of town in order to find beauty, so we rented a motor scooter and drove to the Silver Cliff for a hike. We each paid about 1 USD to get in and then had to climb up an insanely steep path to reach the top. The views up there were well worth the hike!
What we didn’t prepare for, were a herd of South Korean package tourists spinning around in 4×4 buggies in the backcountry. It seems as if Vang Vieng has become a hot destination for them. They come in crowds and take over the Blue Lagoons by storm, one lifejacket at a time!
As said, we didn’t know this before and by Blue Lagoon we expected a turquoise, natural pool where we could cool off from our hike. So wrong. Blue Lagoon was nowhere near natural nor blue. It’s more of a concrete pool with swinging ropes and other gimmicks for tourists. We came, saw, and turned right back around and fled. There are a number of lagoons around Vang Vieng. In lack of inspiration all named after numbers. We only went to number 3, but I’d expect about the same for the other lagoons, only varying in size and hours of sunlight.
We booked the «Secret Eden» trekking tour for the next day through Green Discovery (due lack of demand, this seemed the only company around town offering treks there at the time of writing), because we really wanted to experience the nature surrounding VV. We got picked up by our guide Ming in the morning and took off for a very dusty ride on the back of a Songthaew for about 45 minutes.
Once we left a large group of kayak tourists behind at the Elephant cave (really not worth to see, in my opinion), we started our tour with a steep uphill trek. With our hike to the Silver Cliff the previous day still in our legs, the hike was quite strenuous. It had rained the day before, so the path was slippery and I had to figh off an army of leeches that were creeping up my shoes. Fun fact: When passing a place with leeches, the first and second in row passing the area are highly unlikely to be attacked by them. They will be ready for the 3rd and 4th in row – which was ME! Hurray! Have I mentioned that I have a slight paranoia of crawlers? I was slightly uncomfortable, constantly flicking off the bloodsuckers. Leeches are fast and cling to you for their life. Needless to say, they won’t make it into my books of favorite animals, isn’t it? Anyway, what you need to take away from this story: when there are leeches around, try to walk up front or lead the way. This is what our guide told me – AFTER the hike!
Between fighting off leeches, we stopped for lunch, which was a delicious jungle BBQ prepared by our guide, eaten off banana leafs.
Secret Eden itself is a beautiful lush green valley floor, which we crossed through after lunch and before yet another steep uphill hike. We then reached the Tham Hok Cave and ended our hike at a Hmong village.
The hike itself was an adventure, but not one I would solely travel to Vang Vieng for. The countryside doesn’t differ too much from other places in Northern Laos and I think you’d be better off looking for a similar hike in Nong Khiaw or Luang Namtha.
Where to stay and eat in Vang Vieng
If you really want or have to come to Vang Vieng try to stay at a nice hotel, as there aren’t nice places to hang out around town. I can’t really give a recommendation here, since we shared our wood-paneled hotelroom at the Laos Haven Hotel with cockroaches the size of a kid’s shoe (true story).
But, to our own surprise, there were quite a couple of good restaurants in Vang Vieng, offering als kinds of foods. We were very happy with the Thai food at «Happy Mango», Vietnamese food at «The Corner Hanoi» and Mexican food at «Amigo’s».
«Vientiane is one of the most beautiful cities in the world» – said no one ever. Laos’ sleepy capital has got a reputation for being a bit of a ‘meh’ stop on the traveler itinerary, and as plenty of travelers before us, we simply used Vientiane as a brief transit point. We had an afternoon to spend here and had planned to stop by «COPE Vientiane» (free admission, donations welcome). COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Its visitor center apparently offers interesting and informative multimedia exhibits about prosthetics and the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that sadly make them necessary. Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited on January 1st. Instead, we just cruised around on bicycles we rented at the Mini S Hotel (highly recommend to stay there!). If you’re not templed-out by now, there are some temples in Vientiane you can visit and there’s also a Buddha Park situated a bit out of town (you’ll need a Tuk Tuk to get there), but I heard it’s not really worth going. Also, the local evening market seemed to be offering mainly made in China junk, so we didn’t spend more than a couple of minutes there.
To sum things up: If you can skip Vang Vieng and Vientiane: go ahead and skip it. You won’t be missing anything. If you can’t skip it, make the best out of it. Go to the countryside in Vang Vieng and use Vientiane as a recovery/relax day and head out early the next day.