In Asia

Vang Vieng, Laos | A Two-Day Travel Guide

Vang Vieng. Despite its reputation as a backpacker party hub, it’s a sleepy, dusty town during our short stay. The kind of place where the heat turns up a notch and time slows to a savory standstill. So it’s only sensible that you order another Beer Lao.

Where is Vang Vieng?

The shape of Laos can be a little misleading. Most forget about the tail, for lack of a better word, that extends south, wedging itself between Vietnam and Thailand until it runs up to Cambodia. The country is almost like a skinny arm leading up to a powerful fist. With that image in mind, Vang Vieng sits in the southern region of that fist on the Nam Song River, though still a bit north of the capital, Vientiane, and the Thai border.

How to get to Vang Vieng

The best way to get to Vang Vieng is by taking a train, whether you’re coming from the south (Vientiane) or the north, Luang Prabang. The train is a relatively new means of transportation in Laos. It’s a high-speed train built and funded by the Chinese, beginning in Yuxi, China and ending in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The plan is to cross the Mekong River on a new bridge by 2028 to meet up with the planned Bangkok-Nong Khai high-speed railway.

Prior to the train, it was a windy, six-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang. Now, it’s just over an hour on the train from Luang Prabang. So yeah, you’ll want to take the train. Just keep in mind that unlike what you might expect, the train stations in Laos are not in the city center. You’ll need a taxi or a tuk-tuk to take you out to the train station. Then, you’ll have to go through security, though it’s not as rigorous as an airport.

However, if you’re coming from Vientiane, you might actually want to consider the bus. It’s just a 90-minute ride, not having much of a landscape to deal with like the route from Luang Prabang. And the Vientiane train station is comically far from the city. So when you add up the time of getting to the train station, going through security, waiting, and all that mishegas, I bet the bus would be quicker since you can get it from city center to city center. I talk about this in my travel tips for Laos.

Oh, and to book the train… Supposedly they’ve been working on an online system for a while. Check to see if that’s working. Otherwise, you’ll need to have someone on the ground get your tickets, like a tour agency. Because the seats do book up. I used Rome2Rio.com to see the latest train times. (As of this writing, the train between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng runs five times per day.)

Best time of year to visit Vang Vieng

Like Luang Prabang, you’ll be comfortable in Vang Vieng from October to February. Early March, when I went, wasn’t too bad. But it was getting noticeably hotter than it was in Luang Prabang. Extra water was necessary while hiking the rice paddies.

Things to do in Vang Vieng

Rice wine hike

Khamming Douangsamone with Khiri Travel took us out to the countryside for a lazy paddle along the Nam Song River. We rolled up to the shore and unceremoniously launched into the water. No safety talks or waivers signing your life away to ward off the litigious among us, warning that “we will not be held responsible if a water buffalo decides to tenderize your skull.” No, no. Just get out there and drift away on the water as the powers that be intended.

After about an hour, we arrived in the village of Vieng Samai. Khamming explains that the village was created around 30 years ago after the war with a mix of Laotians living alongside Khmu, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos. Around 100 families live in the village

Khamming led us to the home of Bounta Hinkkhamla where she was whipping up lunch for us with her daughter, Nang Kham Nang Tamong. We got scrambled eggs, fish soup with tomatoes, a dip made of eggplants, fried radishes and green beans with soy sauce, and cucumbers with an individual helping of sticky rice. Khamming showed us how to grab a handful of sticky rice and use it to scoop from the plates as you would bread.

After lunch, Bounta showed us how they make rice wine. The one she was working on needed some time to ferment, so Khamming grabbed another one and we set off on a hike to a nearby viewpoint. We pause for a quick rest in a wooden hut raised off of the ground and to sip on some of that rice wine.

Who needs water when you have rice wine in the shade?

We hiked over dried rice paddies that are unusable this time of year. We were able to hike through with permission from the Hmong stewards of this land. The Hmong are an indigenous group with roots in East and Southeast Asia. Khamming said it’s standard to ask permission before continuing to hike. Unfortunately, not everyone is interested in asking for permission.

Khamming explained that a mega-resort project is set to begin construction in the near future. This project will mean the destruction of Hmong land and the natural environment. Understandably, Khamming said they are not happy about it. He didn’t know when construction would begin.

Travel comes with all sorts of sticky questions. Namely, who has the right and the privilege to come to a place like this? In the end, I think we can all agree that this is no place for some aristocratic resort. But in the end, it seems the resorts are coming for Vang Vieng.

Running to Nam Xay Viewpoint + Blue Lagoons

The next morning, we decided to skip the typical tuk-tuk ride out to the Nam Xay Viewpoint and instead earn our inevitable selfie with a run through the countryside. At the foot of the viewpoint, it’s just a 10,000 kip or $1 entry fee to start the short but steep ascent to the top.

I skipped the typical photo on the motorbike, because although I’m sure it would’ve been fine, “falls to death attempting to pose on a motorcycle with the same view as the platform” would definitely win the Darwin Awards.

Now with our sweat worked up, we ran over to the Blue Lagoons just around the corner to cool off in the water.

Laotian Street Food

Back in town, we decided to kill our final hours in Vang Vieng by, you guessed it, eating. Melanie orders up a Laotian crepe and I go for a veggie sandwich. Both are delicious, but the crepe… My lord, easily the best crepe I’ve ever had.

Honestly, between the banh mi in Vietnam and the crepes in Laos, it must suck for the French that they’ve mastered their cuisine and finally elevated it here in Southeast Asia.

With the sun setting, our time in Laos neared its end. We took the high-speed train into the capital, Vientiane, and spent our final morning seeing what sites we could on a short walk before that fiery orb in the sky melted away our will to live.

It’s rare that a place burrows its way into your skin so swiftly and profoundly that it pains you to leave. But that’s what Laos did. No words or climatic montage, for that matter, can encapsulate how special this place is.

So we don’t say goodbye. We simply say, khob chai lai lai, and until next time.

Restaurants in Vang Vieng

I’ll leave you with two places. First, the PullMind Café. Not necessarily for the food (I think we only got drinks here), but for the sunset view with hot air balloons bouncing over the horizon. Just don’t be a schmuck who rolls in with a camera, ignoring the wait staff, and leaving without patronizing the business.

Then, there’s the Vela Cafe and Restaurant, which came up in my search for vegetarian restaurants. Good eats and a nice, covered patio to enjoy a little dining al fresco.

Hotels in Vang Vieng

We stayed someplace in town that was pretty bare bones with some of the hardest mattresses I’ve ever felt. In general, I found the mattresses harder throughout Southeast Asia. Perhaps a cultural preference.

Anywho, if I could go back, I’d probably splurge a little on one of the riverside bungalows. But I’d also try to do a little research to make sure said bungalow was Laotian-owned and didn’t have some sketchy history of taking land away from locals to give tourists a place to stay.

Want more Laos travel tips? Check out my tips on things to do in Luang Prabang and things to do in Vientiane.

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