Laos: Vang Vieng

From the world’s quietest capital, Vientiane, I got the bus up to Vang Vieng. It was about a 4-hour journey, but despite being prepped to expect a pretty hairy ride it was much smoother than anticipated. I arrived mid-afternoon, and after I’d checked into my hostel, went for some late lunch (I would recommend Bamboo Trees for its big portions and reasonable prices) and a wander around the town with a Finnish guy from the bus. It’s a small place, pretty much a town built along one road, but it’s set in the most beautiful surroundings: more karst mountains, with a blue river running through it. The sunshine had followed me as well, which was a turn up for the books!

For dinner that night, we went on what would be the first of many visits to an amazing bakery and restaurant called the LuangPrabang Bakery. It’s quite expensive but it’s a dreamland of baked goods and does really good coffee. You must go. We squeezed in a noodle soup so we could say we’d had a ‘proper dinner’, then gorged on some delicious cakes and cookies. The restaurant also gave out free Santa hats to everyone eating there, so it felt right in the name of Christmas to be mindlessly eating large amounts of good food, just because it’s there. Feeling rather stuffed afterwards, we waddled back to the hostel and attempted to digest and sleep.

One of the counters at the dangerously good Luang Prabang bakery…

Vang Vieng was made famous amongst travelers for its tubing: floating down the river in a tractor inner tube, visiting bars along the way. Over the years the party got a bit out of hand with drink and drugs, so in 2012, the government shut a lot of the bars down and the police cracked down on the drugs, but they still run a much more tame version of boozy tubing now. I still can’t drink so thought it probably wouldn’t be as much of an enjoyable activity for me (particularly without the beer blanket protection against the very cold water), so I opted to join an activity tour with a few others from the hostel. Almost every shop in Vang Vieng is a travel agency of sorts so there are umpteen tour combos you can choose from, involving tubing, caving, ziplining, kayaking, rock climbing, hot air ballooning and trekking to name the most popular. It’s worth shopping around a bit, as I ended up paying about $10 less booking through my hostel than prices that were advertised at other places in town. We were picked up in a tuk-tuk (the Laotian definition of this being a kind of open-backed van with sideways benches) and drove about half an hour out of the town, following the river upstream. We arrived and walked around a kilometre, emerging to a small base camp for caving and ziplining. Our first activity was called cave tubing – exploring 500m into a water cave on an inflatable ring. Armed with our tubes and a head torch, we splashed into the water – and had a mighty shock at how cold it was. I was shaking most of the time, which as you can imagine, didn’t really do wonders for the stability of my GoPro footage… (not that you can see much anyhow in the pitch black with only head torch beams for light!). You pull yourself along a rope that’s strung through the cave, pushing with your feet off the walls when you’re swung a little close to the edge! The cave wasn’t as impressive as the ones I visited I Vietnam, but it was a unique way of visiting one.

Entering the very chilly water cave…

Having never been happier to be outside in the sun, we wobbled out of the water and towards our next activity: ziplining. We were kitted up with helmets and harnesses, and set off on a short walk to the starting platform. It was a bit of a mini Go Ape in its set up (for you Brits who know the reference!); with platforms in the trees linked with zip lines and wobbly suspended bridges. The view from the starting point was incredible; bright blue sky and lush green vegetation, with the odd karst mountain rising out of the base of the valley. We set off swinging and zipping through the trees, admiring the view and in my case, trying to get some non-nauseating footage – not sure I quite succeeded in this, but the videos are quite funny to watch back! It was really good fun, a great way to see parts of the jungle hillside that you can’t access any other way.

This video doesn’t exist

After we’d zipped back down to the ground, we had a delicious lunch of fried rice and barbecued chicken, pineapple, tomato and courgette skewers, which we ate in the sun, still trying to dry out and warm up. On the way back to the tuk-tuk, we stopped briefly at a cave called Elephant Cave, after a limestone piece that looks a little like an elephant. ‘Oh yeah, it does a bit!’ exclamations made and photos taken, we got back in the van and drove to our last destination for the day, called the blue lagoon. If I’m honest it was a little disappointing. The water was lovely and clear, but it’s very small and very very busy – not at all like the pictures we were shown of what to expect. By this point also the sun was starting to go down, and knowing how cold the water was, we chose not to swim but to sit in the last little spot of sun we could find on the grassy bank! Something I didn’t end up doing but had recommended to me is renting a scooter and heading to blue lagoon 3 or 5, which are bigger and quieter. 

The (most popular) blue lagoon

After a nice warm shower upon my return back to the hostel, I got chatting to a Dutch guy in my dorm and joined him and his friends for a coffee and cake back in the delicious bakery. They were then heading to the gym so I decided to join them for all of the $1 entry cost me. It was good fun doing a bit of workout, but I certainly felt it having not been in the gym for nearly 2 months!

Another hot shower down, we headed for dinner. I was still quite full from my chocolate almond roll indulgence in the bakery (not to self: in future, do not eat cake BEFORE a gym session) so I just had some stir fried veggies and warmed up in front of the table bbq pit – it gets really cold here when the sun goes down!

On my last day in Vang Vieng, I headed out with a Belgian girl from my hostel for a very stressful day of tripping back to the bakery for a coffee, then finding a hotel pool to sit by. Much like Vientiane, there are a couple of hotels that will let you use the pool for a small fee – we paid 30,000₭ at the Vang Vieng Vansana, which also had a reasonably priced menu for a poolside lunch.

A testing day by the pool

As the sun went down, we strolled down to the riverside to watch the sunset, before trying out one of the top recommended restaurants in my Lonely Planet bible: Pizza Luka. It’s a cute little place run by a French guy, it’s quite expensive but the pizza was really good – and it was a nice break from my daily noodle routine. I really enjoyed Vang Vieng, and I think I would have stayed longer if I’d been able to get involved in the vibrant nightlife and ‘original’ (as opposed to cave) tubing. It’s a small place but felt buzzy, and you can’t help but admire the beautiful views that surround you.

Next up will be my stop for Christmas – feeling very odd that it’s getting very festive at home and out here I’m basking in the sun!

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 6, including a Canadian girl who sorted me out with many a new podcast recommendation, as my stocks were somewhat depleted. 
Interaction was:
enough to psyche me up for the very windy bus journey to follow…

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield

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