Vang Vieng is nestled in one of the most scenic regions of central Laos, midway along the popular backpacker route between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The town once gained notoriety for its wild party scene, but after a government intervention a few years ago, it has reinvented itself as a hotspot for outdoor activities. If you’re looking for what to do in Vang Vieng besides drinking, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve compiled the best things to do in Vang Vieng, from kayaking, hiking and hot-air-ballooning to discovering the nightlife (yes, it’s still a good night out).
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We spent four days and nights in Vang Vieng during 17 days of travelling in Laos. The Vang Vieng activities highlighted below are based on our own experiences of getting to know the town and its surroundings.
Things to do in Vang Vieng: activities and trips
1. Take the world’s cheapest hot air balloon ride
As we stepped out of our minibus upon arriving in Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang, we looked up and saw a hot air balloon soaring high above. We had no idea this was even a thing in Vang Vieng.
We soon found out that Vang Vieng is the cheapest place in the world to ride a hot air balloon. You can rise to the skies for as little as 120 US dollars! By comparison, prices for the famous balloon rides over Bagan in Myanmar start at $300.
Cheaper does not mean inferior, either. I’ve already mentioned that the scenery around the town is quite spectacular. Beyond the horizon, there are yet more green mountains, valleys and waterfalls. Imagine seeing all that from 800 metres high.
Nor does cheap mean unsafe: local operators like Above Laos follow European civil aviation standards.
Vang Vieng hot air balloon rides usually lasts anywhere between 35 minutes and 1 hour 15 minutes, depending on the weather conditions. You can find out more and book online with Above Laos.
2. Hike the Pha Ngeun trail
Vang Vieng is surrounded by green-drenched scenery of mountains, cliffs, caves and rice fields. All of this makes for some excellent hiking opportunities.
One of the best nearby trails is Pha Ngeun, a mountain roughly 4 kilometres west of the town that offers the highest viewpoint in the area. Several agencies in Vang Vieng offer guided tours, but it’s actually pretty easy and a lot cheaper to go independently. I did the hike solo during an afternoon while Lisa was resting off an illness.
To reach the Pha Ngeun trailhead, you need to pass over the Nam Song river toll bridge at the south-west side of the town. There is a small fee to cross by foot (10,000 kip at the time of writing, about $1).
From the west side of the bank, a long and straight road leads all the way to trailhead, where you need to pay an entrance fee (10,000 kip at the time of writing, less than US$1). Alternatively to walking to the starting point, you could hire a bicycle or take a tuk-tuk; whichever you choose, it works out a lot cheaper than the cost of a guided tour.
Pha Ngeun is quite a challenging hike with a steep incline and plenty of rock-scrambling. There are two viewpoints, the first of which takes around 45–60 minutes to reach. The panorama here is so rewarding that many people opt to turn back around rather than continuing up another 450 metres to the higher peak.
For everything you need to know about the trail, see our guide to hiking Pha Ngeun.
3. Dip in the Blue Lagoon
If you venture a couple of kilometres further west along the road out of Vang Vieng from the Pha Ngeun trailhead, you will reach the entrance to the Blue Lagoon and Phu Kham Cave.
The lagoon is one of the most popular Vang Vieng attractions, and you’ll find no shortage of tuk-tuk drivers in town offering to give you a ride.
The cave is well worth a visit if you make the trip. To reach its entrance you need to climb up a steep, slippery trail. The cave then descends into a riddle of chambers and passageways.
The first chamber is well-lit and features a bronze buddha illuminated by sunlight. To explore deeper you will need a torch, and it’s highly advisable to hire a local guide.
The lagoon itself is not quite the beacon of tranquility it once was, having become somewhat of a tourist magnet. There’s an entrance fee of 10,000 kip and additional fees for pretty much everything else: hiring tubes and life jackets, accessing the water slide, using the toilet.
If you don’t mind the crowds, however, it’s still an attractive spot, and provides some refreshing respite from the tropical heat.
4. Visit Tham Xang Cave
Of the many caves to explore around Vang Vieng, Tham Xang is perhaps the most impressive to visit. The cave was used as a bunker during the Chinese invasion back in the 19th century.
Tham Jang is located a couple of kilometres south of the town centre, a gentle walk through fields of rice paddies. There’s a small fee to cross the big red suspension bridge as you approach, and then 15,000 kip to enter.
To reach the cave entrance you need to climb a hefty flight of steps while still exposed to the outdoor heat, but once you’re inside it’s refreshingly cool and well lit.
At the top you can also enjoy an awesome view over Vang Vieng and the surrounding landscape. Back at the bottom there’s a small lagoon where you can go for a swim to cool off.
Another, extremely cool way to see the cave is by taking a kayaking or tubing adventure. You’ll see the caves and more from a different perspective and get some views you won’t be able to on foot!
5. Go zip-lining in the jungle
True to the adventurous spirit of Vang Vieng, one of the best ways to get immersed in the green jungle scenery is to go on a zip-lining trip. On a half-day zip-lining tour you can kill two birds with one stone, as there is an option to visit Tham Nam caves too.
After flying over six zip lines through Laos jungle landscapes up to 1,300 metres high, you can visit the caves and learn about their significance during the Indochina wars with a local guide. Finally, you will explore the caves’ interior with a gentle tubing ride.
The words “gentle” and “tubing” are not often uttered in the same sentence when talking about Vang Vieng, however…
6. Go river tubing
The Vang Vieng tubing experience is very different today to the hedonistic party scene it was a few years ago. Not to mislead you, there are still plenty of alcohol-fuelled shenanigans – but the intensity has been cranked down several notches.
Back in 2011, 27 tourist fatalities were recorded in Vang Vieng connected to tubing and other river activities, and in most cases heavy drinking was involved. The government stepped in, and the river party scene has since been cleaned up significantly.
You can still go river tubing in Vang Vieng, but these days only three bars are permitted to open on any one day. Previously, there were many dotted all along the tubing section of the river. The rope swings and slides that witnessed many accidents are now gone too.
We decided to give it a try, along with some friends we’d met a few days earlier. Any worries that we might stick out like a sore thumb as a couple in our 30s were soon vanquished; we found ourselves cruising gently down the river with a really friendly and age-diverse bunch of people. We enjoyed a few drinks, but there was no pressure to do so. In fact, one of our group was tee-total.
We booked the tubing through our hostel, paying the equivalent of about US$7 each for the day, including the tube hire and transport. We also had to pay a deposit (about the same amount as the trip package), which would be sacrificed if we didn’t return the tubes by 8pm; we cut this really close to the wire, and I’m sure a lot of people miss it.
The downside for us was that Lisa unwittingly ingested some water from the river, which rendered her bedridden with illness for the best part of three days (hence my solo hike to Pha Ngeun). A few others in our group suffered the same outcome. Be very careful in the water!
7. Explore the buddhist temples
Buddhism is the main religion in Laos, and the country is home to many beautiful wats (temples) and statues. There are several to see around the dusty roads of Vang Vieng.
The most prominent temples around the town centre are Wat That and Wat Kang on the north side, and Wat Si Sou Mang on the south side. A smaller temple, Wat Simixay Yaram, is further towards the south.
These are all within short walking distance of one another; we enjoyed exploring them by foot as we found our bearings around the town on our first day.
If you want to explore temples a little further afield, try heading north along the main road, tracing the path of the Nam Song river, to the village of Ban Pha Tang. It’s about 15 kilometres’ ride from Vang Vieng.
The village features a beautiful temple complex against the backdrop of mountains. You’ll pass other temples along the way, and several nice spots to stop along the river.
8. Hire an ATV
One of the more adventurous ways to get around Vang Vieng’s attractions is to hire an ATV dune buggy. You’ll find a choice of tour operators around the town offering them.
I hitched a ride on an ATV as I made my way west to hike Pha Ngeun. As I cast a solitary figure walking along the road, a lovely young travelling couple stopped and offered me a lift. Feeling the heat, I accepted, and jumped on the back. It was only a few minutes’ ride, but it was awesome to see the mountains whizzing past!
You can either hire ATVs by the hour, or take guided half-day tours of the area. Wear some sunglasses to fend off the clouds of dust that you’ll stir up.
9. Or, hire a bicycle
Cycling is a great option for exploring Vang Vieng at a more relaxed pace, and in charge of your own timetable. For people unable to ride mopeds, like us, it’s an alternative way to get active, cruise around the scenery and visit the sights.
There are various cycle hire services around the town, mostly along the main road, and you can expect to pay less than US$5 for a day.
If you’re interested in cycling elsewhere in Laos, read our two-day cycling itinerary for Savannakhet.
Things to do in Vang Vieng: around the town
10. Eat Lao food in a local restaurant
The main road that runs down the spine of Vang Vieng is lined on both sides with rows of local restaurants and cafés.
The formula is very much the same in each establishment. An open, street-facing, concrete-floored area welcomes visitors with simple wooden chairs arranged around tables draped with bright tablecloths. A plastic strip hangs along the front ceiling showing pictures of noodles and soups, with prices scrawled onto a standing board.
These eateries offer many classic Lao dishes served in generous portions at unbelievably low prices. You can get a big plate of fried noodles for just a dollar or two.
We often hit them up for takeaway at lunch as well. The large filled baguettes are perfect to take away on a trip, or a cheap option for breakfast. Try the fruit shakes, too – the mango ones are outstanding.
11. Rock out your dance moves at Sakura
While the party scene in Vang Vieng has been toned down in recent years, the town is still one of the liveliest nights out in Laos, along with the capital, Vientiane. If you are heading onwards to there after Vang Vieng, then check out these great recommendations on what to do in Vientiane at night.
There are many bars around the centre of Vang Vieng for evening drinks and music, but most nights out converge at one place by the end: Sakura.
Sakura is the town’s most popular backpacker bar, attracting crowds of people every night. Drinks deals are always available, and there’s a huge dance area to get your boogie on, complete with a stage. Outside the back, there’s a chill-out area with benches to escape the noise and socialise.
We had a great night out in Sakura after our day of river tubing. It’s the perfect place to keep the fun going.
12. Join the party at Nana Backpackers Hostel
During our travels in Laos we mostly stayed in guest houses rather than hostels, as they’re often great value and gave us our own space. Vang Vieng was a different story. We wanted to get involved and meet people, and so we looked for somewhere with a good social vibe.
Nana Backpackers is a fairly new hostel on the south end of the main road. It’s instantly recognisable by the large swimming pool that fills its main courtyard. This is the focal point for the nightly socials, with the poolside bar serving free drinks from 7–9pm daily.
The hostel has several private rooms available, which are great if you want to join the party but still have your own quiet space to get away if you need it. We tried the dorms the first night, but decided to upgrade to a private for the rest of our stay for that extra comfort.
You can book Nana Backpackers Hostel on Hostelworld.
Map of things to do in Vang Vieng
This map shows the various Vang Vieng activities detailed in this article:
Where to stay in Vang Vieng
Accommodation in Vang Vieng is cheap and easy to book. You can find a wide range to suit various travel styles on booking.com.
Further reading on Laos
Are you beginning your Laos adventure in Luang Prabang? Read our guide on everything you need to know about the slow boat from Thailand. While you’re in town, plan how you will use your time with our 3-day itinerary and top things to do.
If you’re heading to Savannakhet, take a look at our recommendations on places to eat.
In the capital city, Vientiane, don’t miss out on visiting the COPE Visitor Centre.