Great hikes, serious views and a green countryside make Vang Vieng so much more then just tubing.
Vang Vieng is infamous for their once wild tubing scene attracting backpackers from all over the world. Usually you do not hear so much about the beautiful countryside or many hikes the area offers, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to find a number of outdoorsy things to get involved with. Our stay quickly extended from 3 nights to over a week.
A bus from Luang Prabang is the only way to get to Vang Vieng. We heard many horror stories about this particular route and were less than thrilled to have to waste a day on a bus. As expected, the 'VIP' was hardly VIP with old banged up seats, cracked windows and air con blasting. Having just come from Vietnam where the buses were cheap and in fairly good condition, this was a rude awakening. Little did we know just how stunning the ride itself would be.
The route from Luang Prabang weaves you through a mountainous region spotted with proper Laos villages perched on the corners of steep terrain. It's some of the most beautiful countryside we've ever seen. The ride itself takes about 6-7 hours with a few stops along the way. The drive is mostly along a dirt road with steep cliffs and sharp turns forcing you to put a lot of trust in your bus driver.
Once there, the dust clears and massive limestone cliffs appear, hundreds of feet high, jut straight out of the green valley. Wildlife can be seen and heard everywhere and just before sunset you can get in a hot air balloon if you prefer a birds-eye view.
WHERE TO STAY
If the young backpacker scene is not for you, cross over the Nam Song River and check out some of the bungalows over there. They are close enough to walk into town, but far enough away from the craziness. There are many reasonable bungalows to be found that offer amazing views of the mountains and lush jungle that surrounds the city. One we particularly enjoyed was called Maylyn Guesthouse.
HIKING IN VANG VIENG
If you are in Vang Vieng and looking for something to do rather than tubing the Nam Song River or taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon, check out these two hikes. Remember that nothing in Southeast Asia is free, although very cheap. An entry ticket will set you back 10,000 kip per person.
Primary School Viewpoint - Pha Ngeun
GETTING TO PHA POAK
Pha Poak is on the west side of the Nam Song River. Its small compared to the karst formations around it. From a distance you can pick it out, as it has a flag at its peak. The entrance is located quite far from the base of the karst on the river bank at the end of the bamboo walking bridge. Start here and follow the foot path through the fields and look for yellow markers and blue flags atop bamboo poles. You'll wind up in a clearing under some trees. A local Laotian will sell you your tickets and point you in the right direction. From here its a moderate to challenging climb. Natural staircases made of rocks and tree branches lift you up to about 100m. You'll know when you're at the top when you become completely surrounded by large sharp rocks so be careful and watch your footing. There is also an area of flat ground to hang out and catch your breath before you head back down.
GETTING TO PHA NGEUN
Pha Ngeun ups the ante. It takes longer and is a bit more challenging but the pay-off is much greater. Beginning at the pay bridge head 1.5mi (3km) west out of town on the main dirt road. Eventually you will come to a primary school on your right. You'll notice a bright yellow and red sign marking the entrance to 'View The Top' and a blue and white sign pointing towards the school.
Head up the trail to the small bungalow where you'll pay 10,000 kip for entry. There is space to park your bicycle or motorbike. It starts off easy but as you approach the mountain's base you can see the incline begin. The trail is moderate with some difficult sections. Halfway up you'll notice a large boulder. It has a marking on it letting you know you have 400m more to go.
When you arrive at the top you will be greeted with a shaded deck overlooking Vang Vieng. Continue on passed this and you will be greeted with another shaded deck, higher up, and facing west towards all of the karst formations. Truly an epic view that not so many people know about, or care to work for.