Vang Vieng is a small, untidy town located in northern Laos, next to the green Nam Song River beneath a long line of stunning, soaring limestone peaks cloaked in lush jungle.
I first visited this mountain town in 2005 and then again, a number of times over the years, until my most recent visit earlier this year. It’s a town with an identity crisis and it’s now trying to forge a new name for itself after years of bad publicity surrounding its most popular activity: floating down the Nam Song River in a tractor tyre inner tube with dozens of other revellers while consuming bucket loads of cheap booze en route.
For years, Vang Vieng was full of young partygoers who would get drunk from buckets of vodka and cheap drugs, play about in the river, stagger home in swimwear, or sadder still, die when jumping on to rocks in the river from the swings that arced over the water. In 2011, the number of deaths per year reached a horrific 27 fatalities.
The Lao authorities decided to crack down and many of the bars and riverside bamboo swings were torn down in 2012, with the heavy party vibe thankfully quashed.
Today, in Vang Vieng, you can still tube down the Nam Song River and drink, but it’s much less frantic and more enjoyable than before. You can also kayak, explore caves, bike ride, trek, camp, rock climb, zip-line and abseil, and learn to cook Lao cuisine. There are new restaurants and old favourites and some new boutique accommodation – Vieng Tara Villa, and Riverside Boutique Resort for example – trying to attract a visitor more interested in exploring Vang Vieng’s natural attractions.
Vang Vieng’s setting is incredibly good looking. The town, a jumble of construction, lines the Nam Song River which is set against a canvas of beautiful limestone mountains known as the Red Mountains. The sky-scraping peaks with their jagged, serrated edges, tower over the town and span as far as the eye can see. It’s all impossibly beautiful and very easy to be seduced by just the view alone. The sunsets are awesome and there’s nothing better than watching the sun sink behind the mountains.
Before trying out Vang Vieng’s activities and physical challenges, I thought I would make sure I was high on energy with a good meal. I’d heard about the Lao Organic Farm in Vang Vieng and its famous mulberries and was keen to try a Lao cooking class so I hopped in a tuk tuk to the farm, 2.5 miles north of town, and got to work learning about food with Yone, the daughter of the farm’s owner, 73-year-old Mr T.
I made delicious mulberry leaf tempura, which I savoured with mountain honey, while drinking Mr T’s home-made mulberry wine. My favourite dish was jeaow hed, a spicy wood-ear mushroom dip made with pounded mushroom, garlic, onion, chilli and fish sauce, followed closely by the moreish sticky rice and coconut milk with mango.
Mr T also showed me around his farm which hosts volunteers who work with the mulberries, goats, and more than 200 species of plants, vegetables and wild orchids, which they tend to across 10 hectares of land.
After my cooking class, we clambered into an inner tube, for old time’s sake. The tubing start point sits between Mr T’s farm and a river bar. The current was very slow which meant a gentle drift passed the limestone barricade enjoying the balmy weather, the sound of nature, and the cool water. Above us, hot air balloons floated above the lush green scenery.
Keen for more adventure in Vang Vieng’s gorgeous surrounds, later that day, we biked out on a newly tarmacked road to the Blue Lagoon and Phou Kham cave, rumoured to be the home of golden crabs. It was a steep climb up a cliff path to the entrance of the cave where a welcome blast of cold air met us. This vast chamber was studded with huge boulders, stalagmites and stalactites. It’s also a holy spot with a Buddhist sanctuary. Unfortunately, the reclining golden Buddha statue had been pushed into a chasm and has not yet been retrieved.
After emerging into the light again, we refuelled on rice noodle soup at the restaurant next to the cave, and then swam in the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is the new party spot with sunbathers enjoying the rope swing and splashing about in the azure waters.
Vang Vieng comes alive at night with its dozens of restaurants and bars all trying to woo customers. The western bars – the Sakura and Gary’s Irish Bar – compete for revellers and there are plenty of banana pancake restaurants and the reliable Lao Indian chain restaurant, Nazim. But there are also a few new places that are trying to diversify the culinary scene in town. Il Tavolo’s, an Italian on the other side of the town’s disused airstrip, is serving up great pizza – some of it scattered with Mr T’s goat’s cheese from the organic farm, and Amigo’s serves up enormous tasty burritos, and great sangria, in its cute lamp-lit garden.
More upmarket, but not expensive for the setting, is the restaurant at the Riverside Boutique Resort, the Restaurant du Crabe d’Or where I also tried its Mok Pa, traditional steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf followed by a pandan leaf panna cotta.
I’d kayaked, biked and trekked before in Vang Vieng but I was particularly keen to try out Green Discovery’s Vang Vieng Challenge, a new two-day mountain challenge that would see us completing a via ferrata climbing route, along with abseiling and zip-lining.
The weather was beautiful and we were accompanied by numerous colourful butterflies and dragonflies. The hike was steep but rewarding. After lunch of sticky rice, chilli sauce, and dried buffalo meat next to a small waterfall, and at about the halfway point of our 5,000 metre trek, we started climbing up bolts hinged into the boulders using safety equipment. It was a long and exciting climb up the rocks before we emerged near to the cooling, freshwater pools of the Nam Theam Waterfall where we eagerly plunged into the water to cool off and stood under the gushing streams of falling water.
As our guides prepared dinner, we started to play a local card game, which turned out to be more of a test than the physical challenge we’d just completed! From our mountaintop hut we watched hot-air balloons in the distance gliding on the horizon – a really impressive sight. Dinner was under torchlight and we were treated to grilled pork, vegetables and sticky rice.
The next morning we clambered higher up the edge of the Nam Theam Waterfall then abseiled down surrounded by the jet black rock and cascading cool waters. It was thrilling as the water thundered by and sometimes over us. We then continued our descent by zip-lining nearly all the way down the rest of the mountain. At each zip-line platform we would abseil down to a lower platform and continue our descent through the banyan and bamboo forest flying over the occasional waterfall as we zig-zagged through the dense forest.
Back on terra firma, and after such a demanding trek, it was definitely time for a refreshing beer. Back at the Smile Beach Bar in town, we grabbed a Beer Lao, lay down in one of the riverbank huts and watched the sky turn from a hazy pink to indigo to a charcoal grey behind the enormous mountainous backdrop in front of us.
It’s not all action-packed adventure in Vang Vieng, though. There’s a move to boost cultural events, too. Vang Vieng’s first live music festival was held on the disused air strip in December 2015, and the Riverside Boutique Resort hosts dancing performances by Kham, a French-Lao dance company. The hotel is also supporting a community project along with a Korean NGO in Ban Nakhae, 10 kilometres from town, where Hmong, Khmu and Lao Loum villagers live side by side. The idea is to promote traditional architecture and handicrafts in the village.
From what I could see Vang Vieng is definitely on its way to rescuing its tarnished image and promoting itself as a number one ecotourism destination in Laos. It’s those beautiful mountains, and colourful sunsets that will continue to be the draw.