Vang Vieng travel guide - Rusty Compass

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Vang Vieng travel guide

Vang Vieng Introduction

| 18 Nov 2015
Last updated 18 Nov 2015

Vang Vieng began its tourism existence as the convenient stop for travel between the Lao capital Vientiane, and the charming historic capital, Luang Prabang, to the north.

Vang Vieng is spectacular. Set by the Nam Song river and surrounded by magnificent karst mountains and serene riverside villages, it was always destined to be a hit with travellers.  But something happened along the way. Vang Vieng was hijacked by a drug and alcohol fuelled backpacker party scene. The fact that this small mountain town was new to tourism when the crowds started arriving in the late 90s, made it especially lax when it came to policing vice and dangerous shenanigans. Both prospered.

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Things got so bad that in 2011, 27 backpackers were killed in Vang Vieng - most in zipline and other accidents, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Since then, the government has gotten serious about cleaning things up. The party scene rolls on but it's safer and backpackers have stopped dying. Prior to COVID, Vang Vieng was still a backpacker dominated town, there's a stronger adventure  element now too. Korean and Chinese tour groups have also discovered the town's delights and are making an impact as well.

It all seems a bit of a shame. Vang Vieng could have made a name for itself as a serene mountain town of walks and cycling. But its destiny may already be sealed.

The good news is that you can still have a wonderful cycling and walking experience of the town. The backpackers and the tour groups tend to follow a fairly rigid programme. Look beyond that and you'll get a sense of what Vang Vieng could have been. And you'll still have a great time.

Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Vang Vieng, Laos

When to visit Vang Vieng?

I loved it at the started of the wet season in June. I would suggest any time from June to November is likely to be green and lush. Dry season months will be more barren brown and dusty.

Family fishing, Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Family fishing, Vang Vieng, Laos


Things to see and do in Vang Vieng

The countryside surrounding Vang Vieng is dramatic. It's perfect for cycling and exploration. The only possible caveat is that since Vang Vieng tried to adopt adventure travel rather than the drug and alcohol fuelled madness of a decade ago, there has been a steady addition of noisy toys to the travel scene - buggies, flying machines and other toys that clutter up landscape and soundscape. Vang Vieng didn't need these noisy, high-impact toys. It's so stunning, it needs no assistance. Avoiding the noisy tourists is the key to a rewarding stay in Vang Vieng.

Cycling the countryside

Cycling the Vang Vieng countryside was the highlight of my visit. I was there in wet season so things were lush and green and not too dusty. The appeal of cycling the unsealed roads will be diminished in the dry season when things are dusty.

I visited everything around Vang Vieng by bicycle. Didn't use tuk tuks at all and I stayed well clear of the popular buggies. My bike was around $3US a day, had 18 gears, was reasonably well maintained and rented by helpful locals on the main strip.

The bicyle - Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer The bicyle - Vang Vieng, Laos

The Viewpoints

There are two spectacular viewpoints. These are dramatically more spectacular when things are lush in the wet. I only climbed Pha Ngern. It was dramatic with two lookouts across different scenes. It took me around 50 minutes with stops for photographs.

Pha Ngern is off the main road west and is well marked.

Nam Xay viewpoint is further west and close by Blue Lagoon.

Viewpoint views - Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Viewpoint views - Pha Ngern, Vang Vieng, Laos

Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham Cave

A dip at Blue Lagoon looked almost as popular as tubing with backpackers during my visit. It was very hot so the swim was welcome and refreshing. The blue water is beautiful but otherwise the place is unremarkable.

The cave nearby is worth a look too. It's impressive in size and has a small Buddhist shrine at its centre. You'll need to be mobile and pretty careful here.

Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng, Laos

US Vietnam War era airstrip - Air America and Lima Site 6

It's a most incongruous Vang Vieng historical site. Three decades before the first western tourists set foot in Vang Vieng in the 1990s, the CIA and the US military were using the town for air operations. The old airstrip, known as Lima Site 6, is well out of use but can easily be visited in the heart of Vang Vieng.

Air America Air Strip, Lima Site 6, Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Air America Air Strip, Lima Site 6, Vang Vieng, Laos

Where to stay in Vang Vieng

There has been a massive rush to develop hotels in Vang Vieng - most don't look to be making much effort to build with any regard for the place's special natural setting. I checked out a number of Vang Vieng hotels and these are the ones that looked best during my visit. Check again as this was several years ago. And use the big travel sites with caution.

Vieng Tara Villa

Elevated bungalows in rice paddies. This place had a lovely vibe and was still close to the river and downtown.

Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Vieng Tara Villas, Vang Vieng, Laos

Riverside Boutique Resort

Lowrise attractive villas on the river. Central location. Professional feel.

Vang Vieng, Laos
Photo: Mark Bowyer Riverside Boutique Resort, Vang Vieng, Laos

Eating and drinking in Vang Vieng

The answer is yes to both in Vang Vieng. The entire nighttime economy has been built around backpackers so you can guess what that means. You won't go hungry but we didn't find too many standout meals either. There are plenty of places to get a drink too - again backpackers rule.
This information is mostly drawn from 2017. Things will have changed with larger numbers of tourists arriving from Korea and China.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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