The countryside surrounding Vang Vieng is full of enough day-trip options to easily fill up a week. Scores of caves in limestone karst outcrops, tranquil lowland Lao and minority villages, and Kaeng Yui Waterfall, all make worthy destinations for a rewarding day’s hike (if walking isn’t your thing, you can hire bicycles or motorbikes from various outlets around town), while the Nam Song River makes for a fun afternoon of tubing, kayaking or rafting – tubes can be rented from shops near the post office. Aside from a number of organized tours around Vang Vieng itself, there are also one- to three-day excursions to Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir that can be booked through most guesthouses.
Organized day tours, many of which combine both caving and tubing with lunch in between, are a fast and convenient way for the uninitiated to get into the Vang Vieng groove: once you’ve done the tour you can go back for more on your own. It’s not hard to find a guided tour – just look for signs posted in restaurants and guesthouses. If you do opt to join a tour, be sure to check how many people will be in the group. Some agents have few qualms about stuffing twenty people into a single sawngthaew, which not only spoils a good walk but can seriously hasten the onset of claustrophobia if tramping about several hundred metres underground.
If you decide to visit the caves on your own, it’s worth getting hold of one of the hand-drawn maps of the Vang Vieng area which show all the caves and trails; they’re available from several of the restaurants and guesthouses in town. Otherwise just ask around; everyone in Vang Vieng has their favourite cave, swimming hole or countryside getaway. The local people are more than happy to point you in the right direction, and other travellers will also enthusiastically recommend the best places. If you’re looking to explore areas north or south of town, there’s enough local transport in the form of buses and sawngthaews plying Route 13 to get you up and down the highway cheaply. Or, if you prefer something quick and easy, just hire a tuk-tuk (the stand is at the market), which will gladly wait for you for the right price.
Most of Vang Vieng’s attractions lie on the west bank of the Nam Song. There’s now a permanent toll bridge crossing the river (4000K for pedestrians, 6000K for bikes and 10,000K for motorcycles) or, in the dry season, you can cross using the rickety bamboo bridge towards the north of town. The pirogues down by Thavonsouk Resort will still ferry people across for 5000K. On the other side, Chinese-made tractors trundle along the bumpy paths to nearby villages, acting as makeshift shared taxis that aren’t entirely comfortable but are at least faster than walking. You can simply flag them down as you would a bus or tuk-tuk – expect to pay 5000K for journeys of up to 1km, then 2000K for each extra kilometre.
There are several kayaking and rafting companies operating in Vang Vieng. For more strenuous outdoor activities, Green Discovery (t023/511230, wwww.greendiscoverylaos.com) has a number of options, including day-trip packages as well as overnight hiking and kayaking excursions. The same company was also behind Laos’s first fully operational rock-climbing site, featuring fifty different bolted routes – graded from 5b (tricky) to 8c (very difficult) on the internationally recognized French grading system – in the Vang Vieng area. A day’s climbing costs $47 with equipment, a guide and lunch.