Written by: Matthew Mayer
Although we very much enjoyed our time in Vientiane as it was a wonderful introduction to the country and its people, we were excited to make our way to our first major destination of Vang Vieng. In our research we had seen and heard many wonderful things about the backwater backpacking river town surrounded by towering limestone mountains.
After we checked out of our first stay we hailed down a Tuk Tuk. A Tuk Tuk is a highly unique people mover that is a popular means of getting from destination to destination over short distances — usually in the same city or province. The Tuk Tuk took us to the Northern Vientiane Bus Station where we quickly boarded the next mini-bus to Vang Vieng. A mini-bus in Southeast Asia is an oversized van that seats twelve people comfortably but usually ends up filled with fifteen or more souls. Mini-busses are generally cramped rides filled with a mix of locals and backpackers making their way from town to town. As rates are cheap, the vehicle is stuffed to the rafters with people and luggage wherever they may fit. We loaded our bags and were quickly corralled to the back as we began our four hour Northeasterly journey to Vang Vieng.
As we soon learned on our van ride North, the roads in Laos are constantly being upgraded from pressed rock and dirt to sealed roads. There are countless portions of road that transition from sealed road to gravel, from gravel to rock, from rock to dirt, and back again. This proved to be a very bumpy ride. As we were seated in the very back of the van, we would find ourselves getting airborne as the back wheels of the transport jumped from varying degrees of road development. This coupled with the winding roads and lack of air conditioning, we found ourselves stricken with motion sickness very early on. We were not the only ones. We found out that sick-bags are not only a commodity on airplanes. However, the scenery was breathtaking as the flat, wide open farmlands of central Laos slowly turned to tropically forested mountains and valleys. After a long and arduous time in the back of the steamy mini-bus, we finally pulled into the ever-so-scenic Vang Vieng
After exiting the mini-bus tout de suite, we realized that Vang Vieng is vastly different from the sprawling metropolis that is Vientiane. Vang Vieng is a small town nestled against the Nam Song River surrounded by the famous spired limestone mountains . The first impression of the town is one of laid back, sunbaked lifestyle. In fact, the sun seemed to beat down just a bit harder to even out the lazy harmonic tune that the town provided. The sun-soaked backpackers cruising around on scooters in the quiet streets created a stark contrast to the crowded busy streets of Vientiane. We felt that we had made the right decision in getting to Vang Vieng quickly.
Once we shook off the nausea and got our bearings, we realized that the place we were staying was still three or four kilometers outside of town and across the river. We opted to hoof it as to avoid paying for another Tuk Tuk and to take in some of the sights along the way. With the temperature cracking ninety degrees with full sun, the hike proved to be sweltering yet well worth it as it allowed us to get our bearings in the new city.
The bridge across the Nam Song serves as a border between the quirky little river town and the open rural farmlands. The only road in sight runs straight ahead and cuts through the middle of a valley of mostly open land comprising of cattle pasture, rice paddies, and isolated patches of jungle-like vegetation. Bordering the little valley on all sides are the imposing, jagged mountains. It was a breathtaking sight as we had not previously encountered mountains quite like these before.
Walking across the toll bridge gave us our fist real view of the Nam Song River and the surrounding terrain. The Nam Song in the dry season hardly resembled the muddy and swollen river we had seen in the photographs before we came. The river we encountered seemed cool, dark, and refreshing as it curved away between the mountains. The water was scattered with small gentle rapids as the local fishermen navigated up and down-river in long narrow boats with propellers extending eight feet behind the boat on an eight foot long rudder pole attached to the stern. It was a picturesque scene to be sure, and we felt at that time as though we had finally received our first taste of Laos outside of the big city.
After a short but hot hike down the country road we made it to our stay for the next few days. Tucked away in one of the little cospses of jungle vegetation was the Lao Valhalla Bungalows and Restaurant. Nestled in among the shade of the tall tropical trees were a gathering of quaint bungalows made of bamboo and brick. Our host, a very friendly lady named Nouth, checked us in to our room and left us to get settled in. Even though the little cabins are equipped with only a fan, they are more than cool enough due to the shade of the surroundings. We were in love immediately.
The first day out we explored the town. We hiked around the city and got to know the area. We started by taking in the local cuisine. We frequented the local taverns and restaurants, gaining knowledge of the customs and food therein. Once we became accustomed to the locale, we became comfortable moving from place to place.
As soon as we realized that we would not be able to move around as we would like to on foot we decided to rent a scooter. Our host, Nouth was more than happy to wrangle transportation for us and we were soon equipped with a scooter to get around and a map of the surrounding areas.
On our third day in Vang Vieng and having been equipped with our own transportation, we decided to trek the Blue Lagoon Loop. The loop is a rocky, dirt road leading from Vang Vieng proper to the Nam Xay viewpoint and back again. On motorbike, you set out from town, stop by the Blue lagoon, and then turn back, hitting the Nam Xay mountain on the way back. Once we found ourselves far enough away from town, the sealed road turns to dirt with large rocks strewn throughout. On a little 125 cc scooter, one has to navigate the bumps and rocks as to avoid popping a tire or bending a rim. It is a very jarring ride from start to finish.
After an hour of rambling down rocky, dirt roads to the Blue Lagoon, we spent an hour or two swimming, sunning, and swinging on the zip line into the water. The fresh water pool is around three hundred meters long and wide and was full of pristine turquoise water. Once we had had our fill of fresh-water swimming we hopped back on the scooter and headed for Nam Xay mountain.
Accustomed as we were to Appalachian mountain trails, we were not prepared at all for the trail up to our first major hike in Laos. As Nam Xay is a limestone karst isolated in the middle of a valley, the trail climbs straight up the wall of stone. Bamboo rails line the trail as you trek on all fours up the steep climb. After an hour of clawing your way up the karst, we finally reached the summit. A gentle breeze greets you as well as a hammock and water stand. As strenuous as the hike is, the view afforded is very much worth the strain as you look over the Lao countryside filled with rice fields and other isolated mountains. We made our way down and finished our loop on the motorbike and crashed back in to our bungalow as the fading light fell.
Our last day in Vang Vieng we spent trekking to a falls called Kaeng Nyui. Being our last day with the scooter, we decided to take the trip up to the falls as our last hoorah before heading on to Luang Prabang.
After around two hours on more dusty, uneven, rocky roads we made it to Kaeng Nyui falls. We parked the scooter, and after a three mile hike we arrived at a three hundred meter cascading falls. It was the most wonderful place to spend the day. We spread out the sarongs, frolicked in the water, and read our books to the sound of the falling water. It was the perfect end to the introduction of Laos writ small.
As our visit in the little river town wound down, we were greatly saddened to leave Vang Vieng behind. However, we were overjoyed to move on to our most anticipated portion of our trip: The historic French Colonial Township of Luang Prabang.
Written by: Matthew Mayer