Between November and May, Green Discovery offers rock climbing among the spectacular limestone karsts on the other side of the Nam Song. They run a 1-day to 3-day tuition course and you can rent all the specialized gear you need. The instructors are skilled and the fee includes all transport costs and lunch. More than 100 routes have been pegged by world-class climbers and along with Krabi in Thailand, Vang Vieng is very much on the Asia climbing circuit. Tham Non (Sleeping Cave) with over 20 identified climbs and the nearby Sleeping Wall are the most popular climbing locations. There are more than 50 bolted routes in the area graded from 5b to 8c according to the French system of grading.
Caving, Trekking & Kayaking
The ethereal limestone karsts that tower over Vang Vieng are riddled with caves. Those who enjoy cave exploring will find themselves in a paradise of sorts. Some caves are very big with stunning formations, and some are tiny, comfortably accessible only to the extremely thin. Many are really covered rivers and small lakes, and one can swim or kayak through. Many also have religious significance, so look for shrines and Buddha images.
You can visit most of the caves, either by yourself or as part of an organized tour. Most guesthouses or tour operators can sell you a package that combines caving, trekking, kayaking, and tubing. They will also take you to nearby ethnic villages. You can also buy a 2-day tour, which includes a visit to the Organic Farm and overnight camping. Meals are generally included.
With the exception of trips organized by Green Discovery, all of the tours you go on will actually be part of a Vang Vieng cooperative arrangement run by the same people. Wherever you booked the tour, the same set of guides lead the same set of six trips. You can check with different guesthouses to make sure you get the cheapest price, but essentially they are all part of a cartel. A 1-day trip should cost about $12, a 2-day trip $350, and a half-day trip costs $8. The guides are not uniformly as good as one another and some of the equipment is old.
Green Discovery (which we recommend) runs a host of combination tours and can also put together a personalized package. They are a bit more expensive than the cartel, but only by a few dollars. Their guides are better trained, more skilled, and can speak better English. In the end the primary issue is safety.
You can visit the caves on your own. Maps are sold in Vang Vieng. It is best to hire a bicycle or motorbike to cover the 3 to 10km (1 3/4 -- 6 miles) to the sites, or hire a tuk-tuk, which will take you to the caves for 5,000 kip per person in a party of about six. Make sure the day fee is well established in advance. Some drivers have been known to raise the fee after the fact.
Tham Poukham, 7km (4 1/3 miles) from town, is the most popular cave around Vang Vieng. It costs 5,000 kip to enter. The main features are a beautiful, cool lagoon, which will look very inviting if you are feeling damp and sweaty (which you will be since it's a steep and slippery climb to get here) with its shimmering blue and green waters. Apart from swimming the cave is famous for a Thai-style reclining Buddha. Poukham is reached by a pretty but bumpy road to the village of Ban Na Thong, where there are signs showing the way to the cave about 1km (.6 miles) on. Tham Non (admission 5,000 kip), or the "Sleeping Cave" is about 4km (2 1/2 miles) north of town. It earned its name because when Vang Vieng was being bombed during the war, people would take shelter there during the night. Tham Xang (admission 5,000 kip) and Tham Hoi (admission 5,000 kip) are located in the same dramatic limestone outcrop about 15km (9.3 miles) north of town on the road to Luang Prabang. Take a left at the village of Sinsomxai where there is a turnoff to the caves. Tham Xang houses a large Buddha image and is of quite some religious significance to local people. Tham Hoi is a huge cave running at least 7km (4.3 miles) deep. Some locals say it is even deeper. You should only go any distance into the cave if you have an experienced guide. There is a Buddha image at the entrance of the cave. Tham Chang (admission 10,000 kip) is close to town and very popular with both Thai and foreign tourists. You go through the grounds of the Vang Vieng Resort (for a 10,000 kip two-way fee!) and cross a small bridge to some manicured grounds on the other side of the river. Tham Chang was used as a fortress against the Chinese Haw invaders in the late 19th century. Its name translates as firm and unwavering. It is by no means the most spectacular cave in the area, but there is a great view of the valley from a bird's-eye perspective. Tham Phu Thao (admission 5,000 kip) stretches for 2km (1.2 miles) and the tunnels are lined with huge stalactites and stalagmites. There is a subterranean pool where you can swim in the rainy season. In the dry season, you can continue beyond the pool and explore the cave in its entirety. There is also a Hmong village nearby peopled by returnee refugees from Thailand. They were driven from their homes during the war of the '60s and '70s and ended up in exile but were refused admission to the United States or other Western countries. They were returned to Laos and settled here.
Many combine caving with kayaking, which costs $12 a day and if you wish you can make the trip all the way to Vientiane. Green Discovery runs the safest operation with experienced guides, although there are many other companies that will give you a cheaper deal.
Floating down the Nam Song River on an inflated tractor inner tube has become almost a religious ritual for the thousands of people who come to Vang Vieng to go tubing. A whole mini-industry of restaurants and bars has grown up around it, and many local people have become prosperous on the simple activity of floating about. Although it is now associated with Vang Vieng in the minds of many visitors, it is something you will see kids doing all over the country.
All guesthouses will be able to organize tubing trips for you. Wherever you buy the trip, they are all part of the same collective cartel based near the old market. You can also just go directly to this central "depot," next to the old market on the junction next to the riverside road. You can't miss it since there are huge stacks of inner tubes behind the front desk. For 35,000 kip (plus a 60,000 kip deposit), you will be driven about 4km (2 1/2 miles) north of town and issued with your inner tube. From here you will float back to town being treated to some of the finest views Asia has to offer. Along the way are bamboo restaurants, rope swings, and volleyball courts.
Note: Tubing while intoxicated or during inclement weather is dangerous -- don't do it. Also, women should not spend too much time wandering around only in a bikini. The Lao are modest and it offends them, however used to it they may seem.