I’ve never really liked heights, but seeing Vang Vieng at sunrise was worth the struggle with my fear. It’s a strange one really considering that I’m OK flying, will quite happily throw myself out of a perfectly good plane, or dive off a bridge with no more than a glorified elastic band wrapped around my ankles. But to stand in a flimsy basket attached to a giant, patched up balloon is and was not my ideal. In fact it probably the most nerve racking thing I have done in a long while.
That’s not to say I didn’t entirely loath my hot air balloon ride over this part of Laos, and seeing Vang Vieng at sunrise. From above, the small, unlikely looking party town looked incredible. From a height you’d never guess that it had been the scene of so much chaos in the past. By chaos I obviously mean tubing, Vang Vieng’s favourite past time, an activity which although condemned by some, was loved by the many and bought huge numbers of backpackers to the area, and in turn, their money.
Despite its more than dubious health and safety record, I have to admit that tubing looked like fun. I did partake in a tubing to an extent, but my experience was more ‘lazy river’ than ‘night club on the river’. It was whilst gently floating along the Nam Song river however that I first caught eyes on a hot air balloon floating overhead and then off towards the sunset. “Can we do that?” asked my girlfriend. Rhetorical question right? An hour later and we(she) had booked our ride in a balloon over Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng at sunrise
It started with a 6am pick up. Owing to a 9am bus to Luang Prabang, we were worried about the balloon ride overrunning and making us late for our journey north later that morning. Of all things to worry about when flying in a basket, timekeeping was probably the most stupid. Luckily for us and in an unusual twist for SE Asia, our pickup was on time and took us just 20 minutes away from the town centre to a tiny field where our balloon was already laid out on the grass and being inflated.
To inflate the balloon fully took just 10 minutes or so, and before we knew it we had been helped into the basket and were slowly leaving the ground behind us. We rose higher and higher.
Now whilst I should have been enjoying the views and the somewhat cloudy sunrise, I couldn’t help think that there should have been a safety talk in there somewhere. I appreciated that price wise the balloon ride was a steal, but where cost cutting involves the loss of safety standards and practices I sometimes (most times) worry a little (a lot). My vice grip on what felt like the sturdiest part of our flying structure was probably the clearest evidence of said worry.
As mentioned, despite t being the greatest fan of heights, this was not my first time in a hot air balloon, having first taken a ride in one over Byron Bay (AUS) back in 2007. Back then I was given a full safety briefing and all sorts of weather instruments were used by the staff to determine if it was safe to take off. No such tests in this case, but our pilot did have a funky and expensive looking gadget in hand which set my mind slightly at ease. Upon seeing this my vice grip did ease slightly and I allowed some blood back into my white knuckles.
Shaking off my fears of the basket floor caving in beneath my feet, I soon decided to try enjoy myself. I gazed out over Vang Vieng and its surrounding countryside and took in how beautiful Vang Vieng at sunrise really was. After a while the journey actually started to feel really quite soothing. It was so quiet and so peaceful from our vantage point up in the sky. This actually wasn’t half bad.
That beauty of the area beneath out basket extended to the people of the area, who gleefully waved up at us as we passed overhead. We saw groups of school children making their way to class and farmers out tending their crops.
For the next 40 minutes we gently floated over homes that were intermittently separated by huge palm trees and large farms with even larger fields of crops. Off in the distances, the hills and mountains stood looking ever so slightly mysterious behind an early morning fog.
I am not going to lie, as much as I (eventually) enjoyed the ride and taking in Vang Vieng at sunrise, I did breath a sigh of relief once we had safely landed. With a small bump, we came to rest in a field just a few minutes from the town centre. We were helped out of the basket and back into the mini bus, and within seconds we were sat back in town and waiting for our bus to Luang Prabang. It was an efficient operation.
Our balloon ride set us back $70 each. Its cheap as chips in terms of balloon riding, but as mentioned above, it might not be one for the safety conscious amongst you. Intrigued by our lack of a safety briefing I decided to look the company in question up on Google. I was led to a series of reviews on TripAdvisor where a number of previous customers condemned the lack of safety aboard the flights. One self proclaimed former air balloon pilot even went so far to say that it is only a matter of time until there is an accident. I have heard of no such accident to date, but I was glad that we had took our flight before reading that particular comment.
Whilst that sounds like scary stuff, rest assured there were just as many positive comments left on the TripAdvisor site. A whole host of people loved their experience of seeing Vang Vieng from above. It was enjoyable, and we did get some great views.
I’m not going to go as far as to say to should or shouldn’t take hot air balloon ride over Vang Vieng, that decision rests with you. It might pay to do a bit of research beforehand though if you are unsure.