Tested to My Limits on the Vang Vieng Challenge

For a few years now, I’ve been suffering  from “accident prone” syndrome.  I assume it’s because I’ve become more physically daring and not because I suddenly became more clumsy, but nothing has ever beat me up the way the Vang Vieng Challenge in Laos did.

Two days of non-stop adventure.
Two days of non-stop activity.

In theory, the Vang Vieng Challenge combined a lot of things that I love to do: hiking, camping, via ferrata, ziplining, rappelling down a waterfall, and free-fall abseils.  In reality, nothing seemed to go right for me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Just fifteen minutes from town, my companion and I set off on our hike, accompanied by two guides who barely spoke English.  The scenery outside Vang Vieng is spectacular and I was really excited to be spending the next two days outside.

Vang Vieng Challenge hike laos
Beginning our hike

The trail starts out innocently enough, though we had been warned we’d end up hiking for five hours with much of it uphill.  Since we had recently finished a four-day uphill trek in the Himalayas, I wasn’t concerned.  We could handle it.

Quickly, the trail began to narrow to the point where “overgrown” is an understatement.  Unphased, our guides pressed onward, and I sucked it up as pricker bushes ended up scratching my legs.  Barely twenty minutes into our adventure, I just wanted to turn around.  If this was the easy part, we weren’t off to a good start.

Yet onward we went.  We walked through cow pastures and crossed streams and at one point, took a canoe that barely floated across the river.  As we approached late morning, the day warmed up considerably, just in time to begin our uphill trek.

vang vieng challenge laos trail
A steep ascend for our hike (Image by Green Discovery Laos)

Ascending steeply, the Vang Vieng Challenge lived up to its name.  There was nowhere to go but up.  The trail was slippery, slick clay covered in a layer of mud: a strenuous climb in any condition made more difficult by recent rain.  Clay covered the bottom of my hiking shoes, leaving me with a smooth sole and no traction.  Without a grip, it was two steps forward, one step backward.

Each time we stopped, I caught my breath and drank some water only to end up hot and out-of-breath just two minutes into the next climb.  I had to remind myself over and over that soon we’d be starting the fun part.

just keep swimming finding nemo
My mantra of the hike.

Grumpily, I spent my lunch break picking leeches off my ankles.  When you spend enough time outside, leeches and other annoyances are just something you have to expect.  I’ve dealt with them before and they’re nothing more than a nuisance.  But when everything’s going wrong, the little things become more significant.  All I wanted was a comfortable break and instead I was pulling slimy creatures off my skin and watching blood run down my ankles.

Finally, a great thing happened!  We were starting the fun part!  We had a zipline across the gorge followed by a via ferrata course.  I could start enjoying the trip!

Of course, this wouldn’t be the Vang Vieng Challenge if it were easy.  To ensure we’d be tested yet again, our first zipline had a tree in the way that you’d have to navigate around.

vang vieng challenge zipline laos
Careful not to hit the tree!

Surviving our obstacle course, we geared up for the next phase of our journey: the via ferrata.

If you’re unfamiliar with what a via ferrata is, it’s a cross between rock-climbing and scaling a ladder.  Instead of belaying with a rope, you simply clip yourself in with carabiners and start climbing.  It’s surprisingly easy and a lot of fun.

I quickly fell into the rhythm of unclipping, stepping, reaching, re-clipping, finally…happy that things were going well.  Things were finally looking up and I thought maybe this trip had potential after all.

 

Ow!

As we reached another section of the via ferrata, rocks started falling.  One clocked me in the shoulder and I started dodging things.  To the left!  Duck!  Now to the right!  I survived half a dozen rocks and then I zigged when I should have zagged.  I was left with a big bruise on my inner arm.  Nothing on this trip was going my way.

I wouldn’t say I was particularly injured, just continually being beaten up, until the via ferrata ended and left us to scramble across wet, slippery rocks.  Of all the places to be comfortably clipped in, it was here — and yet this was the section we were left balancing on our own.  I slipped not once, not twice, but three times.  Slowing to a snail’s crawl, I felt defeated.

Finally, our practically-non-English-speaking guide announced, “Almost done.”

We had one last small climb and a bridge to conquer before we made it to the campsite.

vang vieng challenge rope bridge
No problem: I love ropes courses.

Usually, I dread the end of a tour and want the fun to go on forever, but this time I was anxiously anticipating the finish.  Just one long step forward on the bridge, and I’d be on solid ground.  Panting to catch my breath, I took that final step…only to watch a full liter of water tumble down the waterfall.  I was hot, thirsty, and tired; losing that water made me want to cry.

I wanted nothing more than to sit in an air-conditioned room, lock the door, and watch a movie or do something equally sluggish.  Instead, I was on top of a mountain having one of the worst travel experiences of my life.

The surprising highlight of the trip was an unadvertised challenge: dinner.

vang vieng challenge maggots
An unexpected snack.

Who knew that fresh maggots tasted like french fries?  These little bugs were one of the best parts of the trip, which says a lot about the tour.

The next morning, I woke up sore from my bruises, covered in itchy bites, and telling myself there was a massage waiting for me in town at the end of the day.  Today would be better, I promised myself.  It couldn’t possibly be worse.

And so, hoping to avoid yet another injury, I passed on one of the activities that I probably would’ve enjoyed and instead cheered on my companion who skillfully rappelled down a waterfall.

vang vieng challenge waterfall rappel
Afraid of yet another injury, I sat this one out.

The next few hours were actually enjoyable though.  A new day had brought about a better set of activities, and I gleefully ziplined and abseiled my way down the course.

 Unfortunately, all good things must come to the end and we had to hike back down the way we came.  The steep, slick trail that was difficult on the way up was treacherous on the way down.  We both consistently lost our footing and struggled to make our way down without twisting an ankle.  Eventually, it became easier to treat the trip as a slip and slide, scooting on my butt in the steepest sections.  After one last stop to remove leeches, there was nothing left to do but return via the pricker bushes.

 

I made it back to town, literally scratched, scraped, bruised, bleeding, itching, and covered in mud.  Sometimes, even in retrospect, adventure travel sucks.

This trip was supposed to be non-stop thrill and instead it was one hour of fun buried under thirty hours of frustration.

If you’re a masochist, you can book this tour through Green Discovery which has storefronts in all Lao tourist cities or a complicated online booking procedure.  Supposedly it’s better in the dry season, but I won’t be doing it a second time to find out for myself.

*     *     *

Not all my travel experiences go smoothly, and I think it’s just as important to share the bad ones as the good ones.  I wish I could recommend this tour, but in my opinion, it was terrible.  For a better time, check out my favorite experiences from Laos.

7 thoughts on “Tested to My Limits on the Vang Vieng Challenge”

  1. Klaus Schwettmann

    Dear Becky,

    Is this Vang Vieng Challenge really so extreme and difficult that it deserves such a crushing verdict? Is this a tour only for “masochists” when so many, even first-timers in doing activities of this kind, love it so much?

    I am wondering why a tour which is already advertised in its website as a “real challenge” can be so misjudged… “Steep” mountain slopes already indicate some physical hardship, “mind-blowing” via ferrata are surely not for the faint-hearted, and “dare-devil” abseiling will bring many participants to the edge. It’s all there, nothing hidden. The thrill is on! That’s exactly what many people want. And the Vang Vieng Challenge delivers.

    This tour is a popular attraction in Vang Vieng and has been done by many, no matter of being male or female, and all across the board enjoyed! Following assessments by professionals as well customer opinion surveys, it is rated as ‘moderate to difficult’ (sic!), not even as difficult to challenging. The Vang Vieng Challenge is an outstanding parcours as only Laos can offer. The tour description doesn’t leave anything open.

    So when reading this post I am not sure why the reviewer has felt so bad about it! Miss Becky’s account is of course a subjective description of a very personal experience – well written, by the way. But is her final, quite smashing verdict really justified?

    The many happy “masochists” may prove just the opposite: the Vang Vieng Challenge IS a place for fun all the way!

    Please follow the link to see Vang Vieng Challenge Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVDNfy7-UeI&list=UUdS4JSHvhbsPpEUMvkON-HQ&index=3

    [youtube https://youtube.com/watch?v=IVDNfy7-UeI?list=UUdS4JSHvhbsPpEUMvkON-HQ&w=560&h=315%5D

    1. @Klaus, I’m glad to hear that others have enjoyed this tour. I stand by my review and hated the entire first day. As I mentioned, there were some fun parts on the second day, like the ropes course elements, ziplining, and abseiling.

      My critique is not based on the fact it is physically demanding; if you read more of my posts you’ll know that I love things like hiking (even difficult trails), abseiling, and more. It is the execution that Green Discovery failed at. Trails weren’t clear when a simple machete would widen the trail from the pricker bushes, the zipline course had a tree (!) in the middle of it, and staff didn’t speak English. It could have been a disaster. I had to laugh when the video advertised “International Safety Standarts[sic]”.

      Would it be different in the middle of dry season when the trail itself wasn’t a mudslide waiting to happen? Probably. But the fact remains that I cannot recommend this tour.

  2. I actually thought this post was incredibly helpful and appreciated your honest opinion. I love hiking too and was considering the challenge but after reading I think it is a bit too much for me. Considering the person above posted a link to an advertised video, I am assuming he or she works for the company and that’s why they are shutting you down. Thank you for your honest review and I will definitely be reading your blog!! PS we have similar blog names 🙂

  3. 12 of us from Mumbai, India, did the Vang VIeng Challenge in Feb 2017. While certainly not for beginners or the faint hearted, we managed the climb and descent without any injury and i would say that it was tough but certainly doable if you are relatively fit. None of us are experienced mountain climbers or anything of the sort. The average age of our group is 50 years. At the end there was a tremendous sense of achievement as it was tougher than expected. But, we also packed in 2 hours of Kayaking at the end of the second day. (which is an extra – not part of the itinerary) Our guides were very good and the equipment up to standard. It was hot but not unbearable and the dinner at the top, aided by some local Laos whiskey, was actually quite good.
    I think perhaps Becky was probably expecting something easier and if you are just two people it can get a little scary. Also, Becky probably did this in monsoon or just post monsoon, which is definitely not the right time to attempt this.

    1. @Zubin, Yes, it was definitely rainy season + a few years ago at this point, but I can assure you, I never expected anything easy and have a very adventurous spirit worldwide. Glad they got their act together.

  4. I’m about to the challenge in a few days and just came across this review. I couldn’t read the whole review as it was a moan from the start. I’m super excited for the challenge as this is the only negative review I’ve read. I just hope we don’t get stuck with people who are not up to the challenge!! Also I would highly recommend any adventure seekers who read this post to look up vlogs of it on YouTube.

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