It was always a dream of mine to do a hot air balloon ride, but on a backpacker’s budget, it was never that simple! Balloon rides are popular in Australia where I lived previously, but on average cost about $300-600 depending on the area and its views.
I had heard about hot air ballooning in Vang Vieng while travelling through Laos, and nearly choked on my beer when I heard the price! For just USD90 (roughly €80) you could lose yourself in the clouds above the Laos mountains.
I tried to research some up-to-date information about hot air ballooning, but like a lot of things in SE Asia, it was hard to find reliable facts and sources. I decided, as is the way with most of my travel, to just wait and see until I got to Vang Vieng.
Booking The Hot Air Balloon
In theory, booking the balloon is very easy. In reality, it did not turn out that way for us! Vang Vieng is tiny, and on every corner there is a tour agency, selling tickets for rafting, tubing, off-roading and, of course, hot air ballooning.
There is only one man who owns and runs the hot air ballooning service. He has a handful of balloons (maybe three?), which causes space on the balloons to fill up quickly.
Unfortunately for us however, the process to book was a little rough around the edges. Every agency we enquired in, no one could get ahold of “the balloon man”! We tried for three days, but it seemed the man had taken a vacation and wasn’t going to be in town for the foreseeable future.
We resigned to no hot air balloon in Laos and continued our trip as normal. Until, one morning while zipping around the countryside on our rented scooter, we spotted a teardrop silhouette in the distance – the balloon man was back!
We tore after him on our little rental and followed the balloon until he landed in a deserted field, where we bombarded him with questions and booked our hot air balloon for the following morning.
Which Time To Book
There are two booking times available: sunrise and sunset.
Now, for those of you who a little more savvy to the ways of Asia travel, you will know that “sunrise” does not mean when the sun rises. Though we booked a sunrise flight, of course the jeep was late picking us up from our hostel. The sun had actually risen by the time we were in the jeep! Also due to general disorganisation, we were waiting around for about half an hour before we got up in the air.
This wasn’t really an issue for me however, as by now I’m used to this chaos associated with booking tours/trips in SEA. The views once we got up high were absolutely breathtaking, and made up for the s**t show beforehand!
FYI: I booked a sunrise hot air balloon as the evenings in Vang Vieng can be quite smokey with locals burning their garbage toward the end of the day.
Cost of the Flight
As mentioned previously, the hot air balloon was USD90. We did however, see agencies advertise for USD100+, and promising more (eg: longer time spent in the air, etc) but this is simply untrue and a con. DO NOT pay more than USD90.
It is said that this is the cheapest balloon ride in the entire world. However, with a bargain, there often comes some sacrifices. Read on and you’ll find out what I mean!
Is it Safe?
There was ZERO safety briefing before getting into the balloon, and I mean ZERO! We were used to this though as in SE Asia, there are no precautions or regulations. If you are a nervous nelly I would not recommend this for you.
I found the locals in Vang Vieng (if I’m being honest) to be quite unfriendly, and the balloon tour was no different. There were hellos, smiles, introductions or instructions beforehand. Everyone participating simply sat on the runway as the men prepared the balloon. They were physically using their body strength to keep the balloon grounded, their toes grazing the tarmac as the struggled to keep the balloon from drifting away!
With a stern nod of the head, the balloon operator told us to get in and it was a free-for-all with everyone clambering over the basket’s sides to get a good spot.
As dodgy as the whole job was, when we got into the balloon, the operator was very professional and had all the gadgets and gizmos as expected.
Capacity In The Balloon
Unlike other hot air balloon rides were participants clink champagne glasses together and take each others pictures, this wasn’t exactly like that!
We had twelve people plus our operator in the balloon, which was a VERY tight squeeze! The basket is divided into halves and everyone was crammed like sardines. There was no room to move or turn, so we just hung out the side of the basket. We didn’t complain though, it is afterall the cheapest hot air balloon ride in the world!
Duration of the Balloon Ride
I came into this one prepared. After reading all the reviews online, I was aware the balloon ride wouldn’t last as long as promised. I think the agency stated 45 minutes (I’ve heard some were promised a full hour), but I think we were probably in the air for 20 minutes plus five minutes either side for take off and landing.
Again, this is what you can expect from the cheapest balloon ride in the world!
What are the views like?
Despite being late picking us up and late taking off, despite being packed in like sardines and the clear lack of safety of the balloon, the views made it TOTALLY worth it.
We glided over misty mountains and got to watch as the village below began to wake. We saw lines of orange-clad monks making their way to morning temple and farmers leading their buffalo to graze. We watched as the morning due evaporated into fog that clung to the hills.
It was eerily quiet in the balloon, the only noise was the gas being released sporadically to keep us afloat.
Is It Worth It?
Short answer? If you’re on a budget and this is your only chance to experience a hot air balloon, then yes, it’s worth it.
But…I wouldn’t exactly be using this as a chance to pop the question to your beloved! If I were to describe this experience in one sentence would be: you get what you pay for.
All-in-all I’m happy I did it. I’ve spent €80 on far better things while travelling, and I’ve also spent €80 on far worse things. My advice would be to not go in with high expectations, enjoy the experience, enjoy the views and be happy you ticked an item off the bucket list.
Are you planning on visiting Laos? Read my review of Luang Prabang here.