England, who won the toss and elected to take first strike in good batting conditions, made 97 for no loss by lunch on the opening day at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC).
Vaughan followed his good luck at the toss with an attractive half-century studded with 10 boundaries.
Left-handed Alastair Cook, looking to hit form after making nought and four in the first Test in Kandy which Sri Lanka won by 88 runs, kept his captain company at lunch on a dour 21.
Some 3,000 fans, most of them travelling England supporters, watched the tourists get off to a flying start.
Vaughan began by steering Lasith Malinga to the third-man fence in the second over and then off-drove Chaminda Vaas for his second boundary.
The England captain flicked Malinga for four and then welcomed Dilhara Fernando with a superbly-timed cover drive.
Cook's first positive shot came almost an hour after the start when he hit Fernando to the cover fence but, on eight, was lucky to see Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene floor a sharp chance in the slips.
Vaughan reached his 15th Test half-century with the second of his three boundaries in one Fernando over, racing to 54 in England's total of 64-0.
England had made two changes from the Kandy Test, leaving out injured fast bowler Matthew Hoggard and fellow seamer James Anderson.
Steve Harmison, who missed the first Test due to back spasms, returned to the side and paceman Stuart Broad made his Test debut.
Sri Lanka recalled 22-year-old opener Upul Tharanga in place of Sanath Jayasuriya, who announced his retirement from Test cricket after the Kandy match.
|England 1st innings:|
|A. Cook||not out||21|
|M. Vaughan||not out||75|
|Total||for no loss||97|
|Fernando 6-0-36-0 (nb1)|
|Umpires:||Aleem Dar (PAK) and Daryl Harper (AUS)|
|TV umpire:||Gamini Silva (SRI)|
|Match referee:||Jeff Crowe (NZL)|