The bus from Luang Prabang south to the capital Vientiane is a rocky, bumpy and induces the spins. I actually had to hold onto my arm rest just to hold onto my seat as we spun around the base of mountains. Vang Vieng to many is the one reason they come to visit Laos. In the last 30 years this small little riverside town has transformed itself into a backpackers mecca with an odd sort of legend and mystique surrounding its accolades from past visitors. I met one local during my weeks stay here who grew up in the town his entire life. He said it used to be just a poor little fishing village on a river. Then some crazy Aussie came to visit and suggested they start to rent inner tubes to tourists and a few bars to relax by the river on a hot day. What originally was a one day stop for serious adventure travelers is now for many the reason they come to the country! Amazing how one small idea can transform a small town and even a country!
Tourists bring big dollars to Vang Vieng but don’t kid yourself, you can find a good deal everywhere. I aggressively pursued an affordable and nice hotel room as I knew I wanted to stay here for a week so wanted a good deal. Hotel rooms close to the bus stop were three times were expensive so I just kept walking farther into the town along the river. I ended up settling on a nicely sized private room with bathroom and queen sized bed for $5 a night. I lived right off the main road along the river and had the most fantastic views of the sun set every evening.
Vang Vieng offers a plethora of western comforts (in the middle of nowhere) and comotose-inducing video bars in an attempt to secure its calm on its visitors. Despite its reputation as a sullied paradise, this beautiful setting beside the Nam Song River and jagged limestone cliffs is far from that. Besides a wide selection of outward bound pursuits including its famous tubing and bar river hopping to trekking, caving and climbing there are plenty of outdoor pursuits to savour.
I spent my first full day with a couple from Montreal and Belgium on a kayaking tour. We drove up the river and hopped into kayaks on a beautiful sunny day. We paddled through small rural villages and waved to little old ladies picking vegetables and little children with snorkel gear fishing with pikes. I most enjoyed the paddle through about 30 ox on the move. They crossed the river just as we were paddling through and their massive heads knocked and huffed right beside the boat it was a thrill to say the least. We then descended upon the stretch of river where tubers start their adventure. There are approximately 15 river side bars where hundreds of drunken tourists dance the day away and hop from one bar to the next. Many of these bars have wild catapults, slides and swing ropes. This sort of tourist activity would be SO illegal in the West. People are literally hammered at 2pm running around in a river full of jagged rocks it’s really wild…and all with the thump thump of dance club beats. Each bar typically offers a free shot of Laos Whisky or Vodka (which tastes horrible but gets you really drunk really fast). Many spend the entire day (for many days) tubing on a drunken bender. NOTE: I met many people on crutches and with stitches. One particular friend of mine from the UK apparently was drunk and landed on a sharp rock and her foot actually was open for the world to see. She joked, ‘Thank goodness Vang Vieng is famous for its drugs as I would not be able to make it through these slow days.” She is correct, there are many expat bars in Vang Vieng where you can pretty much get any sort of drugs: shrooms, weed, opium…all of the bartenders and servers always look a bit high. Vang Vieng is a mecca for the lazy hippy in you.
I spent one day on a kayak tour just to see how the tubing all works. The following day I took my day cautiously (and responsibly) down the river on an inner tube. The next few days I explored the surrounding scenery of town and met up with a few monks who were huge photography fans. When people aren’t tubing or taking on some sort of reckless adventure they are probably in the center of town at one of the many open concept tv restaurants. If Vang Vieng had a theme song it would be the Friends television show opening sequence. Every restaurant plays the Friends series all day and night, the town has become famous for this actually. So after people get cleaned up from a day of adventure they fill these restaurants and catch up on a few old Friends episodes with friends. People then head to Club Island just up the river (and seconds from my hotel) to dance the night away. A rickety bamboo bridge covered in neon lights directs party goers to several outdoor nightclubs which play top 40’s and techno around booming campfires.
Vang Vieng is wild and a one of a kind experience if you still have a bit of youth left in you.