We are in Vang Vieng and we’re spending two days here.
For once the minivan drops us right in the centre of town, at the Malany Villa Hotel, by the old airstrip – which is hard to envisage when you’re trying to figure out the layout of a town, but yes, the old airstrip is right in the centre of the town.
Here’s the best map we found of Vang Vieng, from hobomaps.com
Why Vang Vieng is (in)famous
Vang Vieng is famous for tubing down the Nam Song (River Song). No wait. It’s famous for the hedonistic heavy drinking, partying and drug taking that took over the town between 2007 and 2012.
This small town grew and grew to accommodate a tourist crowd that wanted to tube the river and drink and get high on more than just life and then drink some more once they’d floated down the river into town.
In 2012 27 tourists died in accidents on the river. Some drowned, some hit their heads on rocks while jumping on rope swings, some took accidental drug overdoses. The government clamped down, shut many of the bars that had sprung up along the river, cut down the rope swings and generally limited the dangers.
Somewhat intrepidly we wanted to see what all the fuss had been about. In a kind of look but don’t touch sort of a way.
We arrived in Vang Vieng in a minivan (60,000 kip – US$7.40) from Vientiane. We’d booked through our hotel in Vietiane (The Vientiane Star). It was a lovely journey. Well it would have been if you’d been able to see out of the windows and stop. Next time, I think, next time, I will do Laos on a motorbike.
Why we visited Vang Vieng
We were looking for the glorious karst scenery we’d seen in Phong Nha National Park in northern Vietnam and wanted to watch the tubing from a distance, a safe distance. We set off from Vientiane at 0930 and arrived at 1330).
Another map we found useful from the hobomaps folks.
Well, it wasn’t as bad as we were expecting. Mind you, we were expecting it would be hell on earth for us at least.
Where we stayed in Vang Vieng
We stayed to the south of the town, in a guest house that was described by one reviewer as “far from the action”. It took us 8 minutes to walk from this “far from” hotel to the “action” – which is a series of bars and restaurants, some on the main drag, some down side streets, with bars overhanging the river.
This was the Phouna Hotel. Where a room with AC costs 80,000 kip. The same room without access to the AC remote control is 60,000. It’s too hot and humid to be worried about less than US$2.50. It was a little grungy, the bathroom door was somewhat rotten (that’ll happen putting a wooden door in the direct line of fire of a shower.
The folks were friendly, the wifi worked (mostly). And it was far enough away from the “action” that we slept well.
Vang Vieng Bars
Vang Vieng bars (and restaurants) have a variety of seating areas. Most of them are given over to the lower level platforms with the triangular cushions to support you as you lounge decadently slurping your cocktails. Watching TV.
Because the bars are also famous as TV lounges and show endless loops of “Friends” all afternoon. As if the cheap booze wasn’t enough to lull you into a coma, then the TV repeats will do it.
Most bars have happy hours, with free shots of Lao whisky for hours on end. All have the same menu of food and drink, barring a small minority.
Roadside food stalls cater to the hungover and easy eats.
All cater to the western crowd. And the Koreans.
Laos is a big destination for Koreans. And there are groups of them tubing, hanging out in the restaurants that have Korean menus, drinking along with the westerners. The Koreans we found during our time there (more on that here) are THE drinkers of Asia. And like their hiking, they’re pretty damned good at it.
But here, it all seems pretty tame, or perhaps we just go to bed too early and the real partying happens later.
Renting a Motorbike in Vang Vieng
The next day we rent a motorbike for 40,000 kip near the Malany Villa Hotel and head to the start of the tubing – a few kilometres upriver. The bike is a semi-automatic Chinese knock off of a Honda Wave, apparently all the pukka Honda Waves have been rented for the day. We trust it will make it back.
The beginning of the tubing starts down a lane, at a bar opposite the Organic Mulberry Farm where you’re apparently supposed to get drunk and then jump into/onto your tube and head downriver.
River Tubing in Vang Vieng
Tube rental is 60,000 kip, (US$7.39) from an “office” in town (ask anyone) and there’s a deposit you need to pay as well, you don’t get this back if you don’t return the tube by 1800. Once you’ve got your tube, you get in a tuk tuk that drops you at this bar and you’re off.
Bars on the River
Nowadays there are only five bars open on the river on any given day (they alternate which ones open on which days) and all the dangerous swings have been taken down.
Kayaking the river is also popular (we see a lot of Koreans doing the river this way too).
We ride the motorbike to the “official” end of the tubing, where folks wearing bright orange “tubing official” vests that look like a scam are stationed with ropes to pull people in – they’re yelling at tubers saying it’s the end and that they need to come in here. They’re widely ignored with languorous waves and yells, of “Na mate, I’m going down there”.
The Lao locals ask that tubers dress respectfully (no bikinis and please wear your shirt) and act courteously while you’re in their country. This seems to be widely ignored. We end up that night at a restaurant with a couple of shirtless British blokes who have decided that courtesy is much louder that I appreciated. And judging from what we can hear (and that’s everything) they’re definitely with the “like fuck” brigade that we bumped into in Si Phan Don.
But back to the motor-biking trip. Armed with a much photocopied hand drawn map we head off.
There appears to be a loop that we can do. As we can see from the map we find once we’ve crossed the river.
And we attempt it. And fail pretty miserably.
Our motor-biking trip is disappointing – our first stop, the Blue Lagoon is just a pool with rope swings and loud music with lots of people jumping in and screaming. If you read the reviews from the TripAdvisor folks, they all seem to ilke it a lot more than we did.
The Golden Cave up the hillside behind it won’t make any short lists for cave of the year and the 10,000 kip entrance fee only seems worthwhile if you plan on rope swinging, jumping into the water and screaming all day, so we just meander off in the general direction of the karst hills.
The scenery is pretty, but not stunning.(I’m comparing this to Phong Nha National Park in Vietnam).
We never seem to get any closer to the hills.
The rice fields are, well, rice fields. The roads are, in the main, red dust and by the time early afternoon approaches, we and our clothes are a glorious pinky red and we’ve managed to make it back to Vang Vieng – navigating by trying to get back to the local cement works, as that’s the only point that seems to make sense that we can see. And because there are no roads on Google maps where we ended up, no signposts that make sense and no one to ask.
The one kid who speaks to us simply stands by the side of the road, sticks his hand out and says “give me money”. Admittedly he does this in very clear English, so kudos to him for that at least. I doubt he can say “Thank you” as clearly.
It will be a good few years before the damage that type of tourism that made its home here will be repaired, if ever. The locals are disapproving of the antics of the western crowd, yet, to cash in, took out loans to add bars and guesthouses in the style of what the western crowd demanded. The crowd has shifted, heading to new places, the money going in the main with it. The locals remain. Stuck between floating tubes and bars.
It’s sad. Vang Vieng had (or has) the potential to be a lovely place to visit. It’s not horrid, but it’s not particularly nice either. The days we spent tooling around the quiet (and mostly unspoiled) Vietnamese Phong Nha National Park seems like a million miles away from here.
Vang Vieng, does, though leave us with a spectacular sunset as we join the throng and the cocktail crowd at the end of the day.
But, it’s time to make our escape. Our next stop is Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. There are two options when it comes to bus times. A night “VIP Sleeper Bus” which costs 140,000 kip, leaves at 23:00 and arrives at 07:00. The road is supposed to be very windy, very bumpy and very beautiful and so we opt to see it during day time and take the 09:30 bus (arriving Phonsavan at 16:00), costing 110,000 when we buy the tickets at the MART supermarket (about 30,000 kip cheaper than all the other agencies in town).
And this is where we’ll really take a motorbike trip..