Vang Vieng, a small town deep in the heart of Laos, has a reputation. Much like Koh Phangan and the full moon parties in Thailand, Vang Vieng is known for its party culture, but it wasn’t always this way.
Years ago Vang Vieng was a destination because of its natural landscape: majestic limestone cliffs, pristine lagoons and winding caves. The scenery drew backpackers along the bumpy roads from Luang Prabang to the North and Vientiane to the South.
Today the main attraction is the carefree, and often dangerous, activity of tubing. Locals have created a co-op that rents out tractor tire inner-tubes to tourists which they use to create a lazy river experience floating along the Nam Song. It sounds innocent enough until you realize the river is lined on either side with ramshackle bamboo bars, hooking passing patrons on fishing lines and drawing them into the chaos. Tubing is largely excess, excess for 18 year-olds from Europe or Australia on a gap year to find themselves through travel.
Still, Therese and I were curious and Vang Vieng was the logical stop on our journey north to Luang Prabang so we decided to experience the chaos for ourselves.We had done our research and spoken to a number of friends and fellow travelers who had been. We knew the beauty of Vang Vieng still existed only minutes away from the main stretch of river and we wanted to go caving and hike the limestone mountains. We also thought we would try tubing, for one afternoon.
We arrived and quickly found a beautiful room in a bungalow-style guesthouse. The accommodation was just south of the the main drag, far enough away from the noise but still walking distance to the post office and restaurants. It overlooked the Nam Song river with the mountains reaching serenely toward the sky.We had met a group of girls from England who had become fast friends so we made a plan to rendezvous at 2 o’clock to rent tubes and check out the river.
Now, after being there, and doing that, I can say the rumours are true. Tubing in Vang Vieng is often appalling, but only for those who make it so. Like visiting any bar or club there are always people who don’t know their limits and behave badly, but there are also those who are there to sing along to the songs, play some games and have some decent conversation. Therese and I swam in the river, floated down stream and played beach volleyball with some new found friends.
The majority of the crowds are under the age of 20, unsure of what they want or who they want to be. I stood on the dock of one of the riverside bars with our friend Benoit from Switzerland who was on a 3 week vacation from his job as a computer engineer, and we discussed how we felt old. Still we joked around and laughed and had a lot of fun in the sunshine that afternoon.
After a delicious dinner of local Laos fare (a rarity believe it or not in this Westernized town) we made a plan, Therese, Benoit and I, to meet at 9 a.m. for breakfast and to spend the day caving.
This was one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Beyond the fun of learning to drive a manual motorbike (albeit garnering a few bruises in the process) we spent hours in the cool air of the mountains squeezing between rocks and swimming in fresh water pools deep within the heart of the caves. It was both beautiful and scary, often coming face to face with massive spiders or hoping the battery on your headlamp wouldn’t die.
We also rode to a local lagoon with sapphire blue water and locals jumping from tree tops into the pools below. These are the things that put Vang Vieng on the map, and it’s what makes stopping in the new-found party town worth it.