We weren’t really sure of what to expect of Vang Vieng. For a while it was the infamous party destination in Southeast Asia, second maybe only to Ko Pha-Ngan with its monthly full moon throw down. In fact, when I first read blog recounts of Vang Vieng, I was sort of enticed. Tubing down a river in a beautiful countryside of Laos while drinking beers, and arriving at a raging rave party – doesn’t sound so bad at all. We aren’t 22 anymore…but who doesn’t like to get down every now and then? And a daytime party is a better kind of party in my opinion anyway.
**A friend’s experience with more adventurous activities in Vang Vieng left us rather doubtful of safety precautions in Laos in general – but, we figured that a cautionary tale. But, as we read up on more and more travel accounts, we’ve realized that multiple tourists washed up either dead or injured as a result of a lethal mix of too many drugs, sharp rocks, and fast currents of the Nam Song river. And given the wide circulation of these stories in the media, the local authorities couldn’t very well let the party continue. On the road, we’ve heard various descriptions of Vang Vieng as boring, not all that beautiful nor charming, with a bunch of washed out backpackers who didn’t get the memo about the end of the party era, so they sit in cafes watching Friends’ reruns, consuming Beer Lao and pancakes.
I am really hesitant to write off any place as not worth a visit, so I felt like we had to give Vang Vieng a chance, just to see it, experience the highs and lows as they might be, and form our own opinion. For us, it turned out to be a serendipitous decision that changed the course of our journey dramatically, and for the better.
boom, there it is
Pretty annoyed over the fact that we had to change hotels in middle of our first night in town – due to a raging Lao party right outside of our bungalow – we walked up the street to a cute café / guesthouse, and discovered not only that they have a room with an amazing view and a sweet balcony up for grabs, but also that one of the French managers was selling his Vietnamese plated – Honda Win motorbike, with all the proper ownership papers and all. BOOM annoyance disappears, happy dance ensues – journey changed, adventure of a lifetime awaits.
Our pride and joy – Indonesia, the motorbike – we called her Indi for short. Here she is packed and set for our adventure. We were so excited over finding her that somehow missed out on capturing in photograph that initial moment. Vang Vieng, Laos.
We had been disenchanted by the bus journeys and itching to get back on the bike after our experience with EasyRiders in Vietnam, we actually searched for a motorbike in Vientianne. We checked local couchsurfing boards, went to a few of the most popular hostels and enquired with mechanics — but had no luck. We resigned ourselves to waiting until we made it to Hanoi, a popular motorcycle buy-and –sell circuit for backpackers. And there is was, a beautiful motorbike waiting for it’s new owners – us!
So in Vang Vieng – it was a stroke of luck or perhaps fate, and isn’t really the reason for anyone else to come here. But then again, some of the best experiences from the road have come from completely unplanned trips to completely unremarkable destinations – like the time we were invited for tea by a monk in Vietnamese border town of Hatien, or the time we ran into local minority villagers who literary poked us to make sure we were real. What I am trying to say I guess is don’t write off a destination just because you’ve heard negative accounts, or no accounts – go and see for yourself, who knows maybe an adventure of a lifetime awaits you there?
vang vieng today
So aside from the fact that for us it turned out to be the best decision ever to come to Vang Vieng, – is it a must stop in Laos? No, we didn’t think so.
The tubing part looks depressing – dilapidated and boarded up bars flank the river where a few of the die hard party seekers still float down the Nom Song river every day. There is occasional loud disco / pop/ rap that blares from somewhere around the corner, which now just seems out of place. We actually thought about trying out the tube, just to check off that box, but after discovering the price tag, and learning that all of the local shops are in cahoots with the tubing entrepreneurs – no place in town sells tubing tires – we were pretty turned off by the idea. Plus, it doesn’t really look enticing.
We did, however, find that Vang Vieng is charming enough with its karst peaks and lush countryside, and there is enough to explore between the beautiful Blue Lagoon where locals and visitors can refresh and have a good time, and a few holy caves (we passed having just done the Thakhek Loop). There is also a nascent adventure industry offering kayaking and nature expeditions. Plus there’s the people watching of the whole “washed out backpacker and / or over-zealous party seeker” crowd, which is perfectly entertaining for a day. Another big upside is that your stay will be helping the local economy, which is certainly not doing as well as it used to when Vang Vieng drew a much bigger party crowd.
You can still enjoy yourself — go for a bike ride around the countryside, people watch ridiculous looking party tourists, and try out jumping into the Blue Lagoon…the second level branches are reserved for serious thrill seekers like Sergey. Vang Vieng, Laos.
Word to the Wise
If you do go looking for a party – a small piece of advice. From what we heard of long time Western residents in Laos, partaking in any weed indulgence anywhere in Laos, including in, and, in particular in Vang Vieng, will almost certainly result in an encounter with the local police. Apparently, plain clothes policemen are on the lookout for any drug offenders, who are then forced to turn over their passports until a very large fine upwards of $500, is paid up. This is second hand information, we can’t confirm the experience ourselves.