Vang Vieng, Laos, is midway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. After spending five days in lovely, peaceful Luang Prabang, I was ready to move on, and Vang Vieng makes for a good stopover on the way. So, I figured I'd stay a few days and see how I liked it.
From what I could tell, the big draws in Vang Vieng are a) the beautiful mountains along the river, b) tubing down the river, and c) partying (on or off the river). You can rent an inner tube and ride it down the river for a few hours, stopping at bars along the way. A few years ago (from what I’ve read), the partying in Vang Vieng was getting out of control. Lao culture is very conservative: throwing Western 20-something tourists who just wanted to get stoned, drunk, and laid into this peaceful yet poor community was probably a bad idea from the start. Tourists even died from drowning or jumping off of rope swings into shallow, rock-filled water.
Finally, the authorities decided to put a stop to this madness and a few years ago, the city closed most of the bars along the river and set up a curfew for the bars in town. Reading recent bloggers' posts made me feel better about going and reasonably sure that I could enjoy tubing responsibly and safely, and still have some fun.
Unfortunately, the sun didn’t want to come out on the day I decided to go tubing. I waited around my hotel until 11 am or so, hoping it would get warmer, and finally decided it was time to go anyway. I walked to the tubing office, paid, and waited around for a few minutes until there were three other people there who wanted to tube (you need at least three people to get a free ride to the tubing start point; otherwise you have to pay extra).
The three other people in my taxi had actually already been out tubing on the river. The couple I was with both had beers and were looking forward to partying at the bars; the other guy said he had tubed the whole way the day before and so he would probably stick to the bar today. They all spoke wistfully about the good times a few years ago when there were more bars open along the river. Although I was happy to have made some friends to drink with, I was also secretly glad that my tubing experience would be very tame.
We put our tubes into the water and set off. A quick couple minutes of floating down the river and we were already at the first bar. Loud music greeted us from the river and the guys working at the bar threw out ropes to us so we could grab them and pull ourselves in.
I stayed at the bar for about an hour and a half. Everyone seemed pretty happy to just hang out: drinking, dancing, and playing beer pong. I had a beer and yelled above the noise to some other backpackers (“where are you from?” “where have you been?” “How long are you staying” etc.).
I watched tourists play a silly game organized by the people working at the bar, whose job (it seems) is to encourage you to stay all day and keep buying drinks. It was slightly amusing, but I didn’t want to waste the day sitting around drinking. The beautiful scenery of Vang Vieng awaited and I wanted to soak it up.
So I set off by myself. I waved off the enthusiastic bartenders at the second (and last) bar, and prepared for a few hours of solitude and slow floating. Very slow, in fact—at times I put my hands in the water and paddled a little to go faster. Once in a while the water suddenly sped up; this was where I had to watch out for rocks just beneath the surface. Mostly the river was very shallow and I could see the bottom.
Floating past the gorgeous mountains in peace and quiet was a lovely experience. Cows walked slowly past on the banks, their bells clanging as they looked for food. I was passed by quite a few kayakers, and some motorboat tours. I waved at people as they zip-lined past me.
After a few hours sitting half-in the water on a cloudy day, though, I was shivering and covered in goosebumps. When I saw a guy on the side of the bank waving at me and offering a taxi ride, I gratefully accepted and paid him to take me the rest of the way.
If the weather had been warm and sunny I would have loved tubing all the way to the end, but it was still a good experience.
Did I regret not drinking more? No; in fact, I made up for it later by going to Sakura bar that evening.
Time and place for everything.
If you go…
To party or not to party? If you want to party on the river, spend some time at the first and second bar. There are none later on. Floating around with a few beers could also be fun if you want to BYOB. But please be responsible!
If you don’t want to drink, you don’t have to! Just shake your head, smile at the people shouting at you from the shore, and don’t grab on to the rope if they throw it in your direction.
Be respectful of Lao culture and cover up when not in the water.
If you want to have a chill tubing ride but party later, you can go to Sakura bar, which has free drinks from 8-9 pm, and happy hour from 9-10 pm. I went, thinking I’d just stay for an hour, and ended up staying until midnight (when they close), playing beer pong and dancing.
I wanted to stay somewhere chill and quiet, so I chose Maylyn Guest House. You can stay here very cheaply, I believe, in a bungalow with no bathroom. I splurged and stayed in a very nice hotel room with a lovely balcony that looked out on the mountains. No wifi reception in my room, but otherwise it was great.