Until 2012, Vang Vieng was one of the best places in the world to party. It was a hedonist’s fantasy, with dirt cheap alcohol and drugs and where anything was acceptable. The bars that facilitated this reckless abandon were placed funnily enough along the banks of the Nam Song River. To access them, you jump into a big rubber ring and float downstream, being pulled into the bars by the staff. You could also travel between bars by ziplines or rickety bridges. Other activities were available such as slides and jumps into the water. Get wasted and swim in the river with a bunch of other backpacker buddies in a beautiful environment. On paper it sounds like good fun but the morbid reality was that numerous people would die each year. Whether they overdosed on the drugs, drowned in the fast flowing Nam Song or smashed their head on the rocky river bottom after coming off a slide or zipline, many young people met their end here. So many that the government actually stepped in and closed most of the bars and effectively ended Vang Vieng’s party.
Fast forward to March 2016 and that’s when our two handsome heroes arrive in town. By this point, Vang Vieng has attempted to reinvent itself as a kind of ecotourism hotspot, with trekking, kayaking and caving being the main attractions… however tubing still happens here, albeit more sedately than before. Only two bars remain on the river now and nothing is left of the zip lines and death slides. We had opted to only stay two nights in Vang Vieng because although set in a beautiful place, partying wasn’t really our thing so we didn’t see cause to linger. We did however decide to go tubing.
But first allow me to tell you about our first impressions of the town. We had paid 120,000Kip (£10 or 20AUD) each for the bus to Vang Vieng, which had taken up a fair amount of our daily budget. So we were extremely infuriated when the minibus dropped us just far enough away that we had to pay for a tuk tuk (another 20,000K each) into town. Super annoying! With that in mind, we weren’t predisposed to see Vang Vieng in a positive light. I mean it would have been hard to anyway because apart from the stunning scenery on the other side of the river the town was a hole. Ramshackle buildings lined dirt roads and there were numerous abandoned construction sites left to rot. The most glamorous building looked like a Las Vegas strip club. On top of all that, there were numerous half naked tourists drunkenly screaming and being a nuisance. We weren’t too impressed.
We checked into our surprisingly spacious and good value room before heading out to meet our friends from Luang Prabang. We found them in an overpriced Australian bar where we endured some average burgers. From people who had arrived the night before we heard stories about how St. Patricks Day had gone down here, and also one guys harrowing visit to the local hospital. After dinner our next stop was Sakura Bar across the street, where between 8 and 9 they offered unlimited free (watered down) whiskey. Sakura Bar was pretty famous because if you bought two vodkas you got a free singlet with the bar’s name on – an absolute necessity if you wanted to look your coolest whilst travelling through the rest of Laos. We’d be seeing this top very often once we left Vang Vieng much to our chagrin.
The next day was tubing day. We met up with our group at 11 and headed to the place where you rent your tube. You pay 55,000K for the tube and a 60,000K deposit. You jump in a tuk tuk that drives you 3km up the road to the starting point, which also funnily enough happens to be the first bar. An entirely western bar staff cajole you into buying drinks that cost twice as much as they do in town, while inviting you to play beer pong with them. Sounds like fun right? Well not for Jake and me.
The staff were just the worst and the last type of people I wanted to hang out with. They didn’t seem cool to me at all. The guys were laddish and looked bored as hell and the girls were clearly faking how outgoing and wild they were. I definitely wasn’t buying it, and particularly didn’t fancy buying a beer at 11:30 in the morning, so I kind of stood off to the side admiring the view which was the only reason I was here. After we’d heard enough of Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean”, Jake and I went to grab our tubes and start the journey down the river. A couple of staff tried to coax us into staying – there was only one more bar and if we left now no one would be there! If we stayed we could play drinking games and have loads of fun, because after all…
“Going tubing is more about getting drunk than tubing.”
That’s literally what the absolute cretin in front of me said. It was difficult to grasp her immense stupidity and the lack of logic in that statement. Essentially she was trying to spin that I had paid 135,000K (£12) for a 10 minute tuk tuk ride to a bar so I could buy beers for twice the cost of everywhere else and hang out with completely asinine morons who waste their money and do this pointless pastime every day. Our response was to quickly leave and commence our tubing adventure down the Nam Song.
Tubing down the river was lovely. We were some of the first people to start so we were mostly by ourselves except for the occasional kayaking group passing us or local on riverbank yelling “sabaidee!”. The scenery was amazing, and we saw a lot of interesting sights, like a herd of cows swimming across the river, people collecting some unknown creature for their next meal from the shallows, a local bar floating on the water that looked fun and a narrow bamboo bridge that shook every time a bike or cart went over it. The river was low due to it being late in the dry season so the current was quite slow, except for a few places where the water passed over rocks that made us flow a little quicker. We made it back to town safely and long before the 6pm deadline (you lost your deposit if you were late, meaning most people stay at the bars till 5 and then tuk tuk back to town (another 10,000K)).
We caught up with some of the other guys later and they said things had been a little wild at the second bar, with people getting quite drunk and hooking up with strangers at like 4pm, which seemed pretty inappropriate to them. Laotians are a modest people and public displays of affection or partial nudity are big no nos, not that many tourists seem to give a damn.
Overall, we found Vang Vieng to be full of an especially inconsiderate and disrespectful kind of traveller, the kind that doesn’t care a jot that they’re in a foreign country with a different culture or customs to their own and just selfishly wanna get shitfaced. It was optimised for us by the Australian guy who called us “pussies” loudly on the street when we declined his shouted invitation to go in his bar, and the other sad sad people who begged us to stay and spend money on drinks. Having a good party is obviously awesome, but doing it here didn’t appeal to us one bit. You don’t need to trash a village in Laos, offend locals, risk your safety, pay inflated prices or pressure others so you can have a good time. For us, Vang Vieng sucked (besides the scenery) so we left. We weren’t remotely sad to leave for Laos’ capital city, Vientiane.