Famous throughout the Southeast Asian backpacking world for its river tubing, Vang Vieng also happens to lie in the middle of an amazing karst landscape in central Laos that offers visitors a blue lagoon, amazing caves and beautiful waterfalls. Nevertheless, it’s the tubing that draws large numbers of young visitors looking to enjoy one of the largest party scenes in Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, since August 2012, they may leave town disappointed—the Lao government has shut down the majority of bars along the Song River in an attempt to curb the craziness and perhaps repair the damaged reputation of Vang Vieng. It is unknown when the bars will be allowed to reopen, if ever. Anyone heading to Vang Vieng for the party should ask around to find out the current situation before going.
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit Vang Vieng is during the dry season from November to March, when temperatures are somewhat cooler. March to May is the hot season and the temperatures can reach 40ºC or higher. The wet season runs from May to October and the rains can make traveling around the surrounding area difficult.
Getting to Vang Vieng
Most people arrive in Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang in the north or Vientiane in the south. Local buses and songthaew from Vientiane cost 40,000 Kip and take about 5 hours, while VIP buses and minivans cost 50,000 and take less than 4 hours. From Luang Prabang, minivans cost 120,000 and VIP buses cost 150,000; both take 6-8 hours.The road from the north winds its way through some spectacular mountain scenery and can cause motion sickness or can, in my case, have much more unfortunate—and smelly—consequences. A minibus from Phonsavan costs 110,000 Kip and takes 7 to 8 hours.
All forms of transport either drop you off right downtown on the main street or at the old airfield, which is just behind the main street, about a 2 minute walk away. There’s no need to take a tuk tuk if you plan on staying in or near the city center.
You can walk pretty much anywhere in town. If you do take a tuk tuk, they will probably charge at least 10,000 during the daytime and astronomical rates at night if returning from the bars.
Bikes can be rented for 10,000 Kip and motorbikes from 40,000 Kip; both are excellent ways to see the surrounding countryside.
Accommodation in Vang Vieng is as cheap as it gets in Laos and there is no shortage of rooms. I wouldn’t bother booking ahead here; just show up and check out a few places until you find a room and a price you like.
If you prefer to have something arranged in advance, Pan’s Place Guesthouse is one of the nicer places and cheap to boot. If you want to splurge, the Riverside Boutique Resort is easily the nicest place in town and you can get rooms there for under $80.
Eating & Drinking
Note: I went to Vang Vieng in March 2011, so I don’t know what exactly has changed since the government started its crackdown. All I know is that the bars along the river that were frequented by tubers in the afternoons were still closed at the time of writing (October 2012). The paragraph below describes what I saw in 2011.
Vang Vieng is the only place in Laos with a party scene, but it more than makes up for the rest of the country. Beginning in the afternoon, the bars along the Song River start filling up as tubers float in off the water for a few drinks. There’s no need to float there, though; you can just walk in if you’d rather not be bothered having to keep track of an inner tube. As the tubing dies down for the day, the party moves downtown and to the island in the river. The bars on the island really get going once the places in town close for the night.
Alcohol is cheap and often even free, as bar owners try to entice people to come to, and then stay in, their establishments. Drugs and drinks with drugs are freely available at many, if not most, of the bars.
Vang Vieng has a seemingly endless supply of restaurants that almost appear to share a menu—they all serve basically the same dishes and they taste average to bad everywhere. They also all have the American television shows “Friends” and “Family Guy” playing on their TVs all day and night long. I guess when your customers are usually drunk or stoned or both, you don’t really have to worry about details like flavor.
You will find a few places around town that have a different menu and some of those even serve good food. Your first clue to finding a good restaurant is the absence of “Friends” or “Family Guy.” Pancake and sandwich stalls serve the cheapest food, but it’s not especially great. You’ll find a few vendors on the street by the river selling chicken and pork skewers for 5000 Kip—they say it’s chicken and pork anyway…
Statistically, Vang Vieng is an incredibly dangerous place and pretty much all of those dangers relate to tubing, which is the main reason for the government crackdown. Several people a year die on the river, mostly from diving headfirst onto rocks. The swings, zip lines and slides that caused so many injuries and a few deaths have largely been removed and now that the bars are shut down, I suppose the accident rate will decrease quite a bit.
If the bars ever reopen, go ahead and drink while tubing, but remember this rule: if you can’t walk, you also can’t tube. Save your heavy drinking for later, when you’re off the river.
Pink eye has been nicknamed the “Vang Vieng Plague” due to its prevalence among tubers. Eye-drops help and should be purchased as soon as you notice symptoms (tiredness, eyes difficult to open all the way); they should not cost more than 20,000 Kip. After-hours pharmacies will often try to charge unsuspecting (and usually drunk) tourists five times that.
When tubing, note that some of the places that rent the tubes also hire people to steal those very same tubes from the bars while you are having a good time. That way, you will be forced to forfeit your deposit.
Things to Do
- Tubing: Even with the bars closed, I’m sure tubing down the Nam Song will remain a popular activity (although much less popular than before); 50,000 Kip for a tube and 60,000 for the deposit; note that some of the dry bags they give you don’t work as they should—if you have something that absolutely needs to stay dry, consider buying your own (and testing it first)
- Tham Poukham: beautiful blue lagoon that’s a great place to swim, relax and play on the rope swing; 7 km west of town and easily reached by bike or motorbike (maps provided when you rent one); 8AM-6PM, go early and have the place mostly to yourself or go in the afternoon and hang out with hungover tubers
- Caves: a number of caves dot the karst mountains surrounding Vang Vieng; most can be missed, but some are quite nice; rent a bike or motorbike and spend a day visiting a few caves as well as the waterfall and anything else on the map that sounds interesting to you (you’ll get a map from the rental place)
- Kayaking: kayaking tours generally include lunch and a few caves
- Rock Climbing: the surrounding mountains offer climbing opportunities for all skill levels
- Hot Air Balloon: a balloon ride over Vang Vieng offers unparalleled views of the landscape; US $70
Money Saving Tips
Vang Vieng is one of the cheaper places in Laos and you will be hard pressed to spend a lot of money here, even if you go out drinking every night.
- walk to your accommodation from where the bus drops you off (it usually won’t take longer than 5 or 10 minutes)
- avoid tuk tuks and walk or rent a bicycle instead
- eat local food at street stalls or small restaurants; avoid the generic restaurants (although they’re generally not all that expensive either)
- never accept the first price on anything—bargaining is expected
- get a haircut at this place; don’t forget to bargain
- you can go drinking without tubing; just walk from bar to bar—not only do you save 50,000 Kip on the tube, there’s a good chance you save the deposit too, as many tubes ‘disappear’ and even if you do hold on to it all day, the return times are pretty early and easy to miss