Tourists and locals alike have mixed feelings about Vang Vieng. Ten years ago, Vang Vieng was a sleepy village in the Laos countryside, but it is now a backpacker mecca, well known for adventure sports (especially tubing), happy pizzas, mushroom shakes, and cheap beer. The main streets of town are lined with guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and tour agencies. While tourism has pumped significant funds into the local economy, many Lao people we spoke to bemoaned the impact of such unhampered development on the traditional Lao way of life, which many feel has been compromised. What everyone can agree on, however, is that Vang Vieng is simply beautiful.
We arrived in Vang Vieng after a four-hour bus trip from Vientiane. After checking into our hotel we walked into the centre of town to look around. It was mid afternoon, and the town seemed virtually empty, apart from small groups of tourists lounging on cushions in bars, (bizarrely) glued to TV sets showing re-runs of Friends, The Simpsons, and The Family Guy. After a while we decided to get some food with another couple we had met on the bus. As the day wore on, we started to see groups of tourists returning from a day of tubing – many of them limping, bruised and sunburned. We started to feel a bit old and out of place…this was a town for munters!
Tubing, the most popular activity in Vang Vieng, involves floating down the river in an inner tube, stopping at the numerous makeshift bars that have been built along the riverbanks. The bars boast all sorts of attractions, such as rope swings, water slides, pumping music and mud wrestling, while whiskey buckets, free shots of local Lao Lao, and the ever-popular Beer Lao flow freely. The object is usually to get pretty drunk, hence the predominance of limping and bandaged tourists in town. In fact, tourists are quite regularly killed (usually drowned) or seriously injured while tubing. Tourists who are legless by lunchtime hardly make a good impression on the local people, and its not surprising that the locals sometimes treat you with indifference, or even hostility.
Luckily, there is more to Vang Vieng than uninhibited self-indulgence. We decided to take a caving and kayaking tour, and had a great day. The tour kicked off with a ride out of town, then a short walk to a small river which flows out of an underground spring, deep inside a hill. We were provided with tubes and lights strapped onto our foreheads, then we floated through this underground tunnel, hauling ourselves along with the help of a rope strung up between stalagmites. It took about 30 minutes to get to the end of the tunnel where the water flowed up from below. It was pitch black, totally quiet (except for our splashes) and so eerie.
After lunch we got into kayaks and paddled down the Nam Song river – the infamous tubing route – stopping at the Mud Bar on the way past. For some reason, the river and bars were very quiet that day. It had poured with rain all morning, so perhaps the tubers were munching happy pizzas back in town.
We arrived back in town in the late afternoon feeling pretty satisfied with our day. I am not an adventure sports-girl by any stretch of the imagination, but tubing through caves and kayaking down a river made me feel pretty outdoorsy. Emboldened, the next day we hired a motorcross bike, and along with Arturo (who we met the day before), we rode up into the hills for the day. It was fantastic to be out of town, exploring the beautiful countryside and riding through small villages.
Towards the end of the day we were pretty hot, so we took refuge in a beautiful little lagoon with blue water.
The roads were pretty terrible. One was so stoney that it felt like we were riding along a dry riverbed. Others were muddy and slippery, and we actually had a small tumble at one point (the bald-ish tyres and dodgy suspension compounded the slippery conditions – luckily we were going very slow at the time). Unfortunately the spill damaged the clutch lever, and while our bike was still ride-able, we knew we would be responsible for funding the repairs when we returned it. We found a small motorbike repair shop in a village, and were able to get a screw to repair part of the problem, but we had to go back to town to get a lever. These two small jobs set us back 37,000 kip, or less than $6 NZ. Later, after dropping off the bike covered in mud, we scoffed a chicken sandwich from a street vendor, showered at the hotel, then enjoyed dinner and a late night talking to Brendan and Melissa who we had met earlier that day at the lagoon. A full and satisfying day indeed.
Our three days in Vang Vieng ended up being the most fun we have had on our trip up to this point. We met so many nice people, ate well, enjoyed the beautiful landscape, and got dirty two days in a row. We were sad to leave.