Tucked away in the heart of Laos is a little town called Vang Vieng. Once, it had a notorious reputation as a place of drunkenness, debauchery, and the alarmingly frequent accidental deaths of tourists. Young people, particularly Australians, Europeans, and North Americans, flocked there in droves for cheap drinks, the easy accessibility of illicit drugs, and a nonstop party.
Thankfully, this hard-raging town has cleaned up its act within the past few years, transforming from a hedonistic madhouse to an adventure travel mecca. There are a thousand reasons to put Laos on your list if you’re considering a trip to Southeast Asia, but I’m happy to say that Vang Vieng is setting itself apart as one of the best.
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In late January of 2011, we arrived in Vang Vieng a few weeks into our backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. We had entered Laos in a blaze of glory, or so we felt, having hurried across the Mekong River at sunset and gotten our stamps at the nondescript passport control office just as they were about to turn off the lights for the night. A two-day “slowboat” ride had brought us down the Mekong, leaving us awestruck at the beauty of the Lao countryside and thanking our stars that we had bought cheap cushions to spare our backsides during the long hours on the uncomfortable boat. We explored the lovely city of Luang Prabang and hiked the mountains and waterfalls in the surrounding area, agreeing that Laos was blowing us away with its incredible scenery. Now, fresh off a bumpy and crowded 4.5-hour bus ride, we were ready to see what Vang Vieng had to offer.
By 2011, Vang Vieng had become a major destination for backpackers and other tourists looking to let loose. Most of the action centered on tubing the Nam Song, which was actually what drew us to the town in the first place. For a few dollars, you could rent an inflated tube and get dropped off a few kilometers upstream from town. From there, you spent the day floating the river and stopping at any number of riverside bars along the way. It sounded like a fun, relaxing day, and we couldn’t wait to try it out.
It was dusk, and we quickly got caught up in a crowd of hundreds of revelers returning from their day on the river. Before our eyes, loud, rowdy, scantily-clad people inundated the town, many of them struggling to stay balanced and/or upright. Waiting to embrace them were streets crammed with noisy bars and restaurants offering cheap drinks; “happy” menus full of marijuana, magic mushrooms, and opium in a variety of forms; and episodes of “Family Guy” and “Friends” blaring endlessly from mounted televisions.
To say we were culture shocked would be putting it lightly. After three months in South America and a few weeks in Asia, I was no stranger to the backpacker scene. I had taken part in my fair share of nights out on the town, whether that be heading out for dinner and a couple of drinks or spending time in a hostel bar meeting new people. In South America, to my delight, nights out often involved going dancing at one of the ubiquitous discotecas.
Vang Vieng, however, took things to a whole new level. It seemed that the entire purpose of being there was to get as quickly and efficiently obliterated as possible and somehow keep that buzz rolling for the length of the day. Lao culture may as well not have existed, and very little was offered by way of diversions that didn’t have to do with drinking. The entire town seemed to have evolved to serve the hedonistic pleasures of the tourist hordes, flying alarmingly in the face of the values and social mores of this conservative, Communist country.
But when in Rome, right? We had come to Vang Vieng to tube, and by golly, we were going to do it. The next day found us renting our inflatable rings and getting dropped a few kilometers upstream with a Canadian, a Scot, and a few Swedes who would become our crew for the afternoon.
And, I have to admit: I had a lot of fun.
I was disappointed to discover that there was less floating involved than I thought, but it was still fun to hop in your tube for a quick and refreshing drift down the river and then be pulled into the next bar along the way. At every establishment, employees stood on platforms, calling out to tubers and tossing weighted ropes to drag them in for a drink.
For those seeking a little more excitement – or perhaps just inebriated enough to make dangerous decisions – many of the bars were outfitted with waterslides, zip lines, rope swings, and other roughly constructed methods for adding some thrill to your day. People lined up to give these death traps a try, and there was a constant flow of daredevils rocketing down the rickety slides. I wasn’t remotely tempted toward trying these out, but some in our group did and had a blast.
Although we didn’t witness any injuries or emergencies during our day on the river (thank goodness), the combination of heavy intoxication, shallow water, and a quick current had become increasingly deadly in the years and months leading up to and following our visit. A tragic number of carefree revelers didn’t make it out of the river alive, contributing to the pressures that would eventually shut down the entire Vang Vieng tubing operation.
As the sun set on our day of fun and we returned our tubes, the party was still going strong on the river. We nevertheless returned our tubes and made our way back into town for some delicious baguette sandwiches (a legacy of Laos’s history as a French protectorate) accompanied by episodes of “Family Guy.”
Today, Vang Vieng looks radically different. As a result of international pressures fueled by the surge of backpacker deaths, the Lao government cracked down hard on the revelry both on and off the river. Most of the bars along the tubing route have been closed, and the dangerous slides, ziplines, and swings have been torn down. Restrictions on noise and alcohol sales mean that bars close earlier, and tubing, while still a major draw, is tightly controlled.
The focus in Vang Vieng has now shifted from intoxicating substances to the intoxicating beauty of one of the most stunning regions of Southeast Asia. Instead of looking for a party, people are now visiting to take part in activities like hiking, rock climbing, biking, caving, and other endeavors that showcase the incredible Lao countryside. Rather than being shoved aside in favor of booze buckets and American sitcom reruns, Lao culture is returning to a more central place. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and one that has been met with relief by locals.
Even though I enjoyed my time tubing, there was very little mourning from me when I heard that the bars along the river had been shuttered. I couldn’t be happier that this gorgeous area is now getting attention for its natural attractions rather than its inebriating ones, as experiencing them the next day ended up being a highlight of our time in Vang Vieng and Laos in general.
After our day on the Nam Song, we had no desire to join the hungover, sunburnt crowds as they headed off for another round on the river the next morning. Instead, my two traveling companions, our Scottish and Canadian tubing buddies, and I decided to get away from the drunken bubble of Vang Vieng and explore the surrounding countryside. I’m so glad that we did, and I can now fully endorse the new focus on outdoor activities happening in the area.
For us, the adventure took the form of renting motorbikes and bicycles and hitting the road. Within easy distance of the town center are a number of caves and attractions, not to mention the stunning views of limestone mountains and colorful fields to be found around every turn. It was glorious to be out on the road, which was nearly empty save for a few locals and herds of cattle. We mostly rode without an agenda, reveling in the beauty around us and occasionally stopping to check out a cave or particularly awe-inspiring vista. Now, the tourist infrastructure is better developed and there are lots of options for adventure, including everything from sunset hikes to kayaking to hot air balloon rides!
Our final destination was an out-of-the-way place called the Blue Lagoon. There, tourists and a few locals lounged in the shade or took a dip in the lovely, eponymous swimming hole. It was quiet and peaceful, a welcome reprieve from the noisy madness of Vang Vieng, and the water was cool and refreshing.
More daring visitors can leap from the sturdy upper branches of the tree in the photo above (without the fear of death present on the river), and a row of open, mat-lined wooden huts provided a shaded place to nap off any lingering effects from the tubing. Picnic tables were scattered about the area, and there was a small snack bar selling refreshments. A short walk away was the entrance to Pou Kham Cave, providing an opportunity for even more exploration.
Finally, we had to tear ourselves away from the Blue Lagoon and return to town, pleased with our decision to leave the busyness behind and experience more of what northern Laos had to offer. The sun was setting as we pedaled and motored back into Vang Vieng, casting a golden light on the red, dusty streets and setting the karst mountains on glorious fire. It was the perfect end to a great day, and I can only imagine how much greater the days are now that the region’s adventure travel infrastructure is more developed!
In many ways, the old Vang Vieng is dead. Gone are the hordes of drunken, half-naked tubers, the ramshackle bars perched precariously along the edge of the Nam Song, the music blaring over a drug-fueled rave in the center of a town filled with tourist bars playing endless American sitcoms. It died a victim of its own excesses, to the delight of weary town residents, the international community, and those looking for more cultural or eco-friendly experiences.
In its place is rising a new Vang Vieng, a town worthy of being considered a must-stop on the Southeast Asian backpacking trail. The new Vang Vieng no longer flies in the face of what it means to be Lao; rather, it is evolving to help visitors appreciate it. It is now easier than ever to use Vang Vieng as a base to experience some of the most remarkable and beautiful natural wonders in the country, rather than simply using it as a means to a drunken end that you may or may not remember… or survive.
From our eleventh-hour border crossing in Huay Xai to our final nights in Vientiane, Laos was an unexpected delight. Add this quiet and under-appreciated country to your list before the rest of the world catches on, and don’t forget about the new Vang Vieng.
Tips for Visiting Vang Vieng, Laos
- Vang Vieng is easily accessible by bus from Luang Prabang (4 – 5 hours) or the capital, Vientiane (3.5 – 4.5 hours).
- While the party atmosphere in town is a shade of what it once was, my research suggests that drugs (particularly marijuana, mushrooms, and opium) are still easy to find in Vang Vieng. Use caution around your drinks and beware of “happy” menus. While drugs may be openly advertised, punishments
if you’re caught partakingmay be severe.
- The town center isn’t all that attractive, so consider finding accommodations out in the countryside.
- The roads may be in better shape now, but when we visited it was a bit tough to bicycle farther from town. I ended up hiding my bike in some brush and hopping on the back of a friend’s moto. (Though, to be fair, I was nursing a newly broken toe at the time.) Consider a motorbike if you’re planning to go farther afield, or consult folks in town about the condition of the roads you’re looking to take to decide which is your best option.
- Have some kip (Lao currency) on hand to pay entrance fees at any caves, lagoons, and other attractions at which you may stop along the way. Remember that some bathrooms may also charge a small fee. Don’t forget to bring a little toilet paper with you just in case none is provided.
- Make sure to pack water, and it’s also a good idea to have some snacks on hand.
- Don’t forget your sunscreen!
yourrenting a tube, moto, or bicycle, make sure you understand what time it is due back and budget your hours accordingly to avoid late fees.
Have you been to Laos? How was your experience there?
Have you been to any place that has changed considerably since you left?
What do you consider to be the highs and lows of “backpacker culture”?
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This article about the transformation of Vang Vieng, Laos was originally published on May 22, 2018, and last updated on May 22, 2021.
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