Change comes slowly to Laos, but VANG VIENG, the once-sleepy town that reclines on the east bank of the Nam Song River between towering limestone karsts, is something of a rare exception. Just half a decade ago, the main street was a potholed track, crowds were rare, and accommodation was limited to a handful of guesthouses. Then as thousands of party-hungry backpackers descended on the self-styled “tubing capital of the world”, the Lao government found itself struggling to control an inland version of Thailand’s Ko Pha Ngan. Today “happy shakes” appear on restaurant menus more often than authentic Lao dishes, and countless bars, internet cafés and market stalls all compete for the backpacker buck.
Despite the tourist droves, Vang Vieng is still jaw-droppingly beautiful, and you could easily spend a week here cycling, cave exploring, tubing, rafting and hiking, or simply relaxing and enjoying the idyllic landscape. There’s also no disputing one fact: the place is a lot of fun.
Around Vang Vieng
Around Vang Vieng
The countryside surrounding Vang Vieng is full of enough day-trip options to easily fill up a week. Scores of caves in limestone karst outcrops, tranquil lowland Lao and minority villages, and Kaeng Yui Waterfall, all make worthy destinations for a rewarding day’s hike (if walking isn’t your thing, you can hire bicycles or motorbikes from various outlets around town), while the Nam Song River makes for a fun afternoon of tubing, kayaking or rafting – tubes can be rented from shops near the post office. Aside from a number of organized tours around Vang Vieng itself, there are also one- to three-day excursions to Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir that can be booked through most guesthouses.
Organized day tours, many of which combine both caving and tubing with lunch in between, are a fast and convenient way for the uninitiated to get into the Vang Vieng groove: once you’ve done the tour you can go back for more on your own. It’s not hard to find a guided tour – just look for signs posted in restaurants and guesthouses. If you do opt to join a tour, be sure to check how many people will be in the group. Some agents have few qualms about stuffing twenty people into a single sawngthaew, which not only spoils a good walk but can seriously hasten the onset of claustrophobia if tramping about several hundred metres underground.
If you decide to visit the caves on your own, it’s worth getting hold of one of the hand-drawn maps of the Vang Vieng area which show all the caves and trails; they’re available from several of the restaurants and guesthouses in town. Otherwise just ask around; everyone in Vang Vieng has their favourite cave, swimming hole or countryside getaway. The local people are more than happy to point you in the right direction, and other travellers will also enthusiastically recommend the best places. If you’re looking to explore areas north or south of town, there’s enough local transport in the form of buses and sawngthaews plying Route 13 to get you up and down the highway cheaply. Or, if you prefer something quick and easy, just hire a tuk-tuk (the stand is at the market), which will gladly wait for you for the right price.
Most of Vang Vieng’s attractions lie on the west bank of the Nam Song. There’s now a permanent toll bridge crossing the river (4000K for pedestrians, 6000K for bikes and 10,000K for motorcycles) or, in the dry season, you can cross using the rickety bamboo bridge towards the north of town. The pirogues down by Thavonsouk Resort will still ferry people across for 5000K. On the other side, Chinese-made tractors trundle along the bumpy paths to nearby villages, acting as makeshift shared taxis that aren’t entirely comfortable but are at least faster than walking. You can simply flag them down as you would a bus or tuk-tuk – expect to pay 5000K for journeys of up to 1km, then 2000K for each extra kilometre.
There are several kayaking and rafting companies operating in Vang Vieng. For more strenuous outdoor activities, Green Discovery (t023/511230, whttp://www.greendiscoverylaos.com) has a number of options, including day-trip packages as well as overnight hiking and kayaking excursions. The same company was also behind Laos’s first fully operational rock-climbing site, featuring fifty different bolted routes – graded from 5b (tricky) to 8c (very difficult) on the internationally recognized French grading system – in the Vang Vieng area. A day’s climbing costs $47 with equipment, a guide and lunch.
Tubing the Nam Song
Tubing the Nam Song
Love or hate what it’s done to the place, tubing is Vang Vieng’s premier attraction. In fact, for some people, it’s the very reason they ended up in Laos. What started as an inventive way to spend a lazy afternoon floating down the Nam Song has rapidly evolved into an all-you-can-drink party on the river, and it‘s fairly common for people to turn up without tubes and just swim between the first few riverside bars before jumping in a tuk-tuk for the ride back into town. Most of these watering holes lure punters in with free shots of lào-láo and, as if to test your mettle, have built giant rope-swings and slides over the river. Naturally it’s a lot of fun, but be careful – people have died here.
If you decide to go for the authentic tubing experience, tubes are available from shops near the post office for around $14 per day (including a $7 deposit, refundable if you return the tube before 6pm). This includes a tuk-tuk ride upriver to the main launching point, 3km north of town near the Organic Mulberry Farm. A float back into town should take two hours from here, but you could easily spend the whole day dancing, drinking and playing mud volleyball at the bars along the way. It’s important to leave enough time to get back before dark however, as it gets cold and it becomes almost impossible to see where you’re going in the fast-flowing water. If you’re a weak swimmer, wear a life jacket while tubing – the shops supplying the inner tubes should provide them. A good sunblock is also essential if you don’t want to come out looking like a lobster; the tropical sun is powerful, even on overcast days.
Dress for success in Vang Vieng
Dress for success in Vang Vieng
The varied terrain surrounding Vang Vieng can turn treacherous in a hurry, particularly during the rainy season. Exercise caution while wandering through caves and scrambling about on the steep slopes of the karst formations, as serious injuries incurred by foolhardy travellers while tramping about in the area are common. Slippery trails demand that proper shoes be worn – Teva-style sandals with good traction are the best for conquering Vang Vieng’s alternately rocky and muddy trails. Bermuda-type shorts are also a good sartorial choice as you may end up knee-deep in water at some point if you intend to enjoy the countryside to the fullest. A re-sealable plastic bag for valuables such as money and your passport is an excellent idea. Do not leave your valuables with local kids or teenagers, who may offer to “look after them for you” while you explore a cave, and make sure you get back to town before dark – robberies have been reported.
Finally, while it may be tempting to wander around in your swimming gear (and it’s very common to see travellers walking around town half-naked), always remember that in Laos gratuitous displays of flesh are considered a form of rudeness and disrespect.