I read this post well over a year ago when we were researching about where to go in South East Asia. Upon reading about Vang Vieng my exact words were “that looks like my own personal hell, not a chance we’re going there”. I completely understand that everyone is into different things when travelling and there are tons of people who would love to spend their days completely wasted while floating down a river on a rubber tube and enjoying the odd coma inducing slingshot into the same river. Ok, that’s fairly harsh and a lot of people simply went to have a party filled few days with their mates in the lovely Laos countryside. It’s just not our thing and the sensible, old lady side of me thinks booze + backpacker + rock laden river + inner tube = a big mess. With much trepidation we ended up in the same town just a few weeks ago and my oh my how it has changed.

Bamboo bridge over the Nam Song

Bamboo bridge over the Nam Song

In November 2012 the government cracked down on the number of bars in Vang Vieng, terrifyingly 22 people died there just last year from injuries received when tubing, slingshotting etc into the fairly shallow water and the town was starting to get a pretty bad reputation. What very few people tell you about Vang Vieng is that it’s actually in a really beautiful part of the country and there are loads of outdoor activities (not involving alcohol) you can fill your days with. Herein lies the problem… the tubing/bars end of the town looks like some sort of post-apocalyptic backpacker ghost town. As we kayaked down the river one day we saw the remains of burnt down bars, the old signs advertising free drinks and the plinths the zip-lines and slingshots were once launched from. It was really quite creepy and is spoiling the otherwise gorgeous countryside.

 

The stunning countryside just outside of Vang Vieng

The stunning countryside just outside of Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng feels like it’s trapped between its old backpacker party rep and the potential to become a real outdoor adventure town. The problem is, unless it is given a real PR overhaul and the locals realise they need to seriously change their target market then I can see the tourist income from the town dying away. We did one tour which involved a trip to some temples, some tubing inside a cave and then a few hours kayaking on the river. The trip was great but one downside was that the guides then stopped at one of the few remaining bars for about 90 minutes when every single person in our group just wanted to be on the river, none of us were interested in drinking. To make up for the loss in beer revenue they could ramp up the adventure tour offerings to be more comprehensive and charge a lot more money. Our trip for the full day was only £12 and this included a substantial lunch.

 

We head out for a walk to Tham Chang cave

We head out for a walk to Tham Chang cave

I got fairly sick in Vang Vieng so was out of action for 3 of the 6 days we visited. However, I was desperate to get better due to the sheer amount of things to see and do. There are countless caves to explore, some of them are simply out of this world. You can trek in the countryside, go zip-lining through jungle, rock climbing, spelunking, kayaking. We spent one day at the lovely Blue Lagoon swimming hole with a bunch of tourists and local people enjoying the sun and the blissfully refreshing water. I had never even heard of most of these things before we arrived because the party side of tubing is all anyone ever talked about. I just hope tour company owners realise they can make a lot more of what is on offer.

 

Sunday afternoon at the Blue Lagoon - tourists and local families hang out

Sunday afternoon at the Blue Lagoon – tourists and local families hang out

We were visiting towards the end of the season but we spoke to a few locals who explained that even in the high season there had been considerably less visitors than normal. The people seem to be hanging onto the tubing legacy and that won’t produce the revenue they need unless the government has a change of heart about the bar scene. If not then a lot of people are going to be much worse off financially.

 

Gorgeous colours

Gorgeous colours

If you are like Paul and I, people who love the outdoors and any sort of adventure activity, then give the new version of Vang Vieng a chance. If you still want to go tubing then don’t skip Vang Vieng simply because the bar scene has died a death, you could still have a great time. You will contribute to potentially saving the town’s tourist income and may also be incredibly surprised at what you find.

 

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12 Responses

  1. Kim

    This is good to know. I’d heard of the tubing and decided to avoid the place all together. Now that I know it isn’t a total drunkin’ mess I will go. They can attract new visitors (and they’ll probably be the sort of visitors they’d rather have!)
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    • Maddie

      I really hope it will evolve and start bringing in a different crowd, it would be to the benefit of the town (provided they can increase their income).

      Reply
  2. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    For so long, one of the things I wanted to do in South East Asia was go to Vang Vieng and go tubing. I didn’t want to do it shitfaced or anything like that, I just wanted to drift in a tube down a river. And then I heard about all the gross stuff that happens in Vang Vieng & we decided that when we went to Laos, we would probably skip the city altogether as everything seemed to revolve around the drunken party scene that really just isn’t our thing. Now, however it sounds like the town is on the cusp of something really great, better than before, and it would certainly be something I’d be interested in checking out. I do know what you mean, though, about how places that have had their main source of tourism taken away from them feel slightly haunted as we had a similar experience in one town in the Philippines. Hopefully the town will be able to get back on its feet and be even better than before.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Coming Home in TaipeiMy Profile

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    • Maddie

      It was very strange, there are still a couple of bars open and there were some die hard backpackers still trying to make a party of out it. There were also still plenty of people tubing, just not wasted! We were there at the end of the dry season so the river was incredibly low and I would have been worried about hitting rocks but in peak season I’m sure it’s great fun. You should definitely give it a go.

      Reply
  3. Brian

    I hope that Vang Vieng re-invents itself, as you said, and outdoor adventure destination spot. I love floating down a river, and now that the river isn’t clogged with wasted backpackers, maybe its a better experience! I am glad that you gave Vang Vieng a second chance – after your description, we probably will, too.
    Brian recently posted..Stuck on the Annapurna CircuitMy Profile

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    • Maddie

      I really hope so too. I just think the word needs to get out that if you’re not into partying you can still have a good time there, it was never mentioned before now. It’s definitely worth a few day exploration.

      Reply
  4. Phil

    To me, Vang Vieng was not much different from many places in SE Asia that are popular on the backpacker route. If you wanted to get drunk, then you could. If you wanted to distance yourself from it, you could. We did tubing one day and had a few beers. Sitting in a tube with a cold beer and enjoying the scenery was a great experience, so I’m a little sad that it is no longer possible.

    Still, those rope swings were REALLY dangerous!

    Reply
    • Maddie

      We’d obviously not been before but from what I’ve seen on videos the only place it looks like is a Full Moon party. To each there own completely but some of the behaviour I’ve seen from backpackers there is pretty disgraceful and I’ve no idea why people think that simply because they’re in South East Asia common sense doesn’t apply. Maybe we’re just old but I could not think of anything worse. You can still have a great time lazing down the river with a beer in your hand, there just aren’t 10+ bars rammed with people and blaring out music.

      Reply
  5. Daniel McBane

    I spent a week in Vang Vieng, but never actually went tubing. That’s not to say I didn’t visit a few (and then a few more) bars, but I just walked in instead of floating in. It seemed safer.

    My favorite activity in Vang Vieng was renting a motorbike and just cruising around the countryside and through neighboring villages with my camera. The area is stunning.

    As for the tubing, I gave it a try (alcohol-free) a month or so later at the 4000 islands in the south of the country. It seemed more impressive to do it in the Mekong than that tiny little river in Vang Vieng anyway.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Just Another Tale of Love on the Road…or is it?My Profile

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    • Maddie

      The thing that surprised us the most was how many other things there are to do, all you ever used to hear about was the bars and tubing and I’d written it off purely on that. I think if more people learn about the stunning countryside then it has a chance of reinvention.

      Reply
  6. Alissa

    Great post! We went to Vang Vieng last month and had a great time. We tubed the river and had a few beers, but like you alluded too, it was more relaxing than crazy, a great way to spend a day in the sun. We also biked to the blue lagoon and liked that too, seeing the countryside and villages on the way. The “ghost” town was strange, but I was happy to not be staring at wasted 20-year-olds, so I’ll take the rotting wood anyday 🙂 Check out our before and after photos here, from our research post-trip http://www.thisworldrocks.com/destinations/asia/southeast-asia/laos/party-town-ruins-vang-vieng-before-and-after/
    Alissa recently posted..Discovering the Tea Villages of Myanmar’s Shan StateMy Profile

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    • Maddie

      Wow Alissa great post! Spookily similar to our thoughts and I love the before and after photos. We hadn’t been before so I’d only seen videos and that was enough to put me off, but it’s so interesting to see old and new compared side by side. I really hope Vang Vieng has got a future as it would be a huge shame if people missed out on such a beautiful place.

      Reply

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