Once upon a time, Vang Vieng was one of those places along the SE Asian Backpacker’s Trail that made one wonder how it ever got its start. Just a tiny village in rural Laos, with nothing of note save a few karst limestone formations in the area, a couple of caves, and a slow-moving river, Vang Vieng was just a spot on a map... Then, in 1999, some genius saw that ‘slow moving river’ as a giant opportunity, and the INSANITY that followed proceeded to put Vang Vieng right square in the middle of any backpacker’s trip through SE Asia. Tubing down the Nam Song river became an institution along the SE Asian Backpacker’s Circuit- a ‘MUST DO’ for most every traveler in the region.
Of course, along with the tourists came hostels, guesthouses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, coffee houses, minimarts, tour and travel agencies- anything and everything to support those that came to Vang Vieng to float down the Nam Song. It really was something to see...
Then, in 2012, due to countless incidents and numerous injuries along the river, the Laos Government cracked down on the tubing scene in Vang Vieng. The bamboo bars that lined the river have been shut- many destroyed- and the scene today is significantly more subdued than it was in Vang Vieng's heyday. Of course, you can still hire a tube and go for a float, but don't expect the wild scenes of water slides, zip lines, crowded bars, and pumping music- those are all now things of the past. Still, it is a beautiful float, and a great way to while away a sunny afternoon in Vang Vieng.
Getting to Vang Vieng involves a crazy minibus ride through the mountains of central Laos. If you have a weak stomach, sit in the front or at least by a window- the roads are windy, the drivers go FAST, and they don’t stop- not even if you’re about to be sick (bring a baggie, just is case...). Buses leave daily from both Luang Prabang to the north and Vientiane to the south.
Things to do in Vang Vieng
- TUBE- As described above, the tubing scene isn't at all what it used to be, but still, that’s what put Vang Vieng on the map to begin with, so you should still have a go... Hire a tube for the day in town, hop on a tuktuk to the put-in spot, and get your float on. It's a beautiful river, and a lot more peaceful nowadays without all the craziness...
- Catch up with some ‘Friends’- somehow, the locals got their hands on a few season of the television sitcom ‘Friends’, and now, that’s almost all they show. It’s on in the restaurants. It’s on in the internet cafes. In the bars. In the guesthouse common rooms. In the coffee shops. ‘Friends’ is EVERYWHERE. There have been a few ‘Family Guy’ sightings, but that’s it. Sure, ‘Friends’ is a funny show, but there’s only so much Ross/Rachel drama we can take... Be careful- you’ll find yourself sitting and watching episode after episode, ordering more food and/or drinks, and before you know it, you’ll have been sitting there for hours. Hmmm- maybe there’s a bit of genius behind this idea after all...
- Visit the caves- take a break from the tubing and get out into the local countryside to view some pretty remarkable caves. Hire motorbikes or a tuktuk for the day, and go exploring. There are several local swimming holes to hit up as well.
- SMILE!- The Smile Bar is where it all happens at night. A good fire show and a chilled vibe on the Hammock Deck early on devolve into bucket cocktails and a wild dance party late night.